AS newspapers struggle to stay ahead of the transition from print to digital news distribution, many are turning to e-editions and watching their circulation figures jump as a result.
Sounds promising, right? Yes and no. While e-editions bring in new subscribers, they don't necessarily bring in revenue. At least one paper, however, has found that its e-edition is attracting new audiences, especially younger readers and schools, and serving as an experimental investment in the future of newspapers.
Case in point is The Commercial Appeal's e-edition, called "e-appeal," which accounts for nearly 40 percent of the paper's overall circulation. Recent Audit Bureau of Circulation figures that cover a six-month period ending in March show that the paper's circulation climbed 31 percent as circulation industry-wide dropped 7 percent.
The increase, said Karl Wurzbach, vice president of sales and marketing at The Commercial Appeal, is directly related to its e-edition subscriptions, all but 2,000 of which are electronically delivered to classrooms.
"We made a decision to bite the bullet and tell the schools that effective the beginning of the 2008-09 school year, the only way they could get NIE [Newspapers in Education] copies was digitally, but that the price was going to be reduced significantly," said Wurzbach. "We created a new rate structure, and basically the acceptance was such that we've registered 70,000 and 80,000 [users] across local middle schools and high schools."
Wurzbach would not share the specifics of the new rate structure, but said it was a good enough deal to increase the number of digital edition copies by 60,000 to 70,000. The e-edition is a PDF version of the printed paper that lets users print and e-mail articles. In this sense, it trains younger readers to grow accustomed to reading a digital replica of the newspaper as opposed to just reading the paper's stories online.
The Commercial Appeal's NIE e-edition includes several interactive features, such as the ability to translate stories into 12 different languages and an audio option that reads to you and lets you archive content. It's one step, Wurzbach and the paper's publisher say, toward attracting younger newspaper readers and promoting literacy.
"The schools love the program," said Joe Pepe, publisher of The Commercial Appeal. "They use white boards to instruct classrooms and make the e-editions available on individual PCs in addition to applauding us for being 'green.'"
So far, the increased e-subscriptions have not led to increased revenue. The paper has, however, profited from no longer having to pay for the 10,000 print editions it delivered to schools before requiring them to order the NIE e-edition.
The Commercial Appeal is still considering how to best gain ad revenue from its e-edition. "Right now," Wurzbach said, "we have not sought advertisers to sponsor the NIE edition, and we haven't done anything on the home delivery side. Our intent is to find a big advertiser sponsor for the NIE edition."
To attract more home delivery subscribers, the paper is planning to launch a "Go-Green" section, which will be teased in the print edition but will be available only to e-subscribers.
Wurzbach, who talks regularly with other circulation directors at Scripps-owned newspapers, said he isn't aware of any other Scripps papers that are using the NIE e-edition the way The Commercial Appeal is. But, he said, "I think they're all aware of what we've done, and I think they're all looking to do something else or they're already working toward it."
While The Commercial Appeal has benefited mostly from its NIE e-subscriptions, papers such as the Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News have had noticeable success with their home delivery e-editions.
Both papers, which earlier this year cut home delivery to just Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays, are generating about three million page views a week and attracting an estimated 30,000 people a day -- a significant increase from the 5,000 to 6,000 readers who subscribed to it before the papers' home delivery changes, Poynter's Bill Mitchell reported.
Recent Audit Bureau Circulation figures show that e-subscriptions account for 18.4 percent of The Wall Street Journal's circulation, 6.9 percent of The Dallas Morning News', 4.2 percent of The New York Times' and 4.1 percent of The Washington Post's. The St. Paul Pioneer Press' e-edition accounts for about 21 percent of its overall circulation.
"We continue to do a limited amount of print third-party, but growth of the e-edition makes it easier to be selective about print distribution of non-individually paid categories such as hotels and third-party," said Guy Gilmore, publisher of the Pioneer Press, noting that "selective" is the operative word. "We have tried to move into digital where it makes sense. But that is not to say that we could not reverse course and add back print copies."
NIE, he said, is an obvious example of where the print/digital hybrid makes sense. "A category such as newspapers in education is especially well suited to appear in an electronic version, and we have consciously moved school copies out of print and into digital," Gilmore said. "We now have over 6,000 digital-only [home delivery] paid subscriptions, which I consider to be a promising development given the newness of the program."
At The Commercial Appeal, getting people accustomed to the e-edition is as much about shaping reader behavior as it is about building revenue. "The purpose is to get people to go to the e-edition -- to use it, touch it, feel it," Wurzbach said. "Our intent is not to cut distribution but to move content from print over to digital as people become tolerant of that."