Newspapers Experiment With PDF Editions

By: Carl Sullivan

Editor’s note: An abbreviated version of this story appears in the May 6 print edition of E&P.

After launching an electronic version of its complete print newspaper, The Herald in Sharon, Pa., heard from interested editors and publishers as close as Indiana and as far away as Australia.

With just a few weeks of in-house development, the 20,793-circulation paper started offering a downloadable complete print newspaper via the Web, using Adobe Acrobat Portable Document Format (PDF) files. John Zavinski, director of graphics and technology for the CNHI paper, reports that 100 subscribers are paying for the Digital Edition, which launched just after Thanksgiving last year.

The price? $145 a year — exactly the same as home delivery. If print subscribers also want the PDF version, they can subscribe for an additional $39.55 per year.

“It hardly takes any effort and it’s pretty much pure profit,” said Zavinski, who admits that 100 subscriptions isn’t a huge number. “Our timing for the launch wasn’t great because we missed out on some sports and the back-to-school season.” He expects Digital Edition subscriptions to tick upwards this year.

While newspapers have experimented with electronic versions of their print newspapers since the mid 1990s, the matter has taken on increased relevance since the Audit Bureau of Circulations decided last year that any digital versions sold for at least 25% of the face value could count as paid circ.

Several companies are offering technology to help newspapers deliver electronic replicas of their print editions, including NewsStand Inc. of Austin, Texas, and Olive Software Inc. of Denver. The NewsStand Reader is proprietary software that sits on the consumer’s computer and allows them to download daily versions of their newspaper. Olive’s ActivePaper Daily is browser based, providing an exact replica of the print edition via the Web. Both offer considerable functionality and features that aren’t available on the downloadable PDF files.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in Little Rock has been offering PDFs since 1996, but is now converting to the Olive product. Toby Simmons, director of network services at the 182,609-circulation paper, said few readers have taken the time to download the PDFs. He expects more readers will use the Olive edition, which doesn’t require downloads. The paper will start charging for the service later this year.

But other newspapers believe a simple PDF version will be sufficient. The Christian Science Monitor in Boston began developing its PDF version about a year and a half ago, said Stephen T. Gray, managing publisher. With a national readership, the Monitor’s delivery is “subject to the vagaries of the postal system,” which makes a downloadable PDF version ideal, Gray said.

Right now the daily download is free, but the Monitor will start charging $8 per month for the service in early May. That’s a little less than half of the price of a print subscription. “We wanted to charge less because there is a significant cost savings,” Gray said. “At the same time, we wanted to have a reasonable profit margin. People assume a PDF version doesn’t cost anything and that’s not true. You have to have [bandwidth] pipes big enough on your server to handle downloads of 2 to 3 [megabyte] editions.”

Gray says the Monitor considered outsourcing this project to NewsStand, Olive, or New York-based qMags (which primarily converts print magazines to digital versions), but ultimately decided to stick with a simple PDF version. The Los Angeles Times similarly offers free PDF downloads of its national edition.

This is likely to be the model of choice for smaller newspapers as well. Besides the Sharon Herald, The Hays (Kans.) Daily News has been selling PDF downloads of its paper since 1996. The 12,671-circulation paper only has about 30 subscribers, but Editor and Publisher John D. Montgomery is happy to have them. “We’ve been counting them as paid circulation since the ABC rules changed last year,” he said. “It’s a very rudimentary PDF without a lot of bells and whistles, but people who live outside of our circulation area appreciate it.” Subscribers who live outside of Hays pay $5 a month for the service (compared to $11.25 and up for out-of-town home print delivery).

There have also been some side benefits to the program. The Daily News now has a six-year archive of paginated papers that will be used in a new paid archive under development. Users will have the option of searching the paper by text or by PDF, Montgomery said. And the paper just began e-mailing electronic tearsheets to advertisers.

At San Jose, Calif.-based Adobe Systems Inc., developers are watching the newspaper industry with a keen eye. Product Manager Gray Knowlton said newspapers’ work with Acrobat is considered a bellwether for how other industries will eventually use the technology. “They develop low-cost, effective solutions that represent an important indicator for other industries,” he said.

Whether they use technology from Adobe or elsewhere, more publishers should follow the lead of these papers, said consultant Vin Crosbie. “Most [newspaper new-media executives] are only interested in finding ways to motivate readers to visit their newspapers’ Web sites” and won’t consider other ways of disseminating content, he said. “They probably would have embraced PDF-edition technology had it been available years ago, but, nowadays, unless a technology is HTML-based and requires consumers to retrieve something, most of [them] aren’t interested. They’ve become Web executives, not new-media executives.”

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