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Are Digital Newspaper Editions More Than Smoke and Mirrors?

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Many question their ease of use, but print publications benefit from boost in circulation.

In the sprawling terrain of eastern Washington state, the era of free local news on the Web is drawing to a close.

The Spokane Spokesman-Review, long known for its innovative new media operation, plans to launch a digital edition this summer in tandem with closing off most of its Web site to non-subscribers.

Once the digital edition launches, "if you?re not a subscriber to the Spokesman-Review, your ability to get any content from the SpokesmanReview.com site will be limited," says Shaun Higgins, the newspaper?s director of marketing.

"Simply put, we?re tired of giving away today?s news for free. We can?t afford free riders on our service. Otherwise, we?ll have to stop paying our staff."

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The Colorado Springs Gazette's electronic edition

The Spokesman-Review is not alone: About 90 newspapers worldwide now publish digital editions -- exact replicas of printed newspapers or magazines that users can read on their computer screens. 

Like the Spokesman-Review, some have decided to sell subscriptions to their on-screen digital edition and close off their Web sites to those who don't subscribe to either the print or digital edition.

One year ago, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette scaled back its Web site, adopted a subscription model for its online media and launched a digital edition. In March, the Montreal newspaper La Presse pulled the plug on its free news site and launched an electronic edition alongside a scaled-down Web presence. The Columbus Dispatch will start charging digital edition subscriptions in a few weeks.

The main reason behind the recent increase in the number of subscription-based digital editions: The Audit Bureau of Circulations -- which sets the rules on what can be counted as paid circulation -- decided in 2001 to allow newspapers to count paid digital edition subscriptions in their circulation totals

"For us, this has been a circulation tool, not a revenue tool," says Ginny Greene, content director of Gazette.com in Colorado Springs, which has 1,580 paying subscribers to its digital edition. "Our circulation people are just ecstatic about the numbers," which are tipping the paper?s circulation toward the 100,000 mark.

"If you?re in a market that?s isolated and you?re in a monopoly position, paid content can work."
-- Ken Sands, managing editor of online and new media at the Spokane Spokesman-Review

Selling digital subscriptions might not make sense in all markets, but "if you?re in a market that?s isolated and you?re in a monopoly position, paid content can work," says Ken Sands, managing editor of online and new media at Spokane.

Not all papers are trying to profit from the digital editions: In the past few weeks, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Newark Star-Ledger and Sacramento Bee have either signed up for digital editions or launched them and have no plans to trim their Web sites.

So far, less than 1 percent of online readers are actually using digital editions, but many publishers have decided to offer them anyway, partly because they give readers another option online, and partly because they have the potential to improve the bottom line.

The Columbus Dispatch launched its electronic edition in March. The Dispatch?s electronic edition is currently free but will cost $4.95 per month in a few weeks -? the same price as a subscription to its Web site. (Both are free to print subscribers.)

"We wanted to offer customers and potential customers as many ways to read the ?paper? as possible -- be it the regular print edition, the existing HTML Web site, or any other electronic method," says Pamela Coffman, electronic publishing editor. "Some potential customers who aren't candidates for home delivery now have another method of getting to the paper."

Digital editions get a mixed reception

The Spokane Spokesman-Review recently conducted a focus group with a dozen readers who were shown a prototype digital edition. "The consensus was, 'This is pretty cool.' Some people even said they?d pay for it," says Sands, adding that he was surprised by the results.

But not everyone is enamored of digital editions: "I'm opposed to digital editions because they offer readers little of value that a decent Web site doesn't already provide and improve upon several times over," said Adrian Holovaty, lead developer for World Online in Lawrence, Kansas.

Holovaty and others working at news sites worry that the focus on digital editions could lessen a newspaper?s commitment to the Web.

"It seems ludicrous to me that a news organization might scale back its Web operations in favor of such a user-unfriendly dud of a product," Holovaty says. "I'd think differently if digital editions weren't merely replicas of print newspapers. I like the idea of rich-media digital editions that are updated constantly -- but that day hasn't come yet."

But Vin Crosbie, a newspaper consultant who has worked with all the major digital-edition vendors, says news sites and digital editions serve different audiences and different missions.

