Want a free iPad? Buy a newspaper! In Arkansas, an audacious experiment.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

There is nothing good about the ongoing economic collapse of local newspapers. But if you squint hard, you can see a few hopeful signs amid the gloom. Recently I wrote about The Salt Lake Tribune’s bid to become the country’s first nonprofit daily newspaper.

This week I want to take a look at an idea that, in some ways, is even more audacious: the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s announcement that it will abandon weekday print and give an iPad to all of its paying subscribers so they can read the digital edition.

The news came in the form of a letter to subscribers by publisher Walter Hussman, who said that all of the Democrat-Gazette’s customers will be offered an iPad later this year. The emphasis will be on a replica edition — that is, an electronic paper that looks exactly like the print version, an old-fashioned concept still popular with many readers. The paper will continue to offer a Sunday print edition.

“Although newspapers will never be as profitable as they once were,” Hussman wrote, “we believe we have found a way to return the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette to profitability and provide a better and more robust reading experience for our subscribers.”

The shift has already taken place in some Arkansas counties, with Democrat-Gazette employees meeting with befuddled subscribers at Holiday Inns and even in their homes to help them navigate the online paper. Indeed, according to the latest figures from the Alliance for Audited Media, weekday digital now outsells print by about 86,000 to 82,000. Print remains the choice on Sunday by a margin of 118,000 to 10,000. But the ADG, as the paper is known, is rapidly moving toward a day when its weekday print circulation will be zero.

“If 70% of subscribers stay with us, the cost savings will let the ADG hire more reporters,” wroteStyle section editor Celia Storey on her public Facebook page. And just in case you were wondering, Storey also explained that readers who let their subscriptions lapse will soon discover that their iPad no longer works.

The notion of giving away iPads in order to cut the cost of printing and delivering the physical newspaper might seem revolutionary, but it’s been many years in the making. Back in the early 1990s, an executive for the now-defunct Knight Ridder chain named Roger Fidler was telling anyone who would listen that newspapers of the future would give away cheap digital tablets so they could shut down their printing presses. In some ways we still haven’t caught up with Fidler, who envisioned tablets you could roll up and stick in your pocket and that would offer resolution as high as a good quality magazine. (Click here to watch a 1994 video of Fidler explaining his remarkably prescient idea.)

The Boston Globe recently also reached something of a landmark on the road to a post-print world. Writing in the Boston Business Journal, Don Seiffert reported that the Globe’s digital circulation has now moved ahead of its weekday print circulation by a margin of 112,000 to 99,000 — and that represents an overall increase (combined print and digital) of about 7,000 paying subscribers since mid-2016. Can free iPads be far behind? (As with the ADG and virtually every other paper, the Globe’s Sunday print edition remains its largest, with a circulation of 172,000, according to the Alliance for Audited Media.)

What’s happening in Salt Lake, Arkansas, Boston, and a few other places whose newspapers are owned by civic-minded local publishers should offer encouragement. Elsewhere, newspapers are being shackled by corporate chains.

The money-losing McClatchy group reported earleir this month that its 30 properties, which include large papers such as the Miami Herald, The Sacramento Bee, and The Charlotte Observer, have signed up just 179,000 digital-only subscribers — and that’s an increase of 60 percent over a year ago.

The newspaper analyst Ken Doctor writes at Nieman Lab that the bottom-feeding Gannett chain continues to fight off an acquisition attempt by the even worse MediaNews Group (formerly Digital First Media), a battle between unappetizing rivals that I wrote about a few months ago.

Amid such chaos and greed, it’s important to keep in mind that some newspaper owners continue to search for a business model that doesn’t require slashing their newsrooms to irrelevance. Seen in that light, accelerating the transition from print to digital is an investment in the future.

The math to get from seven-day to one-day print remains daunting. Print subscribers are still more valuable. Not only do they pay more, but print ads are worth much more than commodity digital advertising. But if newspapers can get to the point over the next few years at which they can dump print, it will save a ton of money that they now spend on what is essentially a 19th-century manufacturing and delivery operation.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette may show the way.

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Why The Daily is straight out of 1994

I haven’t had a chance to play with The Daily yet. If I’m really, really good, maybe Mrs. Media Nation will let me borrow her iPad so I can have a look. In terms of the business model and the approach, though, the mutant spawn of Rupert Murdoch and Steve Jobs looks remarkably like the early-’90s Knight Ridder newspaper of the future come to life.

I was first introduced to the digital newspaper at a conference at Columbia University in 1993. Among the speakers were retired Boston Globe editor Jack Driscoll, a true visionary, and Knight Ridder futurist Roger Fidler.

Fidler presented an idea: a newspaper that you would download onto a digital tablet of some sort. Fidler was so far ahead of his time that his tablet still hasn’t been created. The iPad is a step along the way, but Fidler’s notion was that it had to be light and flexible, with the same image resolution as a quality magazine and so cheap that newspapers would give them away.

Take a look at the 1994 video above, in which Fidler introduces his tablet, and consider all the stuff he and his colleagues had already figured out: an easy navigation system (he envisioned a stylus rather than your finger); embedded videos; interactive advertising.

The problem was that he missed the two developments that did the most to undermine the newspaper business: the Web, which made the kind of closed media ecosystem he envisioned obsolete; and the demise of “branded content” as a selling point. News has become a commodity in ways we couldn’t have imagined nearly two decades ago. So it’s fascinating that Murdoch and Jobs have attempted to resuscitate those two moribund notions.

First, you’ll only be able to get The Daily through a closed system. For Fidler, it was your cable television box and, if you were on the move, digital kiosks of some sort. For Murdoch and Jobs, it’s the iTunes Store.

As for branded content, that’s what The Daily is all about. It’s on but not of the Internet, so you won’t be able to search for individual stories or find links to Daily content on aggregators like Google News or the Huffington Post. It’s a discrete, branded product, and you will either buy it (for 99 cents a week) or you won’t.

Will it work? As I told Chris Lefkow of Agence France-Presse, it will probably enjoy some modest success, but I can’t see it truly taking off. There’s nothing you can get from The Daily that you can’t get somewhere else for free.

A lot of news organizations are experimenting with paid-content models right now, but all of them envision remaining more or less open to the great conversation that the Internet has fostered. The Daily, by contrast, is straight out of 1994.

Interestingly enough, Fidler tells the Poynter Institute that he loves The Daily:

My first impression is very positive. Team Murdoch has done what I’ve always hoped newspapers would do with their tablet editions — create an interactive hybrid of print and Web that is visually rich and enjoyable to read.

So does Slate’s Jack Shafer, with reservations.

Personally, I would love a high-quality (which is to say, non-Murdoch) digital news service that looked like The Daily but that wasn’t cut off from the Web. If that’s where, say, the New York Times is eventually going with its tablet apps, then that is something I’d truly find exciting.

The Daily? I wish Rupe and Steve well, but I’m I don’t plan on becoming a customer.