Over the past year a number of newspaper publishers have ventured into augmented reality.

“This is the first time that we’ve crossed the digital divide where your newspaper becomes the gateway — and it all plays off the printed product,” Jack Mitchell, publisher of Northern California’s twice-weekly Ledger Dispatch told News & Tech.

Mitchell has been championing the use of AR by publishers ever since the Ledger Dispatch launched its own AR experience platform in February. He formally presented the technology to the California News Publishers Association not long after. The Ledger Dispatch’s Augmented Reality News App is powered by the Interactive News platform. Utah-based AR technology innovator Strata developed Interactive News.

With the Ledger Dispatch’s app, readers can trigger images to access deeper content. For example, readers can hold their smartphone, enabled with the app, over the paper’s masthead to get an audio recap of the day’s news. Or, they can hold their smartphone over a restaurant ad and instantly book a dinner reservation. Over the July Fourth holiday, the Ledger Dispatch featured an image that launched a fireworks display for readers

Mitchell worked closely with Strata and the company’s CEO John Wright to help tailor the solution to newspaper publishers and offer it to them for a fraction of what it would cost them to develop apps on their own. He then began talking to other publishers about the benefits. He believes AR technology holds tremendous value in terms of luring advertisers back to newspapers by giving them the ability to layer video, audio and other features behind a print advertisement.

Spreading the word

In June, Mitchell met Yankton (South Dakota) Daily Media owner Gary Wood during a conference and the two discussed AR. Wood quickly got onboard and two months later, on August 14, his flagship Yankton Daily Press & Dakotan launched its own iteration of Interactive News.

“We aim to always be ahead of the curve and I loved the idea of putting the ability to bring news, sports and ads to life right at our readers’ fingertips,” Wood told News & Tech. “We had 178 downloads on day one.”

Both Mitchell and Wood said the ease of use is one of the most appealing things for newspapers. The Interactive News AR platform can be deployed without the need for additional staff.

“We can put 12 interactive stories together in about 30 minutes,” Wood said. “Most of the video can be shot on cell phones and then we also use some of our higher-end cameras for news and sports, too. It’s so easy that there was no learning curve.”

Strata CEO Wright said the technology is really about the miracle of the smartphone. The Interactive News app can be downloaded for Apple and Android and he said the technology works best with smartphones that are no more than two years old.

“The newspaper simply places a trigger image and can then layer elements into that image and it allows you to do things you couldn’t do prior to AR,” he said. “This is more than the paper coming alive; it gives newspapers the capability for a direct connection with their customers for the first time.”

The power to engage

In addition to positive advertiser reaction, Wood said readers of all generations want to engage with AR features. “We had an 80-year-old reader who came in and asked for help using it, and we showed him how to download the app and use it, and he left here very excited,” he said. “We are reaching young and old alike and it’s been fun to see the positive reaction.” Strata CEO Wright said AR technology is so engaging because it capitalizes on the power of the human senses. “AR triggers three of your five senses — sight, sound and touch,” he explained. “Science tells us that when three senses are triggered, we don’t forget an experience.”

Exciting possibilities

In addition to audio and video elements, the Ledger Dispatch and the Press & Dakotan are excited about leveraging some of the other unique benefits of Interactive News. Mitchell said the Ledger Dispatch would soon give its readers the capability to translate content into some 30 different languages. The Press & Dakotan, meanwhile, intends to implement AR on rack cards at its single-copy locations in the near future, according to Wood.

“The intent is to make those single-copy locations more interactive and leverage this for some self-promotion,” he said. “Newspapers are still the only complete local news source for our communities and surrounding regions, and this technology can help us go after those outlying markets where other papers have pulled back.”

Although AR is not completely new to publishers (The Philadelphia Inquirer became one of the first to use AR in May 2012 when it published photos that launched interactive features), advancements in platforms and smartphones have proven that the technology could be a successful marriage of print and digital.

“All communities are unique in terms of opportunities to present content and what I am doing here is different than what Jack is doing at the Ledger Dispatch, “ Wood said. “But no matter how you’re doing it, newspapers are still the lifeblood of the community and this technology helps to further strengthen that position.”

Wood said the Press & Dakotan also plans to use the technology to capitalize on its unique market position with expanded local coverage in its Monday editions. For Mitchell’s part, he said he’s excited to continue imagining new and creative ways to lure advertisers back to print.

“This is the first time that we’ve crossed the digital divide where your newspaper becomes the gateway,” he said. “And it all plays off the printed product.”

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