The eMprint (Electronic Media Print) model evolved from Roger Fidler’s original work on digital newspaper editions and online media at Knight-Ridder Newspapers (1979-1995) and Kent State University (1996-2004).
RJI brought Fidler to Missouri as RJI's first fellow in September 2004 to plan and direct the Missourian eMprint Project, which RJI funded in two phases between March 2005 and May 2007.
The field test
The first phase of the eMprint project was a 13-week field test using the Columbia Missourian’s editorial content from March 6 through May 14, 2005. The Missourian is a daily community newspaper affiliated with the Missouri School of Journalism. It has an average daily circulation of about 7,000.
The field test had three objectives:
- To develop and evaluate production processes for efficiently producing eMprint editions within a typical newsroom environment.
- To gain insights into the most likely readers of eMprint editions.
- To assess the advertising potential for eMprint editions.
During this phase, Fidler worked with two graduate research assistants, Brendan Watson and Wan Xu, to produce the weekly eMprint editions, which usually were ready to download from the Missourian Web site by 3 a.m. on Sunday mornings. Overdrive Inc., a large eBook distributor based in Cleveland, hosted the eMprint editions.
More than 4,500 people participated in the field test. The eMprint team proved that eMprint editions could be produced on deadline with a minimal staff. Data gathered from the field test provided useful insights into the most likely readers. Despite initial skepticism, the Missourian was able to sell out the advertising space allotted for each eMprint edition.
The longitudinal study
The second phase, which launched on September 14, 2005, was a longitudinal study that involved producing a twice-weekly eMprint edition (Wednesdays and Sundays) of the Missourian for at least two academic years. The objective was to assess the potential of eMprint editions to attract and retain readers and advertisers over an extended period of time. As with the field test, subscriptions to the eMprint editions were free.
The Missourian hired Rob Weir as the eMprint managing editor, Michael Zweifel as the eMprint advertising creative services manager, and a part-time graduate research assistant. The Missourian also restructured its advertising sales staff to put more emphasis on eMprint and online advertising. The RJI funded three additional graduate research assistants who worked an average of 10 hours per week.
A number of modifications were made to the eMprint format based on the feedback received during the 13-week field test.
Results and insights
Re-launching the eMprint editions after a four-month hiatus proved to be more difficult than anticipated, in part because there were limited funds for marketing the second phase. Much of the momentum that had been generated during the field test by radio and television commercials and stories in metropolitan and national newspapers, such as USA Today, had dissipated.
The number of registered subscribers did not approach the number who participated in the field test until early in 2006. Unlike the field test, which attracted a great deal of national and international interest, the longitudinal study drew nearly all of its subscribers from Columbia and central Missouri. An analysis of field-test registration data revealed that a significant percentage of the early participants had consisted of media professionals and academics from around the world who were curious about the project.
Of the more than 6,000 people who subscribed to the eMprint editions during the longitudinal study, nearly two-thirds had some affiliation with the university. Not surprisingly, the most frequent readers of eMprint editions were alumni who were age 40 or older. Active subscribers were nearly evenly split between men and women. About 90 percent indicated that they did not subscribe to the Missourian in print.
The number of downloads per issue ranged between 500 and 3,500. The issues with the highest numbers of downloads usually were associated with stories that appeared in printed publications, such as the University of Missouri alumni magazine, or on Web sites. The issues with the lowest numbers occurred during the winter and spring breaks and summer months. The average in the second year was about 1,200 downloads per issue.
Advertising sales for both the print and eMprint editions declined steadily during the first half of 2006, so in September of that year the Missourian decided to scale back to a Sunday-only eMprint edition. By May 2007, it was apparent that the Missourian would not be able to attract and retain enough local advertising to support the weekly eMprint edition without supplemental funding from RJI, so it was discontinued.
Despite the disappointment with the Missourian eMprint edition, RJI continues to support ongoing development of the eMprint model for Digital Newsbooks and other uses. Several members of the RJI Digital Publishing Alliance have adopted the eMprint model for their digital editions.
The following are some of the insights gained during the project from focus groups, e-mail surveys and unsolicited feedback.
Registration and logon procedures: The eMprint online registration and logon forms, which were used to gather demographic and usage data about subscribers, often were seen as annoyances and inhibitors to access.
About 10 percent of the people who completed the registration form never downloaded eMprint editions because they either ignored or did not receive the account activation e-mail that required a response in order to complete the process.
We also learned that at least 10 percent of the people who were able to successfully activate their accounts were unable to receive the alert e-mails sent out to subscribers when each issue was ready to download. In most cases, the problem was traced to spam blockers.
As with every Web site that requires an ID and password to gain access, forgotten passwords can be a problem. Our logon page did not have an automated system for sending subscribers their forgotten passwords via e-mail. The only way subscribers could recover their password was to send an e-mail request to the eMprint help address, which because of staffing limitations was checked infrequently. Consequently, many subscribers stopped trying to access the editions.
Navigation: The Missourian eMprint editions combined the sequential page structure of printed editions with the non-sequential (hyperlinked) structure of Web sites. The design offered readers multiple ways to locate and read stories and ads.
