Revisiting WEHCO Media’s tablet program

Offering iPads to subscribers increased digital revenues, saved newsroom jobs and the bottomline


Implementing new revenue streams, from events to newsletters to podcasts to philanthropy — and even T-shirts — has been the goal of many news publishers for several years. Some don’t require much investment, while others require a major commitment in money and staff time. Some have worked, and others haven’t.

Distributing iPads to drive digital subscriptions is one of the most ambitious projects that several newspapers have attempted. WEHCO Media, Inc. is one of the few that launched a successful program and has maintained it for six years. WEHCO, an acronym for Walter E. Hussman Company, operates daily and weekly newspapers, magazines and cable television companies in Arkansas and five surrounding states.

Walter E. Hussman, Jr., retired publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and current chairman of WEHCO Media, Inc., recognized printing and delivering a daily newspaper had become too expensive. The challenge, however, was how to retain longtime loyal readers. Reducing the paper to a few days per week or becoming a weekly would likely result in losing many of those readers.

Distributing iPads and asking people to convert to a digital subscription was a bold, unproven solution. However, Hussman successfully built WEHCO Media to its current regional prominence by being bold. History has already proved he was likely the best person to make this work.

Rick Edmonds, media business analyst and leader of news transformation, The Poynter Institute

Rick Edmonds, media business analyst and leader of news transformation at The Poynter Institute, previously reported on the iPad program and how other newspapers couldn't make it work.

“The Philadelphia Inquirer experimented with a similar iPad program in 2011, but it didn’t take off. I think the digital technology wasn’t as advanced as it is now. Hussman made it work because he personally spent considerable time at Rotary Clubs and other local organizations to introduce it. I don’t think it is an idea that other publishers would grasp immediately and decide to do it,” Edmonds said.

The importance of a comprehensive strategy

The project started with a test run in a small town in Northeast Arkansas in 2018. A door-to-door campaign and various incentives, including a substantial discount on an iPad, didn’t generate much interest.

It wasn’t until subscribers were lent an iPad and received training on the device and through extensive customer service that the project started to succeed. A team of tutors was sent to subscribers’ homes, and training programs were conducted at community centers, hotel conference rooms and the Democrat-Gazette’s offices. Until people understood how to use an iPad, they couldn’t be expected to embrace a digital presentation, start to enjoy it and even prefer it.

Another critical element of the strategy was creating a digital format that looked like the familiar printed newspaper but with the digital conveniences of clicking on individual articles and accessing photographic and video content. Hussman also determined the digital edition should have a beginning and end just like a printed newspaper.

By 2020, 27,000 iPads were distributed. The early results were positive, generating a 78% subscriber retention of the existing subscriber base before the conversion.

Six years later, WEHCO Media has expanded the program to all its daily newspapers, except the Jefferson City (Missouri) News Tribune, according to Jay Horton, president of WEHCO Media.

“By the time we introduced this program to our Chattanooga Times Free Press subscribers, we had a very good idea what to expect: conversion rates, number of iPads we had to purchase, all the ancillary equipment, iPad covers, chargers, bags, the distribution, the training and the staff involved and the amount of time,” Horton said.

For the Times Free Press, WEHCO Media spent $4.4 million on the iPads and $1.7 million on training and marketing. Horton said if other publishers duplicate WEHCO Media’s program, they could expect to spend approximately $150 per subscriber for the training and extra materials.

“While many of our new subscribers are digital only, converting via our websites and email marketing, we work hard to encourage people to download our apps and read our digital editions on an iPad. Our monthly retention rate for converted iPad subscribers has been more than 99%, compared to 95 to 96% for most other newspapers' print subscriptions. We believe the iPad program, the quality of the experience and the high level of customer service helped to deliver our excellent retention rate,” Horton said. “As we converted our newspapers, less than one percent of the iPads distributed to existing subscribers were not returned when a subscription was canceled. While WEHCO Media, Inc has no plans to buy more iPads, if a new subscriber wants an iPad, we have been able to deliver what's needed from our inventory of iPads that have been returned.”

The contribution of technology

Ana Cervantes, senior manager, PressReader

An iPad distribution program also requires the necessary digital technology. WEHCO Media partnered with PressReader’s Branded Editions to provide technology, as well as consultation and guidance on digital strategy. According to Ana Cervantes, senior manager at PressReader, who works closely with many Branded Editions clients, the company had tried to assist other newspapers in transitioning from print to digital, with varying degrees of success. However, it was with WEHCO Media that the efforts proved most effective.

“We find that any support tools, such as videos, photo galleries, demos or interstitial pages can help prospective subscribers or current users understand how to use this technology's features and functionalities. Being able to translate content, listen on the go, download and save articles and share them on social media creates a high value for users,” Cervantes said.

Cervantes added the analytics generated by Branded Editions’ technology gives publishers making the print-to-digital transition a comprehensive view of what is and isn’t working.

Horton said those analytics are essential, especially after the Democrat-Gazette and the other WEHCO newspapers reduced their home delivery editions to just one per week.

“When our subscribers read the digital version, we have very direct reporting of how often they are reading it, how much time they spend with it and how many pages they read compared to the print edition, where we had to conduct time-consuming and expensive surveys,” Horton said. The data also reveals that digital edition readership only decreases by approximately 10% on Sunday when a print edition is available.

A WEHCO Media subscriber survey found that 80% of respondents receiving a Sunday print edition would still subscribe if the newspaper was digital only.

Preserving the newsroom and the bottom line

Preserving jobs in the Democrat-Gazette newsroom was Hussman’s primary goal when he decided to reduce the number of days the paper was printed and delivered. Six years later, Horton says WEHCO Media has reached those goals.

“Since we started the conversion project in 2018, we’ve had no layoffs, no reductions in our newsrooms, just a few retirements. Unlike other newspapers, we haven’t had to resort to other cost-reduction scenarios,” Horton said. “Twenty years ago, publishers would capitalize $60 [million] to $80 million to buy new printing presses. Capitalizing iPads for subscribers cost a fraction of a printing press and has preserved what we believe is the true product, not the paper, but the journalism — delivered digitally.”

Bob Sillick has held many senior positions and served a myriad of clients during his 47 years in marketing and advertising. He has been a freelance/contract content researcher, writer, editor and manager since 2010.  He can be reached at


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