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This story was updated at 2:39 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021, with more information.

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The publisher of the Chattanooga Times Free Press is investing millions of dollars in a plan to convert the newspaper's print subscribers to a mostly digital format.

The newspaper publisher has bought thousands of Apple iPads to give to subscribers. Delivery of a physical newspaper will cease by mid-2022 with the exception of the Sunday edition.

Starting Monday, the newspaper will begin converting daily print subscribers to a replica of the daily newspaper available on the tablet. The 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. The print edition will also be delivered on Sundays.

The digital conversion is necessary for the newspaper to remain profitable and continue to serve the Chattanooga area with quality local journalism, said Walter E. Hussman Jr., publisher of the Times Free Press and chairman of WEHCO Media Inc.

WEHCO Media is the parent company of the Times Free Press plus 10 other daily newspapers, as well as weekly newspapers and companies that offer cable and broadband.

"If we didn't do this, we wouldn't be able to continue to publish the kind of paper we publish in Chattanooga," Hussman said. "We wouldn't be able to cover as many meetings. We wouldn't be able to serve as the watchdog function we serve as a vital journalistic Fourth Estate institution. For us to do this, we can keep our newsroom basically intact. It's the way for us to maintain good, quality journalism and fulfill our function."

(Watch video tutorials on how to use the digital replica)

Hussman 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.

"We really thought about it and we thought, you know, wouldn't it be a lot better if we could give people the exact same news product and advertising product in the exact same format, but do it digitally, instead of in print?" he said. "If we did, we could eliminate a lot of production costs, a lot of distribution costs and a lot of newsprint expenses."

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" in order to take a newspaper that had begun losing money out of the red and to create a business model that is sustainable.

TO LEARN MORE

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.

Hussman said the economics of newspaper publishing in the United States has changed. In 2006, newspaper advertising revenue for American newspapers peaked at $47 billion, he said, but by 2017, that revenue had declined to under $12 billion as Facebook and Google gained a larger share of advertising revenue.

That number continued to decline, with the newspaper industry in 2020 reporting $8.8 billion in advertising, according to the Pew Research Center. Last year was the first time the industry earned more money from circulation than advertising.

Hussman said the digital replica plan requires a $6.1 million investment from the company. Most of that, $4.4 million, is to purchase iPads, and $1.7 million will go mostly toward training and some marketing.

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 on the iPads. The app also is available for smartphones.

Hussman said readers in Arkansas at first were reluctant and skeptical, but after reading the newspaper on the iPad, many said they liked it better than the print edition. The replica edition offers features impossible in print — readers can enlarge the type; all photos are in color; some stories are enriched by multiple photos; video is available for some stories; the app also will read the story out loud; and it will store 60 past editions of the newspaper.

The roll-out of the digital replica edition will be accompanied with intense customer service. Representatives of the paper will meet one-on-one with subscribers who need tutorials on iPad operation or on how to access the digital paper. The company will hire some customer service staff members and bring some from Arkansas.

Training sessions will be offered at sites such as hotel conference rooms and community centers or even at a subscriber's home. COVID-19 safety protocols will be in place.

Subscribers will be converted in phases and notified in advance when their conversion phase is coming up.

Jeff DeLoach, president of the Times Free Press, said the Chattanooga community is fortunate to have a private owner like Hussman, who is also a journalist and believes in a strong newsroom.

"Walter's announcement with this decision is an example of taking a bold step so we can continue to serve our community in the best way possible," DeLoach said. "The majority of American communities served by newspapers do not have this type of leadership and have seen their local newspapers decline significantly in both the size of their newsrooms and the quality and quantity of local news content."

DeLoach said this plan is a positive for readers and advertisers.

"This decision means the Times Free Press will be able to serve our community with first-class quality journalism for years to come, and in an even more modern manner," he said.

In addition to ensuring the continuation of quality journalism in this community, the plan adds digital components that enhance the value of the paper to both readers and advertisers, DeLoach said.

This step is part of the evolution of the newspaper, he said.

The Times Free Press — or some version of it — has served its community for a century and a half, since 1869 when the Chattanooga Daily Times, which later became the Chattanooga Times — was created. Today's paper is the product of a merger more than two decades ago. Hussman purchased the Chattanooga Free Press in 1998 and the Chattanooga Times in 1999 and united the two papers under the title it bears to this day. The Hussman family has owned newspapers for four generations.

In addition to offering the digital replica edition, the Times Free Press will continue to publish news on its website, timesfreepress.com.

Alison Gerber is the editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Reach her at agerber@timesfreepress.com or @aligerb.

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