Taking the paper out of newspapers

Publishing
an online digital newspaper, displayed in the same format as the print
version, could be a source of additional readers and revenue, reports
Graham Duffill

ON THE 12TH FLOOR of the
high-rise building in the Tel Aviv commuter town of Hod Hasharon, Lilya
Litvinov is processing tomorrow morning’s edition of the Financial
Times.

She is working through an almost automatic series of lightning-fast keyboard movements and mouseclicks. Pages linger for only a few seconds on her screen.

Here
Israeli territory is at its narrowest and from her elevated position
she momentarily stares out over the hills which mark Palestinian
territory.

Lilya is one of a team of 16 young production staff at the research and development headquarters of Olive Software.

Olive
is one of a handful of companies that provide the technology to make
tomorrow’s newspapers and magazines available anywhere in the world in
exactly the same format as they appear in print.

Lilya’s
colleagues on the early shift started at 7am – midnight in Washington –
and their first task was to download the pdf files of the next
morning’s Washington Post and digitalise it ready for American readers
at 5am. During the day they will produce magazines and other
newspapers, ranging from small titles in the mid-west to the Financial
Times.

The digital edition is as close to reading the newspaper
as you can get online. The pages flip over as you read them and, with
the full broadsheet page displayed in your browser, it’s easy to read
headlines and standfirsts. To read a story you click on it and the text
loads in a small window, either as plain text or preserving the
original column typesetting.

When I was online editor of The
Sunday Times, almost 50 per cent of readers were expats coming in from
America or the Far East who had one simple demand – “just show us
what’s in the paper”. We answered their need by producing images of the
main pages with the stories image-mapped to the text.

The
Telegraph and Times currently offer digital facsimile editions of the
paper to overseas readers and the Financial Times, with print editions
in Europe, Asia and America, is using the digital edition to reach
strategic markets it cannot get a hard copy of the paper to, such as US
campuses, business schools and universities.

“At first the
digital edition was an efficiency exercise – a way of making the paper
more readily available to campuses across the United States in a more
cost-efficient way,” Chris Osborne, head of online business development
at the FT explained.

“We launched it last September with
expectations of acquiring 2,000 subscribers by the end of the year, but
numbers are well above that.” The FT has since produced published
sponsored digital editions of their Asian Insight series of economic
trends magazine and is currently trying to entice new UK subscribers by
emailing them a cut-down digital daily edition as a taster.

Richard
Withey, The Independent’s global director of interactive media,
believes digital editions have only a limited appeal to a small market,
but that any potential is held back by ABC.

“We don’t have a
digital edition, but if we could add digital facsimile sales to the
headline figure that would be a different prospect. ABC does not
include them for reasons I simply don’t accept – because advertisers
argue that an advert seen in a facsimile edition is not comparable to
an advert seen in print,” he said.

Which relegates the digital edition to a good idea hunting for a business model.

There
are the first signs that things are about to change. In June, Trinity
Mirror’s Newcastle Journal became the first regional paper to launch a
digital edition. Subscription costs £9 a month.

Tracey Wood, the
e-edition co-ordinator, says: “We cover a large rural area and these
people now have access to broadband, but were not easily able to get a
copy of the printed paper.”

The Journal is paid for out of a
Trinity Mirror innovation fund with no cast-iron guarantee that it has
cracked the business model.

Neil Benson, Trinity Mirror’s
regional newspapers editorial director, says: “The Journal project is
one example of how we’re looking to deepen our presence in our existing
markets, enabling people to choose what they want to read, when they
want to read it and in a format that’s convenient for them.

“We
believe the future for our newspaper businesses is to become true
multi-platform local publishers, providing content across a range of
media in whatever form our customers want it.”

Trinity Mirror is considering expanding its Newcastle trial and other regional groups are assessing their digital paper options.