Each edition began with a set of summary pages that were organized in sections (i.e. front, sports, health, faith) and laid out to resemble the newspaper’s printed pages. The headlines, story summaries, images, and ads on these pages served as hyperlinks to the complete stories and full-page ads that appeared on the sequential content pages.
The editions also included a directory page with headlines hyperlinked to all stories and an ad locator that provided hyperlinks to ads within the editions and to the advertisers’ Web sites.
Subscribers could locate and read stories or ads of interest by browsing the summary pages as they would a printed newspaper or scanning headlines on the directory page as they would on a Web site. All content pages provided hyperlinks back to their associated summary pages or the directory page.
The intent of the eMprint structure and design was to preserve the newspaper look and feel in a magazine-size page format while allowing readers to navigate pages sequentially and non-sequentially.
Most subscribers who responded to the e-mail surveys or participated in the focus groups indicated they quickly grasped how to navigate the Missourian eMprint editions. Some were surprised to learn that each edition included more than 100 pages in the eMprint format. Only a few said they occasionally printed out stories to read on paper.
Those who indicated they had difficulty understanding how to navigate the editions were few in number and did not fall into any single age or other grouping. The most common difficulty they articulated was recognizing the difference between summary and content pages. In most cases, this was attributed to a disinclination to explore the eMprint editions or a lack of interest in the Missourian content.
Advertising: The Missourian eMprint editions were designed to be advertising supported. The eMprint ads were similar in design to magazine ads and were placed on both summary and content pages. However, the partial-page eMprint ads placed on summary and content pages usually included hyperlinks to full-page ads within the edition as well as to the advertisers’ Web sites. They also could include enhanced features, such as interactive forms, embedded audio/video elements, and show-hide layers. All ads were in color.
The advertising salespersons imparted that most of their clients were intrigued by the concept but often had difficulty understanding that eMprint ads were neither print ads nor web ads, but rather hybrids that combined features of both media. The Missourian’s creative services department had to create nearly all of the eMprint ads. Advertising agencies were generally resistant to the concept because it required skills that were unfamiliar to their creative staffs.
Most readers who responded to the e-mail surveys were relatively positive about the eMprint ads. A common response was some version of “The ads in eMprint are far less annoying than ads on Web sites.” Some indicated they preferred the ads in eMprint to the ads in printed newspapers and magazines. Even those who said they never paid attention to ads usually were able to recall the names of some eMprint advertisers.
Demonstrations of these features always created excitement and enthusiasm for the eMprint concept. But the e-mail surveys and focus groups conducted during the study revealed that few subscribers took advantage of these interactive features, and a surprising number indicated they could never get these features to work.
This problem had everyone perplexed until it was discovered that Adobe Reader had not been installed on the Macintosh computers used by most of the Missouri students and faculty. Consequently, the eMprint editions would open in Preview, the default PDF viewer on their OSX Macintosh computers. Apple’s Preview program is a simple PDF viewer that does not support the more advanced Adobe Acrobat features. Only the hyperlinks functioned as intended in Preview.
It also was discovered that many people in Columbia and even in university offices still had older PCs running Windows 98 and Acrobat Reader 4.0 or 5.0, which like Preview did not support embedded audio/video and most of the other advanced interactive features that Adobe introduced with Acrobat 6.0.
The realization that a large percentage of the subscribers never had an opportunity to fully experience eMprint was a great disappointment, but it also taught an important lesson — always start simple and only add features when there is a high-level of confidence that most people will have the essential tools and know-how.
Interactive forms: This was the most frequently used feature by those who viewed the eMprint editions with Acrobat or Adobe Reader 6.0 and later versions. Subscribers were able to write and submit letters to the editor or comment on stories directly from each eMprint edition. If the subscribers were offline at the time, the contents of the interactive forms would be saved in the outboxes of the subscribers’ e-mail programs. The next time they connected to the Internet, the contents would be sent to the newspaper. Several advertisers also used this feature.
Embedded audio/video elements: These were used only occasionally with stories because the Missourian did not have newsroom staff dedicated to producing audio and video. However, nearly every eMprint edition included at least one audio or video element embedded in ads.
Few eMprint subscribers played the audio/video elements, mainly because they were not viewing the editions with Acrobat or Adobe Reader 6.0 and later versions. But a significant number of subscribers who responded to the e-mail surveys said they rarely clicked on multimedia elements because they nearly always encountered problems, such as not having the correct media player or version of the player.
The subscribers’ argument for not clicking on multimedia elements regrettably was reinforced during the second phase of the project when Adobe introduced Acrobat and Reader 7.0. It turned out that this version was incompatible with QuickTime Player 7.0, so until Adobe released version 7.1 several months later, subscribers who had installed the latest software could not play multimedia elements.
Informally, some subscribers also told us they didn’t click on the embedded video or audio files because they expected a long delay. None realized that the embedded files actually downloaded with the eMprint editions and would launch quickly without reconnecting to the Internet.
Show-hide elements: This Adobe Acrobat feature, also called “layered-content” elements, allowed readers to toggle between multiple content layers on a page. For example, they could toggle through six days worth of Doonesbury cartoons or a selection of houses featured by a real estate firm. The eMprint news graphics and ads could have as many as 10 layers. But for reasons already mentioned, few subscribers were able to take advantage of this compelling feature.