Case Study

How The Atlanta Journal-Constitution used iPads to move readers away from print

The AJC loaned iPads to subscribers in outlying areas to learn how seven-day print readers could be transitioned to digital.

By Hayley Slusser

December 20, 2023

This case study is part of Beyond Print, a program created by The Lenfest Institute for Journalism and the American Press Institute to help guide publishers away from print-centric revenue models toward a sustainable digital future. Sign up for The Lenfest Institute’s Solution Set newsletter for updates on the forthcoming Beyond Print Toolkit.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution shifted its business strategy in 2023 to focus on exponentially growing digital subscriptions. To better understand how to bring loyal print readers along, it launched an experiment to transition some daily print subscribers to digital subscriptions, often with Sunday print delivery. To encourage subscribers to utilize the AJC’s website and digital products, the AJC loaned iPads to subscribers and offered training sessions to teach readers how to use them. 

Why this matters: 

Many organizations are facing challenges related to print distribution, especially due to post-pandemic labor shortages. Customers accustomed to print might seem reluctant to convert to digital, but providing in-depth, 1-on-1 customer service helped keep subscriber retention rates high despite the delivery changes. 


The AJC looked to similar, successful programs and took inspiration from Arkansas-based WEHCO Media, which began a similar program among its publications in 2018. After reaching out to the team there, the AJC began considering how to modify the program to suit its market. 

“We really keyed in on the training — we felt like that was a huge part of WEHCO’s success, because that was something we had not done previously,” said Joseph Wheeler, AJC’s senior manager of customer service. 

The decision to use iPads was due to their reliability and ease of use. The team determined Android tablets could be more confusing to customers, and a past experiment using Kindle tablets was unsuccessful. The cost of one iPad plus accessories per subscriber was $350, which included a discount for buying in bulk. The average annual cost of a 7-day delivery per subscriber was about $300, meaning the cost of each iPad would be recouped by the second year. 

Three months after contacting WEHCO, the AJC made the decision to begin rolling out the iPad experiment in 56 ZIP codes across the Atlanta metro area. After this initial trial, it added additional ZIP codes.

 In the initial trial, all but one of the ZIP codes in the test area were moved to digital only, while the other ZIP code was moved to a digital subscription plus Sunday paper. The AJC contacted customers by letter, email, and phone to let them know of the transition and the iPad opportunity. 

All customers had to opt-in to receive an iPad and sign an agreement acknowledging that the iPad was loaned and would have to be returned upon canceling their subscription. iPads returned in good condition are cleaned and restored for use with another customer. 

For ZIP codes moving to digital only, customers who did not respond to any communications had their subscriptions automatically canceled to prevent confusion on why they were being charged without receiving a paper. Throughout the experiment, AJC did not automatically cancel anyone in ZIP codes that continued Sunday print.

In each region where iPads were offered, AJC rented a local hotel conference room and hosted required training sessions to distribute iPads and get subscribers accustomed to their device and to the AJC’s digital products — first by showing them how to access the website and then the e-edition. Customers would also receive printed FAQ sheets, which contained information about the digital products and the basics of using the iPad, and a business card with the customer service hotline and a copy of their username and password. 

“We had a lot of ‘Oh, wow’ moments, where we’re walking them through all the interactive pieces, like how they could just email an article to a friend instead of cutting it out of a paper — ‘Oh wow, I didn’t know I could do that,’” Wheeler said. “There were a lot of customers who walked out of the session excited because they did not realize all the capabilities that were in the digital format.” 

Each region offered at least one week of training sessions staffed by a team of five. Typically, they would offer four sessions every half hour from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., totaling about 60 sessions a day and 300 per week. 

After each training session, there typically would be a jump in customer service calls as readers began using the iPads and came up with additional questions. The AJC team would use the feedback from these calls to modify future training sessions.

