Friday, March 6, 2009

Electronic editions

Electronic editions are strange animals. These are the .PDF versions of newspapers that many newsrooms put online in addition to their regular Web sites. They're betwixt and between the old world and the new -- exact replicas of the print newspaper in a digital form. As a news consumer, I've never been a huge fan. If I want to read a newspaper, I'll read a newspaper. If I want news online, almost any Web site is going to be preferable to reproductions of a printed page.

But that doesn't mean there might not be legitimate reasons for a newspaper to offer an e-edition, at least during an interim stage while the industry sorts itself out. They're fairly cheap to create, for starters. We've already done 99% of the work gathering, writing, editing and designing the news in a format many customers are comfortable with. All that's required is to arrange to ship .PDFs of the final pages to an FTP site where a vendor can do its magic and put them up by morning. Oh, and to pay that vendor a fee.

The vendors that offer these things are getting better with functionality, too. So e-readers can download their daily papers as MP3s, or have them translated into multiple languages, or optimized for mobile, or clipped electronically by subject, or read alongside related multimedia content. They seem to be especially popular as tools for Newspaper in Education programs, making them available to teachers and students as curriculum aids. (And saving big papers hundreds of thousands of dollars a year on newsprint and ink and distribution from the bad, old NIE days.)

It's possible to use them in other ways, too:

* Reducing circulation stops by making them available to vacationing subscribers

* Offering them instead of or in addition to redelivered papers for subscribers who have delivery problems

* Open them up to all subscribers during adverse weather, which can delay delivery across entire areas

* Make them available to school and public libraries

* Promote them as a more environmentally conscious way to subscribe

* Promote them to non-English-speaking groups, through the translation programs

* Make them available to readers looking for a single-copy purchase

* Offer them to would-be subscribers outside your (ever-shrinking) print distribution area

It's also possible to throw them in free for subscribers who already pay for print. Give those folks a bonus for sticking with us, allowing them to take advantage of all that new functionality. (Audio downloads, mobile optimized version, translation services, clipping service, etc.) And just make it easier for them to read the paper when they're not at home. Boost retention, in short. In this day and age, that's worth quite a bit all by itself.

Here's another idea from a newspaper executive who shall go nameless at a paper I won't identify for the time being: Use the e-edition to continue publishing features and services that get dropped from the print newspaper. Not running the business section every day anymore? Include it with the e-edition, anyway. Dropping classified ads on Mondays? Fine, run them with the e-edition. Losing space for 10 comic strips in the print newspaper? Put them in the e-edition. At a time when newspaper subscribers are legitimately feeling like they're getting less from us all the time, it's one bulwark we can throw up against defections.

At the end of the day, e-editions are not an answer for any of the big issues washing over the industry. This is just not an important part of any strategy to move forward. But these strange animals might be one more small way to keep in the game while we sort out those more significant issues. At this point, we should take every victory -- of any size -- we can get.

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