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RISKY BUSINESS: The latest production trends fuel the shift away from print and closer to an all-digital world.

A little over a year ago, I wrote an article here outlining the latest trends and advancements in our newspaper industry. At that time, I went into the assignment eyes wide open and full of enthusiasm, being provided the opportunity to write about an industry that has supported me over the years and that I continue to be proud to be a part of. Unfortunately, once I researched our advancements over the last decade or so, I became frustrated at the lack of innovation newspapers experienced and the backslide many publications were in.

Fast forward to 2019 and I was presented once again with the opportunity to document new trends and innovation in our industry. Full of renewed excitement and with a fresh perspective, I embraced the opportunity to review where the industry had gone. I not only went into it enthused, but also determined that I'd turn over every rock and report on all the progress and positive events of the past year.

So confident things would turn out better this year, I took a similar approach to writing this article. I casually approached a few vendors and asked for their thoughts on what innovations print had made over the past year. After coming up short, I spoke with a few associates and again came up empty. It was at that point I thought to myself, "It must be "Groundhog Day.'"

A little over 25 years ago, the movie "Groundhog Day" was released. In the movie, Bill Murray was stuck in a horrific cycle, forced to relive his worst day over and over again. As I considered my angle on this article, I drew a parallel to "Groundhog Day." It seems like day after day, newspapers are living the worst day of their lives over and over again without any sign of snapping out of it. Now I know what Phil Connors, the TV reporter Bill Murray portrayed, went through.

If you only knew how much I wanted to sing the praises of our industry in this article. To detail how to spite what we all are going through and are sick to death of hearing about--declining ad revenues, anemic classified advertising, faltering circulation draws and increases in consumables and labor costs--that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Not just the same old, same old, day after day without any advancement or positive change.

Needing to find some good news and swing out of my own personal "Groundhog Day" I figured I needed to regroup and focus on what a newspaper means to readers and advertisers. In this, I found some encouragement.

What Trends Will Continue?

Our newspapers are trusted and well regarded by millions of readers throughout this country and abroad. I found encouragement in a recent AP story about a journalist, Marcos Miranda Cogco who was kidnapped due to his reporting on Noticias A Tiempo, a news page on Facebook he founded and edits. His captors told him he was being kidnapped for being a "gossip." Perhaps it was more a case of speaking the truth and reporting on sensitive subjects.

The story went on to explain that "Fortynine journalists have been slain in the country (Mexico) since 1992 for motives confirmed as related to their work, while sixty-two more were killed in circumstances that have not been clarified."

I came away after reading this story extremely proud of all journalists who continue to bring truth to the public despite overwhelming challenges. Regardless of what they're writing about--a council meeting in a small town or for those who literally put their life on the line--the service we provide is tremendously important, and we need to find ways to continue to bring that information to our readers.

So with respect to all those talented journalists and everyone else in our industry who delivers on a daily basis, I'll climb down off my high horse and get back to a story about innovation and bright new ideas in our industry over the past year.

We've all seen what hedge funds and mega group ownerships have done to our industry--it isn't pretty. Recently, we experienced the decimation of many newsrooms across the country as well as shuttering print sites and the operations personnel along with them.

Last year, I somewhat defended this practice based on the fact that many smaller papers simply couldn't survive on their own and that larger more financially backed groups were able to scoop them up and make necessary business decisions to keep these newspapers in operation. Over the past year I've seen much of this change. With the recent consolidation of publications and the ongoing shutdown of smaller properties, it seems that the larger groups that once seemed to offer protection have now become so focused on profits that they have put profits ahead of quality journalism. This is my opinion. Some may want to argue this point but before you do, talk to one of the 2,100 media workers who have reportedly lost their jobs in the first quarter of 2019.

I can briefly go through the same points I did last year and show that not much has changed. There will be a continuation of the trend in ownership. The hedge fund groups and more financially established groups will continue to gobble up smaller struggling properties. We will continue to see a consolidation of print sites; it continues to make good sense, and as we all struggle to maintain financial stability so will this consolidation effort continue.

For those who are fortunate enough to either have a strong commercial printing base or those who will be taking the plunge into this still lucrative arena, this trend will continue. But as far as production technology in print, it appears many of us have fallen asleep at the wheel.

Breaking the Cycle

I am saddened where new trends often take us in production. It's a tough time for production as consolidation continues to occur and the financial pressures continue in our industry. Most newspapers are no longer putting in new presses and staff reductions tend to follow closely behind the precipitous drop in circulation draws. New installations and upgrades in production equipment are reserved for the few who have stayed on top of the print. Sometimes you have to make changes that hurt to preserve the business.

So, for those of you who know me or who have taken the time to read through the many articles I've written over the years, you may be surprised by the direction I'm going to take. I've said it many times and I'll say it again, "I love print." But I also love our industry and have many times stated that there needs to be a more effective blend of print and digital that not only better serves our readers but also allows newspaper owners to be profitable. I don't know of many other businesses who would continue year after year after losing money driven by a commitment to their communities and readers to provide services.

