By Ashton Logan
The Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics kicked off its fall 2019 schedule Sept. 5 at 5:30 p.m. in the Overby Auditorium with an interview between Charles Overby, chairman of the Overby Center, and Walter E. Hussman Jr., publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Hussman is a third generation newspaperman who grew up in Camden, Arkansas and received his Bachelor of Arts in journalism from UNC-Chapel Hill and his MBA from Columbia.
“For years I’ve been saying that Walter Hussman is the smartest publisher in the country,” Overby said. “We all know newspapers are engaged in a life struggle for existence, but Walter Hussman has been engaged in that struggle for many decades because he has taken the role of David vs. Goliath so many different times.”
One such struggle Hussman faced was the introduction of the world wide web in the late ‘90s. It completely changed the way that people interacted with others and how news was delivered. Digital ads erupted and, according to Hussman, various news outlets started giving away their content for free – including his newspaper in 1999.
Hussman said he had various Little Rock community members approach him, stating how much they enjoyed reading his newspapers online for no cost when they use to subscribe to his paper.
“I thought to myself, ‘What on earth are we doing here?’” Hussman said. “We were competing with other newspapers and we would do anything to get any subscribers, I mean blood, sweat and tears for every subscriber and we were just giving it away.”
After analyzing the revenues the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette was making with digital ads, Hussman quickly realized that digital advertising was not working, and decided to charge for content. This was in 2001, and there was only one other newspaper using this same strategy – the Wall Street Journal.
“People said we had our heads in the sand and that we didn’t understand the digital revolution,” Hussman said. “It’s amazing that in 10 years, our paper in Little Rock did not lose any circulation at all.”
As prices of printing, distributing and delivery began to rise steadily in the business, Hussman found himself in a predicament. He knew there had to be a better solution than to cut his staff in half to produce the same amount of content.
“That’s when I decided that I didn’t want to publish a newspaper like that and didn’t think the people of Arkansas wanted to read a newspaper like that, so we had to come up with some other idea,” he said. “I knew I loved reading the newspaper on the iPad—not our website but an exact replica of our newspaper. I had readers tell me, ‘I love reading that replica of your newspaper on our iPad.’”
After hearing this from various readers, he and his team headed to Blytheville, a town that had 200 subscribers and only one carrier. They decided to go door-to-door and ask subscribers if they would rather read their paper on an iPad or in print.
“That was the wrong question to ask,” Hussman said.” “Everyone said ‘No! I want to read it in print!’ Well, then we went back and decided we would just tell them we aren’t going to print and deliver up there anymore because it’s too expensive.”
Instead, his team told subscribers that if they went to AT&T and purchased a new cell phone, they would receive a $350 iPad for $99. Then, after subscribers downloaded 50 editions of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the paper would send subscribers a check in the mail for $50. Out of the 200 subscribers Hussman had in Blytheville, he had four that
actually took up the offer.
After one last try, Hussman and his team went back to the drawing board before accepting defeat.
“This time, we are going to go back up there and throw the kitchen sink at them,” Hussman said. “Instead of giving them a $350 iPad, we’re going to give them an $800 iPad.”
It was simple system. As long as individuals subscribed to the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, they would receive an iPad for free. On top of that, he told the staff that they were going to “smother” people with customer service.
“We are going to sit down with every subscriber individually and show them how to use (the iPad), show them how to read the paper,” he said.
Hussman’s innovative techniques have completely changed the way that the Arkansas Democrat Gazette delivers news and how subscribers interact with it. The paper now has interactive features such as videos, interviews, pictures and even a feature that will read articles aloud to readers to bring the headlines to life.
“My biggest takeaway from last night is that when you look fear in the face and don’t back down, that alone will take you to greater heights,” said Karsyn King, an Overby attendee and Ole Miss senior. “Change is uncomfortable, but that probably means you’re doing something right.”
According to Hussman, the paper has converted over 20,000 subscribers and he thinks that by the end of the year the rest will go digital, too.