The team took a few weeks after it deployed the experiment to the first round of ZIP codes to assess and improve its strategy, but as AJC rolled out the program in additional ZIP codes, it began to get into a smoother pace.

“As we moved forward, the timing was much leaner, with us calling one area while we were actively training in another area,” Wheeler said.

Team involved: 

The AJC trained its existing external call center staff on the specifics of answering questions related to the iPad program and hired an events vendor to manage the in-person training events, with each event typically having a four-person team with one AJC representative on site. 

The outsourced staff hired for training events had experience in media and marketing events. The team received training from the AJC on how to approach customers and answer their questions. In the event that a customer needed more in-depth assistance, the AJC team member was able to jump in. Wheeler said the ideal team has a mix of skills related to both sales and customer service. 

“From the get go, make sure [the team] is greeting customers with a smile — ‘Hi Mr. Smith, thank you for coming’ — and empathizing with them about the concerns they might have about losing the print paper,” Wheeler said.  


The AJC did not set rigid metrics for success — due to the rapidly changing issues related to print distribution, the team moved quickly to begin converting customers. As each region underwent the transition, the team used the results to adapt the experiment for the next group. 

After announcing the transition, AJC converted 77% of its subscribers in the affected ZIP codes to either a digital plus Sunday print or digital-only subscription

Not all of these customers opted into receiving an iPad. In total, those who moved to a digital plus Sunday subscription had a 62% retention rate while digital-only subscribers retained at a 52% rate. But the customers who did opt in for the iPad retained higher in both groups at a rate of 86.7% and 82.5% respectively.

Across all ZIP codes, AJC conducted 1,806 1-on-1 training sessions with customers. Wheeler said the AJC saw very few instances of customers losing or damaging their loaned iPads. 

What they learned: 

Ultimately, the program successfully brought print readers over to the AJC’s digital products. Wheeler said if they had more time, there are several things they would improve on. 

Internally, Wheeler worked to develop the program, manage iPad inventory, and coordinate customer services processes, pulling additional team members in when necessary. He suggested other organizations give themselves ample time to set up these processes or, for small teams, explore opportunities to automate certain tasks.

Externally, it is important to bring print subscribers with special rates up to the same base rate before reducing print frequency. Wheeler said the retention rate may have been higher had they done that, since some subscribers were experiencing a rate change and print adjustment all at once. A rate increase and an eventual reduction in print may go over more smoothly if organizations spend time amplifying and explaining the benefits of their digital products throughout the market beforehand, perhaps even through in-person events.

Wheeler also recommended publishers be conscious of what the market wants versus what you can supply. After seeing the higher retention rates for customers who kept the Sunday paper, the AJC pivoted to use the digital-plus-Sunday model for the next round of ZIP codes. 

“Even if you want to do your entire market, try doing a few areas first to test the waters and see what works out,” he said. “That will tell you a lot about how the market as a whole will respond and what will and won’t work for you.” 

Next steps: 

Despite its success, there are no plans to expand the AJC’s iPad experiment to additional areas. The organization is pursuing a new, ambitious plan to grow its digital subscriber count to 500,000 by 2026, and the team is focused on improving brand awareness and creating digital products to engage new audiences. The experiment helped the team better understand conversion rates from print to digital among long-term print subscribers, but for the foreseeable future, AJC’s existing print products will continue as is.

How to implement this strategy: 

  • Start small — work with a few targeted areas at a time, see what works, and pivot as you go along
  • Establish clear processes among internal and external teams. Between communications, training programs, iPad inventory tracking, and feedback and data collection, there are a lot of variables to set up before jumping into the experiment. 

Added resources: 

Organization overview

  • Organization: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
  • Owner: Cox Enterprises
  • Target audience: Atlanta metro area / Georgia
  • Digital Subscribers: About 60,000
  • Print Subscribers:  About 53,000
  • Print status: The AJC publishes seven days per week, but some ZIP codes affected by this experiment are digital only, and some only receive the Sunday print edition. 

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