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July 25, 2013, 8 a.m.
Arkansas!

How much will liberals pay to hear a blue voice in a red state?

From glossy mag to alt weekly to subscription-based blog, the Arkansas Times is “good at change.” Will readers step up to pay for the digital side of a free print weekly?

Alan Leveritt was born in Little Rock a little over 60 years ago. He was living there in 1957, when the national debate over desegregating public schools came to a head at Central High.

“The only thing that redeemed the soul of the city,” Leveritt says, “was the Arkansas Gazette. It stood up to the segregationists, and to the [rival Arkansas] Democrat, and to the business community and said that we ought to go ahead and follow the law. They endured an advertiser boycott, lost a million dollars, and won a Pulitzer Prize.”

Leveritt considered those newspapermen his heroes. At 22, he was working as an obituary writer when he decided to drop out of college and start a magazine of his own. He hitchhiked up the east coast, over to Wisconsin, and then south again, stopping at journalism schools along the way, where he tried to recruit like-minded media entrepreneurs. Then he hitchhiked back to Arkansas.

“Two came,” he says. “One stayed.”

And so, in 1977, the Arkansas Times was born, a small magazine that current editor Lindsey Millar guesses cost no more than a nickel. “We had $200 in capital,” says Leveritt, “and that was the only capital that was put into the company for 17 years.”

Eventually, the Times grew into a statewide glossy with a healthy circulation, but the media landscape was tough. “There was a protracted newspaper war in the ’90s between the Arkansas Gazette, which was the oldest paper west of the Mississippi with this great progressive reputation, and the Arkansas Democrat,” says Millar. “There was a long war, the Gazette ended up selling to Gannett, the Democrat ended up winning, and now it’s the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.”

Leveritt says that, as a result of the absorption, the liberal voice Arkansans had depended on the Gazette to provide disappeared. For Leveritt, who remembered those mid-century glory days, that was unacceptable. So he set out to remold the magazine into a weekly newspaper, first on a subscription basis, and then as a free alternative weekly. He even hired some of the Gazette’s staffers. “We inherited their mantle,” says Millar. “We’re the blue voice in a very, very red state.”

arkansas-times

Now, 27 years later, it’s time for the shape-shifting Arkansas Times to change yet again. In the intervening years, through the efforts of a handful of dedicated writers, the paper has built a series of blogs that drive the majority of their web traffic. Up till now, that content has been as free as the print edition, but no longer. On August 1, the Times’ four blogs — arts, entertainment, dining, and politics — will be going behind what Millar calls a “leaky meter” paywall. Yep: It’s a free weekly that’s putting up a paywall online.

The full subscription will cost $9.99 per month, and casual readers will have up to 10 blog posts a month available to them for free. Only the blog posts will be metered — the content in the print weekly will remain free in print and online for a month after publication. Digital subscribers will also receive a weekly email newsletter with deals and coupons for local businesses. Here’s the paper’s video announcement:

Even though the Times has been through major transitions before, Leveritt acknowledges that this is a different animal than turning a paid glossy into a free weekly. “For an alt weekly to go to a digital membership is problematic,” he says. “But we have something other weeklies don’t have, which is the Arkansas Blog.”

According to Leveritt, the Arkansas Blog, which focuses on news and politics and is the brainchild of former editor Max Brantley, got 201,000 unique visitors in June. There are only 180,000 people in Little Rock.

“A local business owner says, ‘You know, I’m addicted to the Arkansas Blog.’ The guy who runs the Clinton library used the same word — he says, ‘I’m addicted.’ And so am I! We’ll look at that thing six or seven times a day,” says Leveritt. “That’s the group we’re targeting with the digital membership. They’re our most engaged readers, and we think they’ll pay to keep this going.”

Leveritt says the success of the Arkansas Times has always heavily rested on the talent of the writers he was able to attract. He makes a solid investment in editorial — 18 percent of spending when the industry average for daily newspapers is closer to 12.5. But there’s also an element of luck: “We’ve always had much better writers than we could afford.”