So here I go. I'm going to lead us down the trail of an adventurous and brave alternative to the newspaper publishing. The first plan that a diehard paper and ink guy like myself can buy into as plausible salvation for our industry.

Virtually everyone has internet, if not at their home certainly connecting to remote sites at restaurants or other provider locations. For years, our newspaper industry has dabbled in a mixture of daily digital news and print. As print revenues decline, we've made half-hearted efforts to convert many of our print advertisers and subscribers over to our digital offerings, which often look very similar to all the other so called "news sites" on the web, but with one exception. We've had the journalists and the news gathering resources to stand out from the crowd. But often our websites don't stand out and as our print revenues decline, we find ourselves cutting newsroom staffs and aggressively seeking every possible way to reduce expenses and offset revenue losses.

Did someone find a new innovative model and a way to turn losses into profits? I don't know, but I do see innovation popping up at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in Little Rock, Ark.

The company reportedly will spend $12 million on 36,400 iPads. The tablets are on long-term loan to subscribers for the period in which they continue to pay for their subscription. More than 10,000 iPads have already been distributed in the outlying areas of the state.

At the current lowest monthly subscription rate of $34, this is projected to generate approximately $14.8 million dollars in annual revenue, resulting in a revenue stream that could spell profitability for the paper.

Here's an innovation that makes sense to me--the digital replica looks/reads just like the printed paper. It is intuitive to navigate within the app. When you click on a jump, it takes you to the rest of the story, no more looking for random jump pages or sorting through a conventional website.

The newsroom currently employs 106 journalists, a sizable staff and a serious investment in the community. Publisher Walter E. Hussman, Jr. not only wants to sustain a strong newsroom but has stated that if successful, he'd like to add to it in the future. That's quite a commitment to quality journalism.

In March 2018, the experiment took root in Blytheville, Ark., a town of 14,000 in the far reaches of the Democrat-Gazette s circulation area. Two hundred subscribers were offered the iPad and personal training sessions all at the current print delivery rate. As a result, more than 70 percent of the subscribers converted to the digital version. This is the goal for the Democrat-Gazette in 63 counties.

The replica version is expected to be available to readers seven days a week by 4 a.m. daily. On Sunday, the Democrat-Gazette will continue to distribute a printed version including all preprints.

A big selling point is the fact that this replica version offers hometown news when subscribers are traveling. While many digital offerings can say the same, I prefer the newspaper format over the standard web page format. The app not only works on your furnished iPad (or your own iPad) but the Democrat-Gazette also offers a desktop and phone application.

I myself was impressed with the reviews of customer service launching this conversion. Of course, Hussman wants this to be a success and apparently everyone at the paper feels the same. They offer over the phone training, group training and even private in-home training, if necessary.

Hussman is investing millions of dollars to convert print subscribers to digital by 2020. Do you know of any other newspaper publishers willing to go all-in to the tune of millions of dollars? The Philadelphia Inquirer and Montreal-based La Presse attempted similar ventures with mixed results.

Hussman was quoted as saying, "Sometimes you've got to risk your business in order to save it." I've never met the man but I certainly do admire his commitment to quality journalism and our industry as a whole. Hopefully his gamble will benefit others in the future.

Admittedly, I had a few questions regarding this program. While doing through reader forums, one of the concerns I found was crossword puzzles. In the past, it's become apparent readers are touchy about crosswords, comics and obits (along with several other features). This new format gives the reader two options: print them out and continue with the old pencil and paper version or use the interactive version that lets you electronically complete the puzzles. It's a win-win.

Another question is regarding legal notices. Many of our communities look to the local paper for legal notices. City councils (and others) are required to place notices of numerous activities in a newspaper. It's truly about accountability. Legal notices will still appear in the Sunday print edition.

Another forum question asked "Is it a newspaper when it uses no paper?" My answer is when you employ 106 people in a single newsroom, when you are the watchdog of the community, when you deliver up to date real (not fake) news through a statewide news reporting agency, of course it's a newspaper, regardless of the medium.

Hussman stated that he's not sure if the digital replica will appeal to younger readers. I feel that if the replica provides content that is a necessary part of the individual's day, then it will not make a difference what generation you're from. It's about content and how vital that information is to readers.

I've barely scratched the surface of the Democrat-Gazette digital conversion here. All I can say is that it's innovative and I've been looking for innovation in our industry for quite some time. Will it become a trend is yet to be determined. I welcome the fact that someone is willing to take this risk and stray from the day to day "Groundhog Day" approach we all seem to have settled for.

Jerry Simpkins has more than 30 years of experience in printing and operations in the newspaper industry. Contact him on Linkedln.com or at simpkins@tds.net.

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Title Annotation:production
Author:Simpkins, Jerry
Publication:Editor & Publisher
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2019
Words:2203
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