Publisher updates Chattanooga Rotary Club on iPad conversion for Times Free Press

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Walter E. Hussman Jr. holds up his iPhone as he describes how the delivery of news has changed. Walter E. Hussman Jr., publisher of the Chattanooga Times Free Press and of WEHCO Media Inc. spoke to the Downtown Rotary Club, at the Chattanooga Convention Center, on November 4, 2021.

After printing and delivering daily newspapers for more than a century, the company that owns the Chattanooga Times Free Press began three years ago to convert its Arkansas publications from a paper to a digital format, except on Sunday.

Newspaper publisher Walter E. Hussman Jr. said the switch was initially intended to help pare newsprint and delivery costs to offset a drop in the traditional advertising that has long supported most of the costs of gathering and delivering news.

But by offering subscribers Apple iPads and training on how to use them, Hussman said the digital change has not just cut costs to sustain operations; it has also enhanced the newspaper offering and helped consumers more easily switch their reading format.

Hussman told the Chattanooga Rotary Club on Thursday that subscribers making the conversion to reading the paper on tablet computers say they like the product even better than the print edition it has replaced.

"We thought maybe people will accept this as a substitute for the print edition," said Hussman, publisher of the Chattanooga Times Free Press and chairman of WEHCO Media Inc., the newspaper's parent company. "What we really didn't expect is that people told us they liked it better."

The iPads provided to newspaper subscribers give readers new options to enlarge the print, click on photographs to see even more images and watch videos accompanying many stories. The new format also allows readers easily share or store their favorite stories, access newspaper archives for the past 20 years and even enjoy an audio reading of every newspaper story.

"We believe we can give our readers a better reading experience and maintain and enhance the quality of our newspapers with our digital replica," Hussman said.

TO LEARN MORE

Subscribers who agree to pay the minimum rate of $34 a month will receive a new Apple iPad so they can read the digital replica of the newspaper served via an app that readers can download. The app also is available for smartphones. You may call (423) 757-6262 to schedule an appointment to learn how to use the replica edition of the iPad or wait until you receive a letter in the mail.

WEHCO Media, a 112-year-old family-owned newspaper company that acquired both of Chattanooga's daily newspapers in 1999, is spending $6.1 million to buy thousands of iPads and offer training on how to use the devices for subscribers of the Times Free Press.

The tablet replica - which looks exactly like the print paper but has some additional features and functionality - will be available every day, usually by 4 a.m. Delivery of a physical newspaper for the Monday through Saturday editions will cease by mid-2022, although the Times Free Press will continue to publish its printed Sunday editions, along with its weekly Community News publication and its three magazines - Chatter, Edge and Get Out.

Hussman said the digital conversion is necessary for the newspaper to be profitable and continue to serve the Chattanooga area with quality local journalism. While other newspaper owners have gutted newsrooms to try to remain profitable, Hussman said he is trying to maintain local news coverage, which he said is essential for communities and their governments.

Hussman said the $34 a month subscription price for the daily Times Free Press, which now comes with a free iPad, is a small price to pay to ensure that local journalism survives and there is a watchdog on local governments and businesses.

"How much do you pay in taxes?" Hussman asked. "Is it worth $34 a month to have a watchdog to keep an eye on how your money is being spent?"

Hussman, a former journalist and major donor to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Hussman School of Journalism and Media, said he chose to cut the cost of printing and distributing the paper rather than reducing the size of the news staff or the number of pages in the paper.

The newspaper publisher said during a recent trip, he noticed that the Raleigh News & Observer was only 20 pages and two sections, and the Omaha World-Herald had only 22 pages. In contrast, the Times Free Press maintains at least four or five sections each day with an average of 36 pages. The new digital replica edition provided with the iPads allows subscribers to view even more stories and coverage, Hussman said.

Hussman started converting other papers to the digital replica format in 2018, starting with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He said he did so "out of necessity" to take a newspaper that had begun losing money out of the red and to create a business model that is sustainable.

Over the past four decades, the share of all advertising enjoyed by American newspapers has dropped from 31% in 1980 to less than 5% today.

In 2006, total newspaper revenues in the U.S. peaked at $47 billion. By 2017, newspaper revenues shrank to under $12 billion, or only a fraction of the estimated $80 billion of advertising revenues captured by Facebook and Google. Last year, the Pew Research Center reported newspaper advertising totaled only $8.8 billion and marked the first time the industry earned more money from circulation than advertising.

"We're probably the only newspaper company in America who is doing what we're doing right now to try to preserve community journalism," Hussman said. "We may be wrong and we may be right about this approach, but it feels right to us, and we think this is what we should do."

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6340