Local papers deliver to "digital mailboxes"

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Chicago-based publisher 22nd Century Media has partnered with a start-up called Zumbox to deliver digital editions of its local newspapers to every physical address it serves. The move is expected to reduce costs and environmental impact for the publisher, boost readership and make ad buys more attractive.

Zumbox uses “digital mailboxes,” based on consumers' real street addresses, to electronically deliver local material such as newspapers and community announcements. Through its partnership with 22nd Century Media, which publishes six “hyper-local” weeklies with a combined circulation of 100,000, every home and business that receives the paper edition also will receive a digital edition. Digital editions will replicate all content and ads and will have a page-turning feature to feel more like the traditional version.

"A lot of times, a company like ours knows people by address but not by name, but this allows us to hit a lot of people with our content, which we think is interesting and clever and fun,” said Jack Ryan, proprietor of 22nd Century Media.

“The environmental savings are huge,” he added. “And, of course, every news company right now is challenged by the economic environment, so if we can deliver the same news content electronically, and a big percent of our cost is printing and mailing — think of the cost savings. There's also user convenience because people can read their local paper from anywhere, they don't have to be at home.”

The partnership, which will offer readers the option of receiving only the digital edition, is expected to reduce 22nd Century's printing and mailing costs. It's also expected to improve ad sales, since digital ads can be made more interactive and link to advertisers' sites. Advertisers in Zumbox editions of the papers also will be able to track click-through rates and rotate their ads in real-time.

The page-flipping technology used by digital editions may also help keep readers engaged with the product, and with ads on each page, longer than the piecemeal approach of most Web sites.

Ryan explained, “A lot of people, especially with local news, don't know exactly what they're looking for, so it's hard to search for it. They like the serendipity of flipping through the pages and saying ‘I didn't know that.'” 

Since the Zumbox edition of 22nd Century's New Lenox Patriot launched late last week, more than 300 people have signed up for Zumbox — although, Ryan pointed out, they may have been more interested in receiving other Zumbox mailings than 22nd Century publications. The publisher's other newspapers will roll out on Zumbox in the coming weeks.

“We would be thrilled if we had 10% of the population [in our distribution areas] deciding to get our papers in the Zumbox format,” Ryan said. He added that, since 22nd Century is the first newspaper company to partner with Zumbox, he wasn't sure what kind of numbers to expect.

Ryan also said he hopes to increase his papers' circulation by 5% to 10% with Zumbox because the system allows people outside of a distribution area — maybe in a neighboring town — to request digital editions of community newspapers.

Digital editions have grown in popularity over the past few years, as publishers seek ways to cut costs and better engage online audiences. Coverleaf and iMags, both digital distributors of major titles like Elle and Better Homes & Gardens, launched in 2008, and in May 2008, Barnes & Noble teamed up with digital magazine service Zinio to offer subscriptions to more than 1,000 magazines online.

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