"A lot of the vendors will tell you that the new media departments don?t get it, so they steer around them and go directly to the newspaper circulation departments. They understand that increased circulation equals real money."

Crosbie says that in addition to circulation gains, electronic editions offer these advantages over a newspaper or magazine Web site:

  • Context. Digital editions allow readers to see not just the stories in the day?s paper, but where they played. Play tells readers how important editors felt a story was -- information many readers miss when they read the news online. Decades of reading newspapers have trained readers to look for certain visual cues on a page, which can be lost in cyberspace.
  • Familiarity. Some readers feel more at home with an electronic edition that bears the same branding, typography and design as the print paper.
  • Portability. Once the edition is downloaded to a laptop or other portable device, it?s all there and you?re free to roam without the need to remain connected to the Internet.
  • Convenience. Many digital editions are downloaded to a subscriber?s computer automatically, without the user having to fetch it ?- sort of like a newspaper carrier dropping off an electronic edition on your front steps every day. That?s a vast improvement from Web news sites like The New York Times, where the burden is on the user to visit ?-and a typical user visits only six times a month.

On the downside, digital editions offer news that is at best hours old, so the immediacy of the Internet is lost. Links are sparse, navigation often tricky. Archives are usually limited. Interactivity is nonexistent. Web tools, databases and other online content can be hard to find or inaccessible.

"Let's face it, digital editions are currently nothing more than glorified newspaper screenshots," Holovaty says. "They are awkward to navigate and offer yesterday's news."

Some do their own editions

A few newspapers offer electronic replicas on their own, such as the Christian Science Monitor, Los Angeles Times, Akron (Ohio) Beacon Journal and Sharon (Pa.) Herald. The Monitor?s service, built internally and launched last June, sends out a daily e-mail to 1,600 subscribers, who then log onto the Web site to download a PDF (Adobe Portable Document File) of the entire newspaper.

"We?re a national and international daily," says associate editor Tom Regan. "Miss the wrong plane, and the papers arrive late, especially in remote regions at home and abroad. So we wanted to give people a way to get the paper in a more immediate fashion. And there are just a lot of people who still want to read the paper in a print format, even if they like the Web site."

A second type of digital publication technology allows vendors to transmit newspapers replicas to remote locations where a facsimile is printed out on newsprint for customers. For more on this type of digital delivery, see this sidebar.

The main vendors offering on-screen digital editions include NewsStand of Austin, Texas, and Olive Software of Denver, both of which offer vastly different products. Medien System Haus of Stuttgart, Germany, produces digital editions for several German dailies, and Qmags and Zinio Systems  are the digital vendors serving the magazine industry.

Here?s a look at the two big vendors of on-screen digital editions.

NewsStand: Your paper in one big download

NewsStand offers the only end-to-end solution for newspapers looking to launch and maintain a digital edition. The 50-employee company started out in 2000 and launched its first digital edition in the summer of 2001.

The advantage to the customer, says Kit Webster, the company's chief executive officer, is that "if you can?t get the print edition in your hands, or get it in a timely manner, you can get it in digital form minutes after it rolls off the presses."

NewsStand?s 40 clients include The New York Times (an early investor), Boston Globe, Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune, Sacramento Bee, Barron?s, Harvard Business Review, Le Monde, International Herald Tribune, Toronto Globe and Mail, The Australian, China Daily and Manila Times.

Here?s how it works: When a newspaper goes to bed, an employee transfers the prepress postscript, or PDF files, to NewsStand for processing. There, the files are converted to NewsStand?s proprietary format, hotlinks are added to the jumplines and URLs that appear on the page, and the entire text of the paper is scanned in to enable readers to search by keyword. The original files are compressed by at least 70 percent, so that a 1.2-gigabyte file from the Harvard Business Review is sent out to readers at only 5 megabytes in size.

Many readers with broadband connections have the edition sent automatically at night, so it?s waiting to be read from their hard drive first thing in the morning. Readers, however, can only access the edition by using the company's proprietary NewsStand Reader.  A number of newspapers have complained about the need for users to download the reader, and the company says that next month it will introduce a browser-based reader that requires no download.

