Converting seven-day print readers into digital readers is no small feat, but Larry Graham, a 40-year industry pro and the current circulation director at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, along with his entire team, have taken innovation to a whole new level with their iPad initiative as the industry watches from the sidelines. For those unaware, their iPad initiative takes seven-day print readers and converts them to one-day of print, also providing readers with an iPad for the other six days of the week.
One might even call Graham a team leader and lifelong quarterback. He graduated from East Tennessee State College where he quarterbacked and led the Buccaneers to an undefeated 1969 season capped with a win in the Grantland Rice Bowl over Terry Bradshaw and the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs.
His successful quarterbacking has never ended, but the field of play just changed. He began his news media career with Knight-Ridder before being hired as the circulation manager in 1980 for the Democrat-Gazette. It wasn’t long before “coach” and publisher of the Democrat-Gazette Walter Hussman, Jr. realized he had new star quarterback in town and promoted Graham to vice president of circulation. This move proved monumental as at one point, they were recognized as one of the fastest growing newspapers in America under Graham’s guidance and leadership.
No words that I can write would better convey the value of Graham than those who have worked side-by-side with him. Hussman said, “I think Larry Graham is probably the best circulation manager in America. He proved himself during 11 years of intense competition with a larger paper. Larry, as much as anyone, deserves credit for our prevailing in the newspaper competition in Arkansas. He has an incredible competitive spirit, coupled with the fact that he’s highly intelligent and an outstanding manager who knows just the right time to say yes and say no. I have worked closely with him for 40 of the 50 years of my newspaper career. He has made a success of all of us at our newspaper.”
WEHCO Newspapers’ president Mark Lane stated, “Larry Graham is playing a critical role in the transformation of our consumer revenue initiatives at all our newspapers, not just the Democrat-Gazette. Whenever there is a key decision to be made concerning our subscribers, Larry is in the center of the conversation. He has built a solid reputation based on the consistent high quality of his work, energy, and execution. He is an expert in the business, and he’s done an amazing job re-tooling his career based on the shift of our readers migrating to digital news consumption.”
Democrat-Gazette president and general manager Lynn Hamilton added, “I’ve worked closely with Larry Graham for 40 years. In addition to all his other qualities, Larry is better than any manager I’ve ever known at recognizing latent talent in people and motivating them to excel. He is soft-spoken and non-judgmental but insistent on high quality work. He digs deep into details and inspires the respect of his staff. Two of Larry’s key assistant managers have been with him since the newspaper war years. The three of them have hired a group of 50 younger people who are distributing iPads to our subscribers in multiple states, and in the process a new generation of circulation leadership is being developed. Larry’s legacy in our organization will live on long after he is gone.”
Below, I spoke with Graham about the latest developments with the Democrat-Gazette’s iPad initiative and what he would do differently, knowing what he knows now about digital.
E&P: What is the biggest change you have seen moving from the print product to the iPad?
Graham: The first area we tested the iPad program on was Blytheville (Ark.), where we had 200 daily/Sunday subscribers. We took 10 current employees to Blytheville, and at the end of the six-week period, we had converted 140 subscribers to digital, with 130 of those with iPads. Two years later, we have an additional 50 digital employees who have passed out over 40,000 iPads. We have truly become a digital company.
What is the biggest challenge you face as you transition into the iPad arena?
Graham: Every position in the circulation department has been affected by the iPad program. Our CSRs spend most of their time working with subscribers to solve a connectivity issue or coaching subscribers on how to use our iPad app. Our district managers spend their day picking up or delivering iPads, or visiting with subscribers training them on how to use our newspaper app.
You and your staff have been on the frontlines of this historic conversion. What has been the overall customer response to this change?
Graham: If we can get a subscriber to sit down and go through a 15-30-minute session with one of our digital reps, we have good chance of converting the subscriber. I have had subscribers walk by me going to meet with one of our reps and say, “This thing is not going to work, you people are making a mistake.” Thirty minutes later, the subscriber comes back by and says, “This is great, I love it.”
What would you do differently if you were to start over with the iPad conversion?
Graham: We spent the first year (2018) testing various offers, hiring and training digital employees, and developing systems and procedures. The decision to fully convert the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette to the iPad program was made in December 2018. Based upon what we now have learned, if we could start the iPad program over eliminating a few of the missteps, we could have saved quite a bit of time.
What advice would provide others in the circulation/audience side of the business?
Graham: The most important decision that we made was to offer extreme customer service. We wanted to sit down with every subscriber and show them how to use our app. Our subscriber base is primarily made up of an older generation, and we needed to make the transition easy for them. We hired enough people to sit down with every subscriber and show them exactly how to connect the iPad to their Wi-Fi. We showed them how to turn the iPad on and off and how to log in to our newspaper app. We showed them how to enlarge the type, how to turn the pages, how to email articles to friends and family along with how to print an article and access the back copies. We showed them how to play the crossword puzzles and other games, how to listen to an article, how to access our archives and how to flip from one page to another. We showed them how to flip from a section to another section, how to set up the iPad to automatically download the paper every morning, how to change their password, how to print out coupons, how to jump to the rest of the article, how to set up their Apple ID, how to download other apps and more.
John Newby is the founder of the 360 Media Alliance. He also authors the weekly column, “Building Main Street, not Wall Street,” which focuses on bringing local media and their communities closer together through common synergies and causes to grow revenue. He can be reached at john@360MediaAlliance.net.