When John Walker Cole, 65, was a kid, Sunday mornings were reserved for church and reading the comic section of the paper. He would talk about his plans for the day with his grandfather while walking to the end of the sidewalk and picking up the paper.
“We would then sit side-by-side in his favorite chair, which is now my favorite chair, and he would read the comics to me,” said Cole, a marketing instructor at the UofA, in an email. “He called them the ‘funny papers’ … this was just a time for us to laugh and spend time together.”
The traditional print news that Cole grew up with is coming to a halt. To cut costs, the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette will change to a digital newspaper, including Sunday print editions, by the beginning of August 2020.
The $9.5 million project, which Arkansas Democrat-Gazette officials began in 2019, is meant to preserve the quantity and quality of the paper while also increasing the subscription price to stay in business, said publisher Walter Hussman Jr.
Cole cannot remember a time when the paper wasn’t delivered to his door, he said. Reading a physical copy was a habit, with the comics being the “best part and a family tradition,” but he prefers a digital replica because it is easy to use.
The paper has lost money for the past three years in NWA, with the average subscription price being $20.
“We think if we can still deliver the same amount of news and still deliver quality journalism, people may pay $34 (for the subscription per month),” said Hussman, a chairman of the papers’ parent company WEHCO Media Inc.
People who keep their subscription can access a digital-replica of the newspaper through an app on their iPad, laptop and phone, said Brent Powers, the president of the NWA Democrat-Gazette. Officials will also give free iPads to subscribers, if they want them.
Cole thinks the news will be delivered more quickly because of the shift, he said. He still receives the paper at his home, but he already reads a significant amount of the NWA Democrat-Gazette online.
Powers thinks there will be business growth with the shift and that they’ll still be able to serve the readers, he said. Officials decided to continue publishing the Sunday paper in print after readers expressed they still wanted a physical copy.
“In a time where many newspaper publishers are pulling back on distribution footprints and local news coverage, Hussman is making an investment so that we can continue to offer quality journalism through new distribution methods,” Powers said.
Newspapers have depended on advertisements for revenue, which has been declining, so subscription prices have to increase, Hussman said. The price will go up $1 per month until the readers reach $34 to make the NWA Democrat-Gazette profitable.
Fayetteville Mayor Lioneld Jordan has had a subscription to the NWA Democrat-Gazette for almost 30 years. He thinks the transition to a digital replica will take time to get used to but is overall a positive change, he said in an email.
“I enjoy having a physical copy of the paper,” Jordan said. “One of the highlights of my day is going outside every morning to get the paper and reading the paper while drinking my coffee.”
Jordan thinks some Fayetteville citizens will like the shift because it is more environmentally friendly, he said. Jordan thinks other readers of the paper who prefer a physical copy will adapt quickly.
Digitizing the paper will not significantly affect staff in the newsroom, Powers said. The only thing changing is the format that subscribers receive information, which the NWA Democrat-Gazette has distributed in 12 counties.
“The scope of the project is certainly about taking care of our loyal readers,” Powers said. “It’s a great honor to work in this community. I can’t tell you how much I love NWA.”
Hussman thinks the Democrat-Gazette subscription is a reasonable price compared to other papers around the U.S. In a similar shift, the Dallas Morning News offers Sunday print and digital access for $2 per week for a year. The Kansas City Star digital subscription is $16 per month.
“There’s a real existential threat to newspapers all over the country,” Hussman said. “Making this transition will allow us to continue to provide our readers with the important information they need for a democracy to work.”