Besides gaining free access to the replica editions, subscribers will be able to view the previous 12 months of archives for free. The online system will allow subscribers to share stories through e-mail and social media, print and download pages, and search using keywords.
Interstate, which also publishes the Daily News, SportsWeek, and Philly.com, announced the change Saturday; it also will apply to home-delivery subscribers of the Daily News and SportsWeek.
Currently, The Inquirer charges more for home delivery plus access to the online edition, which enables readers to page through a digital replica of the day's print edition. The weekly subscription rate is $6.08 for the print edition vs. $6.99 for print plus digital replica.
Asked whether Interstate might experience a decline in revenue as a result of providing free digital access to print subscribers, Hall said he does not anticipate a large loss. "Many current replica subscribers are not print readers," he said.
The Inquirer charges $2.99 a week for replica-only subscriptions. Those who want to read the digital replica editions without getting home delivery will still be able to do so, Hall said.
The Inquirer has been offering a digital version of its daily print newspaper since January 2008.
The growth of digital circulation has been one of the few bright spots for a newspaper industry that has watched print circulation decline for years. The organization that oversees publishers' reporting of newspaper circulation recently began disclosing statistics on digital editions and said it accounts for about 14 percent of overall U.S. newspaper circulation.
According to the most recent snapshot by the Audit Bureau of Circulation, The Inquirer and Daily News had a combined digital replica daily circulation of 40,845 for the six months ended March 31. On Sunday, The Inquirer had digital replica circulation of 57,052.
Total daily circulation for The Inquirer and Daily News (they have been counted together for several years) slipped to 325,291 for the half-year ended March 31 compared with 343,709 for the same period in 2011. Sunday Inquirer circulation rose to 517,310 from 488,286 after the inclusion of SportsWeek, a weekly publication that accounted for about 32,000 copies.
Other newspapers already provide free access to their digital replica editions. The Boston Globe launched a new version of its ePaper in March and made it available free to all Globe print and digital subscribers.
Still, the latest report by the nonprofit Pew Research Center on how Americans consume news indicates that the newspaper industry continues to face stiff competition. According to a telephone survey of 3,003 adults from May 9 to June 3, just 29 percent of respondents said they read a newspaper the previous day, a statistic that includes digital editions of newspapers. Television news remained the prime source mentioned by 55 percent of respondents, while online/mobile platforms surpassed newspapers and radio with 39 percent.
Carroll Doherty, a Pew associate director, said one of the most striking findings from this latest biennial survey was the extent of the digital readership of some of the biggest newspapers. The Pew survey found that 55 percent of readers of the New York Times said they read it mostly on a computer or mobile device, compared with 48 percent of USA Today readers and 44 percent of Wall Street Journal readers.
Inquirer editor William K. Marimow said The Inquirer and Daily News remain the "most trusted, authoritative and respected sources of news" in the region, based on the results of a recent readers survey conducted by Interstate. Providing free access to digital editions will be a major step toward rebuilding readership, he said.
The current ownership group of The Inquirer, Daily News, and Philly.com, which bought the media properties in April, has been working on a new digital strategy. Hall said the company expected to announce the main aspects of that strategy in early November. He declined to divulge any details of a plan that he said was still being developed.
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