E-paper, but the right way: Retaining readers with digital editions

Juliana Mani

Newspapers have focused their online activities mainly on their news websites in the past, but for some years now, more and more publishers have been turning to digital editions as reader interest grows. Unlike in the print world, however, there are different formats here. An overview.

Newspapers have focused their online activities mainly on their news websites in the past, but for some years now, more and more publishers have been turning to digital editions as reader interest grows. Unlike in the print world, however, there are different formats here. An overview.  

What is a digital edition?  

Journalists have been bundling news into editions for centuries: Once a day, news from the city and the country is printed as a newspaper to give readers an overview of the most important events and developments. Magazines and weeklies have their own rhythm, but work according to the same issue principle.

In the digital world, editions have played a subordinate role up to now. Publishers focused their activities on the continuous news flow on their website. Not least because digital editions were not technically mature and strenuous to use at the beginning: 1:1 images of the print pages were offered as PDF formats - turning the pages was often a hassle, and there was no mobile display. Digital editions were not very attractive for readers and publishers.  

Wikipedia still holds to this definition for a digital edition today:  

"A digital edition is an online magazine or newspaper that is delivered in electronic form and formatted the same as the print version."

In the meantime, however, not only has e-paper technology evolved, but entirely new digital edition formats have also emerged, such as newsletter or app editions. So the definition of what is meant by a digital edition needs an update:  

"A digital edition is a self-contained journalistic product that offers readers a compilation of information or entertainment through a digital channel."  

A digital edition provides readers with information or entertainment in a self-contained digital format.  

Digital spending: outdated concept or future market?

Although edition journalism is a tradition of the print age, it is not a dying breed. According to a Reuters study, a majority of digital news users prefer to get their information once a day. These daily briefers are better served by an edition format than the continuous flow of news on websites. The market for digital editions is therefore there.

This is also reflected in the growing importance of e-papers. It is becoming an increasingly important revenue channel for newspapers: According to IVW, the circulation of digital editions increased by 13.84 percent for daily newspapers in the first quarter of 2020 compared to the previous year, and by as much as 24.82 percent for weekly newspapers. Overall, one in eight newspapers was sold as an e-paper in 2020.

In view of the fact that print circulations have been declining for years and news publishers are still struggling to monetize their online offerings sufficiently, digital editions are a growing market whose potential publishers should definitely explore for themselves.

One idea, four familiar formats

A digital edition is now not just a simple replica of the print product, but has many faces. Currently, four formats dominate with which media companies can effectively reach their readers. It remains to be seen which new formats will emerge in the wake of further technological developments.  

Replica editions

The classic among digital editions is the replica edition, a 1:1 replica of the print product. In the past, replica editions were mostly offered as PDFs, but today editorial teams also make their replica editions available via publisher apps, so that they can be read conveniently not only on the desktop, but also via tablet and smartphone.

However, the editions offer few additional digital functions. They are mostly limited to a reading mode for the individual article view, video embedding and links to external sources.

The digital edition of the FAZ as PDF Replica
Subscribers to the digital edition of FAZ have access to a 1:1 replica of the print edition.

Native digital editions

Native digital editions are a further development of replica editions. They exploit technological possibilities to provide a more convenient user experience: Readers are shown articles on their smartphones optimized for mobile reading, for example.

Two variants of native digital editions can be distinguished: those that prepare print content in a digitally optimized way and those that present their own content - independently of the print product. Examples of native digital editions in Germany are FAZ Digitec for news about the digital economy and Industry 4.0 or the FR+ app.  

Native Digital Editions Image
FAZ's Digitec app keeps its readers up to date on the digital economy.


Editorial newsletters are another form of issue journalism. For many years, editorial departments used them primarily as traffic suppliers for their own websites: Readers received short teasers on current topics by e-mail and had to click on the website for the full information. For the past two or three years, newsletters have increasingly been marketed as stand-alone digital editions. They appear in a reliable rhythm, with a fixed layout - much like traditional print products.

Some publishers provide a free news overview in their newsletters, like Spiegel Online with Die Lage am Morgen. If readers want to delve deeper into a topic, they can follow links to the website, but the newsletter also functions as a self-contained product. Other publishers like Der Tagesspiegel with its Checkpoint or Handelsblatt with its Morning Briefing offer newsletters in two versions, a short free one and a detailed paid one. And some media, such as Börsenzeitung, rely exclusively on paid newsletters.  