The company won?t release numbers related to subscriptions, income, or how much money its newspaper partners get, though it does say it has subscribers in more than 100 countries. Publishers set the subscription price, typically at 70 to 100 percent of the cost of a print subscription. Some publications allow people with print subscriptions to access the online editions. Generally, customers can buy a single issue or a monthly or annual subscription.

Olive: Software allows clients to do their own

Where NewsStand automatically generates digital editions for its clients,  Olive Software sells software that allows clients to produce their own. The company started out in 1999 with a business plan of digitizing archives. Two years later it moved into digital editions and launched its first electronic newspaper on Halloween 2001. Today the Denver-based company has 45 full-time and 15 part-time employees and 120 clients, 50 of which have gone live.

Olive?s clients include The Washington Post, Columbus Dispatch, Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, London Daily Telegraph, Austria?s Der Standard, and a number of Freedom Communications newspapers, including the Orange County Register and Colorado Springs Gazette. The Philadelphia Inquirer and Newark Star Ledger have just signed on as well.

Olive charges its clients setup fees ranging from $15,000 to $100,000 and up, says Shaun Dail, executive vice president. At last count, Olive's 50 newspaper clients had 28,000 paying subscribers, with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette topping the list at 3,500 subscribers to its digital edition.

"We?ve found that there?s a large segment of the public that prefers the newspaper edition online to the traditional Web site," Dail says. "That stems from the fact that the newspaper industry has spent 200 years teaching people to read its product in a certain way."

Olive?s digital edition provides more user functionality than the NewsStand Reader: Stories can be summoned up and printed out individually, navigation is sleeker, and embedded story summaries pop up on screen. On the downside, the Olive license doesn?t include such niceties as billing, which requires a separate vendor.

Newspapers process their own finished postscript or PDF files by using Olive software to distill the content into Extensible Markup Language (XML), the universal format for structured documents and data on the Web. At the Colorado Springs Gazette, it takes two eight-hour shifts to accomplish the task each night because of human involvement required in such tasks as archiving, correcting headlines and naming ads, Greene says.

Digital editions created using Olive software do not require readers to download the paper or to download or use a proprietary reader to view the online paper: Readers use their Web browser to access the newspaper online just as it appeared in print.

The true promise of digital editions lies a few years down the road, particularly if tablet PCs take off in a big way. Most of the current services already work when viewed on a portable slate-style device. Further out this decade, the long-awaited rollout of electronic paper ?- sheets thin as three human hairs and powered by batteries -- also bodes well for digital editions. Both tablets and e-paper offer the prospect of rich interactive audio, video and advertising on screen, especially as broadband becomes more pervasive.

Crosbie, the consultant, believes that digital editions will improve ?- even flourish ?-as the technology matures. He notes that some newspaper chains are looking at adding personalized editions that contain targeted advertising and customized editorial content. "It would be even easier to do that digitally than in print," he observes.

The day may come in a few years when digital editions and Web sites meld the best of both delivery systems into a hybrid of the two, with an online edition that offers breaking news, today?s comics and day-old commentary in a contextualized and personalized format.

Crosbie says that in new media circles today, atrophy has set in. ?New media is about more than publishing on the Web. Digital editions will be an important part of the landscape, too.?

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Related Links
Audit Bureau of Circulations: Electronic edition rules
La Presse
Medien System Haus
NewsStand
Olive Software
Printed digital editions
Qmags
The Akron (Ohio) Beacon Journal
The Christian Science Monitor
The International Herald Tribune
The Lawrence Journal-World
The Los Angeles Times
The New York Times: Audience Statistics
The Sharon (Pa.) Herald
The Spokane Spokesman-Review
Zinio Systems
NewsStand clients
Barron's
China Daily
Le Monde
The Australian
The Boston Globe
The Harvard Business Review
The Manila Times
The Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune
The New York Times
The Sacramento Bee
The Toronto Globe and Mail
Olive Software clients
Der Standard (Austria)
Le Figaro
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
The Colorado Springs Gazette
The Columbus Dispatch
The London Daily Telegraph
The Newark Star-Ledger
The Norfolk Virginian-Pilot
The Orange County Register
The Philadelphia Inquirer
The Washington Post
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The New York Times' digital edition

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Newspaper consultant Vin Crosbie

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