The
Daily Mail, The Guardian and The Observer all offer UK readers the
opportunity to read the UK papers online. The Mail costs £4.95 for a
week, which includes the last 20 days’ papers. The Guardian offers
packages, but for £1.50 you can get 24-hour access to today’s paper and
the past 14 editions.

Simon Waldman, The Guardian’s director of
digital publishing, says the online edition appeals to a niche market.
“It’s people who have to get hold of previous copies of the paper or
read the paper from overseas.

It comes out of our own production
system so we are not paying significant sums to a third-party vendor
and we are perfectly happy with it, but it’s just a part of an overall
digital publishing strategy.”

The costs of digital editions have
fallen to the point where some American weeklies are finding it cheaper
to digitalise the newspaper version rather than employ the traditional
web team.

It takes Lilya just one hour to produce the digital
edition of the FT. Steve Marks, Olive’s European head of business
development, estimates regional newspapers can produce digital editions
for about £100 an edition.

“As there is no cast-iron business
model in the UK at the moment Olive will support UK regional papers on
a low-cost rental basis,” he says.

“If you can, you sell £100 of
advertising against your digital edition to pay the costs and you will
pick up paid-for subscribers and other forms of revenue.”

Of
America’s 1,422 newspapers 327 now produce digital editions whose sales
account for 1.75 per cent of their circulation, according to the US
Audit Bureau of Circulation.

“Circulation of daily newspapers is
generally falling during the weekdays, but we are seeing a trend where
newspapers retain readers they would have otherwise lost to internet
news by them subscribing to theelectronic daily during the week and
getting the weekend editions in print,” said Kim Dail, Olive’s US-based
marketing director.

Some specialist papers have found a new lease
of life from their digital editions. The digital edition of America’s
Investor’s Business Daily has 47,000 subscribers, a fifth of its total
sales, two years after launching. With annual subscriptions costing
$235 for an edition which has no printing or distribution costs,
executive vice president Karen Anderson says the digital edition has
been a significant boost to the company’s profits.

“It’s very
challenging getting the paper to all areas of the country, so the
digital edition is ideal for people in remote areas. Our population is
becoming more computer savvy and we have readers who prefer reading the
digital edition.”

The greatest success in the UK to date has come
from the most unlikely sounding project. The Scotsman decided last year
it had to digitalise its archive, which goes back to 1817 and was daily
from 1860, to preserve it. One benefit of digitalising it was that it
could also be made available to the public and for research through
Scotsman.com.

“We decided to re-film using the latest technology
because we found we got better results than using the old microfilm,”
says managing director of Scotsman.com Alistair Brown. The microfilm
was then sent off to be scanned and digitalised and, six months after
the project was begun, it launched every edition from 1817 to 1900.

The
archive is a digital facsimile of the editions, allowing readers to
view an edition page by page or call up stories and read them as they
appeared.

The entire archive can be searched by keywords or
names, and 30 per cent of the archive’s users are private individuals
looking up family history, many from abroad.

Seventy per cent of
users are from academic institutions or businesses. “I had one academic
who had been working in the newspaper library on some aspect of
Scottish history who said he got more done in one morning than he had
in the previous 10 years,” said Brown.

The Scotsman charges users
for a timed access – £7.95 for 24 hours, £39.95 for a month up to
£159.95 for a year. Multiple access licences are sold to universities
and businesses for a few thousand pounds and they are currently
discussing a project with the Scottish Executive to make it freely
available to all schools in Scotland. The paper has now digitalised up
to 1950 and found the 20th century content to be the most popular.

But
the biggest surprise to The Scotsman has been the demand, which means
its “substantial six-figure investment” will be paid off within three
years.

Britain’s most prestigious newspaper archive, The Times,
was not part of the deal when Murdoch bought the papers in 1985.
However, Peter Bale, the head of Times Online, said he thinks there is
still money to be made out of digitalising the recent archive and
offering it free to readers.

“The Scotsman archive is
particularly powerful and we are looking at similar things. I think we
can make more money by offering a free archive and selling adverts
against it.”

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