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Readers of This Newspaper Are Getting Free iPads

It’s official.

The readers will continue to pay the monthly subscription fee of $34, but instead of the paper copy, they will receive a digital edition of the newspaper over their iPads for 6-days a week.

Chattanooga Times publisher will spend $1.7 million to buy iPads.

No matter what, the decision is likely to become a trend if the right people in the industry see through it.

While the news sounds quite like a revolutionary marketing idea, it is not the first.

The idea of offering something for free goes back to the evolution of businesses, perhaps. In the early days of the industrial revolution, when knowledge was far undervalued compared to today, Bible pocketbooks were given out for free. The idea was not only to impart moral and religious education but also to create a reading habit in the families. That was the time when publishers saw the paper as an expendable commodity if it got their brand name etched in early readers’ hearts.

It was only a matter of time when free would become a habit, then, an entitlement. At this stage, the seller would want to monetize and reap astronomical dividends.

They say: When you are not a customer, you are the product. But when you are a product with a certain habit, you are a perpetual money-spitting machine that everyone wants to get hold of, and never let go of.

We have now come to a full circle: Paper printing is the biggest source of operational costs to publishers. On the other hand, free content consumption is an entitlement, and content houses are fighting tooth and nail against platforms (social and entertainment both) for the attention span.

Big corporate newspapers and magazines are begging to convert their online readers with heart-melting pleas and eye-annoying ads.

According to Times Free Press publisher Walter Hussman, it was inevitable. “If we didn’t do this, we wouldn’t be able to continue to publish the kind of paper we publish in Chattanooga,” he said.

Digital platforms will surely salivate the kind of opportunities this could open up.

The move (both of Chattanooga Times and Arkansas Democrat Gazette) is surely a precedent. If big publishing houses weren’t able to think of it, maybe they should.

A major reason why they don’t go full-digital is their aged user-base which is not comfortable reading on a device. Besides, paper is loved for its tangible reading experience, irrespective of age.

Yet, if a small company dares to alter its user habits, established publishers definitely have a better chance at the infraction point. With enough accessibility (text to speech and hearing aid) ingrained in the eReaders, they are much better poised to bring the change.

The only blockers to change may be their fat management and age-old operational cost structures that reward partisan and conventional journalism, instead of the free flow of ideas and information.

Taking a cue from small publishers who did it for survival, they could embrace a high-moral ground that aims a transformation.

The pitch may go something like this:

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