The situation in the morning as a digital edition Image
Every morning, selected Spiegel authors give their readers an overview of the most important topics of the day.

Story format

The latest format among digital editions is the story format. More and more media companies are experimenting with Stories on Facebook or Instagram, presenting news on a topic in quickly clickable slides.

The format is not limited to social media platforms, however, but can also be integrated as a feature in apps: The Tagesschau app, for example, prepares the most important headlines of the day as Stories. Those who want more background can swipe up to see the full article. News websites could also feature story formats on their homepage, integrating an issue into the news stream. So far, only a few publishers are experimenting with stories, especially in German-speaking countries, so it remains to be seen which channel the format will work best on.

Instagram Stories as a form of digital edition
Bild regularly shares news in story format with its nearly 600,000 Instagram followers.

3 arguments for the use of digital editions

The constant stream of digital news offers unprecedented information opportunities, but for more and more people the volume of news is becoming a stress factor. This is where publishers can offer psychological relief with digital editions. Because they satisfy people's need for orientation and an overview: World events, compactly prepared, become manageable again. Readers get the good feeling of being in the picture and are increasingly willing to pay for it. But this is not the only reason why digital editions are economically interesting for publishers.  

Reduced printing and distribution costs  

The better publishers succeed in motivating their existing print subscribers to take out digital subscriptions, the more they can reduce their print circulation and save on printing and distribution costs. Although they will invest in marketing measures for the new digital offerings, success can usually be achieved here at a fraction of the costs incurred in traditional sales.

For the majority of media, it makes sense to build up digital editions to complement the existing print product, but for some it may be worthwhile to discontinue the traditional print product in the medium term and switch entirely to digital paid products.

Revenues from paid digital editions

The majority of news readers still expect to be able to access information online for free, but there is a growing willingness to pay for a curated news digest: 53 percent of Germans are willing to spend money for "a trusted, credible news source," according to the 2020 e-paper study commissioned by the German Association of Digital Publishers and Newspaper Publishers.

Many German dailies such as Die Zeit and Handelsblatt already sell digital subscriptions for e-readers, apps and browsers as add-ons to their traditional print editions. Other publishers such as PC Magazine or The Wall Street Journal have fully digitized their offerings and charge a monthly or annual subscription fee for their content. The revenue from these paid offerings can be an important building block for publishers to monetize their digital activities.

Advertising revenue and potential for cross-selling

Digital editions as an extension of the existing product range also offer publishers the opportunity to sell new and high-quality advertising space. After all, readers of digital editions are particularly receptive: they make a conscious decision to read them, in some cases they have even paid for the edition, and they spend an above-average amount of time with the content. For advertisers, digital editions - whether as apps or newsletters - are attractive ad environments.

Especially when publishers initially offer free digital editions, they can use the newly created advertising space to increase sales of their own products via cross-selling.

Key factor for monetization of digital offerings

Newspapers and magazines have more than 300 years of experience with the concept of the editorial edition, as the world's first newspaper was published in Leipzig in 1650. They can and should also build on this expertise when switching from print to digital editions.

The pace of digital innovation in newsrooms has accelerated, not least as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. According to a Reuters report, publishers and editors will expand their digital activities in 2021: "Companies are forced to think outside the box". Whether via app, email or browser - publishers are only gradually becoming aware of the potential of digital editions and are far from exhausted. Readers' openness to such digital news products is certainly growing. The success of the Readly app, which works like a newspaper and magazine newsstand, shows that digital editions are anything but dead: In 2019 alone, 83 million digital editions were accessed via the app.

If publishers creatively fill the edition concept with life and satisfy readers' needs for orientation in the digital information world, they could sustainably improve the profitability of their digital activities. Many media companies are still struggling to monetize their digital offerings. The expenditure concept could play a key role in developing models for sustainably financed digital journalism.

Would you like to integrate digital editions into your portfolio? Use specialized software such as Purple for a convenient entry into digital publishing. This allows you to control all formats, whether PDF replicas or native editions, clearly and easily from a single application.  

Not sure if Purple suits you?

Or you have individual requirements?
We will be happy to advise you.
Kevin Kallenbach
Head of Sales