The younger staffers are now also involved in the Arkansas Blog, but, despite his ostensible retirement, Brantley still works up to 60 hours a week on the blog, according to Millar. “Every city has reporters like Max,” says Leveritt — “people who are plugged in, who have an institutional memory of business and politics in the city, that know people.”

Brantley was a daily newspaper reporter before he came to the Times, and, especially after the introduction of the digital edition, he became increasingly eager to push out more content. “He was getting itchy having to hold news for the weekly edition, and he worried about that,” says Millar. “He singlehandedly made the Arkansas Blog a daily visit for people who care about politics.”

So it might not be an exaggeration to say the Times is capitalizing on the respect and loyalty that a single reporter built for them over many years, which, as we know, is not an untested strategy. Think of Andrew Sullivan’s decision to see how much he could earn by putting up a paywall around articles and posts he was already writing.

The Times is using the same technology as The Dish, through paywall provider Tinypass. With the trend toward erecting paywalls around independent websites growing, Tinypass has recently announced updates to its software that make it even more accessible to individuals. They work with local papers like The East Hampton Star, new media sites like BKLYNR, and global aggregators like Worldcrunch.

But even as the Times’ leaders look to the future and see a need for direct revenue, they haven’t shied away from other opportunities, making its current approach a potential pattern for the hybrid funding model of the future. Recently, the paper announced a partnership with recent Pulitzer Prize winners InsideClimate News to provide ongoing coverage of an oil spill in Mayflower, Arkansas. That reportage will be funded in part by an $8,000 grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism, but the paper has also raised $27,000 via crowdfunding efforts. That’s a loyal readership.

But the unique news landscape in Arkansas means the digital membership will be key for the Times’ overall strategy. The Arkansas Times won’t be introducing the idea of paywalls to the market: Walter Hussman is the publisher of the Democrat-Gazette, and as Millar puts it, “a long champion of paying for online content.” (We’ve written before about Hussman as the prime example of a publisher reacting to the rise of the Internet with an airtight paywall.)

“Theirs has always been a protectionist strategy. They’ve released their numbers before, and only a few thousand people subscribe only online.” Millar argues. (The paper’s most recent publisher’s statement, from March, claims about 4,000 paying digital subscribers.) “I think that’s helped us, because there was never a time you could get breaking content from them. They didn’t have a daily digital news staff. Everything they did went in the paper, and then it came out online the next day. But it was always behind the paywall, so you were either a subscriber or you missed it.”

As our Ken Doctor has written, “that simple-minded thought for which [Hussman] was ridiculed is now the root of the reader-revenue revolution.” Warren Buffett recently praised Hussman on sticking to his guns, and said he plans to emulate Hussman’s strategy with his own newspapers.

Leveritt can rattle off statistics about Arkansas’s general population off the top of his head — 17 percent have attended college and 10 percent have graduated, but 85 percent of the Times’ readership has attended college, and 25 percent have advanced degrees. “Certain advertisers, if they’re in Connecticut, maybe they could use mass media, but in Arkansas, they need niche media,” he says. He helps those advertisers reach a very specific audience — people with passports, people who own homes, people of a higher income.

And the Times, being left of center, does stand out ideologically in the market. Millar says part of their strategy moving forward will be to make sure that the readers who are core — not necessarily in that they read the site everyday, but in that they are most ideologically aligned with the goals of the Times — understand the importance of maintaining a robust progressive voice in Little Rock.

“Down the line, this could be an existential thing for us,” says Millar. “We kind of see the writing on the wall, so we’re gonna make that hard sell — sort of the NPR style. ‘If you care about this, you need to pony up some money.’ So we’re hoping we can get a number of folks on an emotional appeal, and not just a transactional one. We’re hoping to get our core readers, of course, but also some people who just support us and what we stand for.”

Millar says he intends to open up as many channels for customer feedback as possible once the paywall goes up, but with such a generous threshold, he doesn’t expect a lot of complaints. The Times has very different audiences, he says, and even when the weekly edition is mostly a digest of that week’s blog posts, the readership rarely complains.

“I’ve been doing this 39 years, and it never ceases to amaze me. Everything changes,” says Leveritt. “And we’re good at change.”

Flag photo by Jimmy Smith used through a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     July 25, 2013, 8 a.m.
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