Could the tech behind ‘Pokemon Go’ save print journalism? One small-town editor thinks so

Pictures move in this newspaper

The small town newspaper in Jackson, Calif., has adopted augmented reality technology similar to that used in the Pokemon Go game. If you hold your phone over the newspaper, pictures and video spring to life.
Up Next
The small town newspaper in Jackson, Calif., has adopted augmented reality technology similar to that used in the Pokemon Go game. If you hold your phone over the newspaper, pictures and video spring to life.

The publisher of a small-town newspaper in the Gold Country town of Jackson thinks his struggling industry could benefit by emulating the wizard-run newspaper from the “Harry Potter” series.

Pictures in The Daily Prophet move, talk and smile. Those in the most recent issues of the twice-weekly Ledger Dispatch do as well, as long as the reader views them through a smartphone after downloading a special augmented reality app.

“This one we call the ‘Harry Potter’ effect,” said Jack Mitchell, the newspaper’s publisher, as he waved his phone over a cluster of photos causing videos to play, seemingly on the printed page.

The technology is similar to that used in the wildly popular “Pokemon Go” game. It superimposes computerized images on what’s actually in front of the viewer.

A special insert in the paper explained the technology. In it, a Realtor’s advertisement links to a video tour of a home for sale, and a local movie listing calls up the trailer for “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” along with a website to purchase tickets.

It’s a newfangled move for an old-school publisher.

Mitchell has been in the newspaper business for 30 years. He was the publisher of small papers in Nebraska and Texas before coming to California about 16 years ago.

Life for Mitchell and his family was good until newspapers began to struggle over the last decade because of a decline in print advertising. The owner of the paper at the time, a Bay Area investor, started cutting staff.

Mitchell asked, “If you keep cutting, what are you giving readers?”

The owner fired Mitchell, too.

With kids and a mortgage, he went to the biggest employer in the area, the casino-owning Jackson Rancheria Band of Miwuk Indians. He asked for a job doing practically anything. Tribal leaders suggested starting a newspaper to compete with the sinking Ledger Dispatch.

The new paper was called the Acorn News. After a few weeks, the owner of the Ledger Dispatch had had enough and offered to sell her paper to the tribe, which bought it in 2015 for a reported $1 million and restored Mitchell as its publisher.

The tribe, which said it wanted to support community journalism, vowed to maintain the paper’s editorial independence.

Since then the paper’s staff has worked in the tribe’s administration building on casino grounds. The paper will soon have new home in a historic building that the tribe is restoring in downtown Jackson.

Despite its deep-pocketed owner, the Ledger Dispatch, like almost every paper in America, has had to cope with declining revenues and try to figure out how to stem the losses.

Mitchell, who’s in charge of the paper’s business side along with taking many of its photographs, said a potential solution came to him suddenly over a bottle of wine with a computer-savvy friend.

They were drinking 19 Crimes wine from Australia, which sells for about $9 a bottle at Trader Joe’s. Mitchell’s friend showed him how the photo on the wine label moved and spoke if viewed with the winemaker’s augmented-reality app on a phone.

In the case of the wine, a sepia-toned portrait of a convict seems to come alive. It tells stories of being sent to Australia as punishment and finding love there.

Mitchell said he suddenly knew the gimmick could work for newspapers, too, including his own. The paper has been serving the Gold Country of Amador and Calaveras counties since the 1850s.

“I said, ‘My gosh, think what we could do,’ ” the publisher said.

That’s why the Feb. 9 issue of the Ledger Dispatch featured, for the first time, front page photos linked to videos, but not in the usual way that web links work.

The videos, one about a winery fire and another about a colorful charity run, appear to play on the printed page, within the photo frames, when viewed via the paper’s new smartphone app. The newspaper and the reader’s immediate surroundings remain intact on screen.

The key is that readers must have a hard copy of the paper to access the additional content, which uses the “interactive news” app, available for iPhone and Android.

A great deal of digital news is available for free, to the detriment of news organizations, Mitchell said, and “none of it has anything to do with the core product – newspapers.”

Young people tend to get their news through smartphones. Devoted readers of the print product, who are generally older, don’t like to switch between the printed page and computers to get their information, the publisher said. The phone app allows them to have it all in one place.

Print ads can be animated, too. That’s a key feature because the financial troubles of print journalism mainly have been caused by a move to cheaper online ads and a decline in more-profitable print advertising.

The technology is simple enough that practically any employee at a newspaper can link photos and added content in minutes.

Leaders of the Jackson Rancheria funded the software’s development through a Utah firm called Strata, Mitchell said.

Readers have responded enthusiastically to the local paper’s innovation, with 10,000 views on the first morning that the augmented-reality content was published. Advertisers, including a car dealer and a real estate firm, signed up to take advantage of the new technology, Mitchell said.

Brad Barnard, the finance manager at Jeff Holman Auto Center in Jackson, said he was pleased with the paper’s innovation for two reasons. First, he said, it gets young people to pick up a newspaper.

“It’s great anytime you can get a kid to read a paper,” he said. “Once they’re told about it, they’re clicking on it right away.”

A group of teens waiting for a lube job at the used car dealer Tuesday looked at the paper with their cellphones and danced to one video, Barnard said.

“Tuesday’s edition, it had a dance (video) in it,” he said. “Everybody started dancing. It was like wildfire.”

Barnard also said he likes the ability to communicate more to readers than a print ad can hold. The dealer’s recent ad linked to a video promoting the benefits of shopping for a used car at Holman Auto. Future videos may give readers tours of cars for sale, he said.

“It’s a toy for right now as well as a tool,” he said. “This interactive advertising is really grabbing people.”

Advertisers must pay a surcharge on top of the cost of a printed ad, to take advantage of the augmented reality app, Mitchell said.

What Mitchell wants next is to get other papers to adopt his technology or develop their own versions. While most large media companies focus on investing in digital news, he sees it as a way to save print.

Mitchell is planning to give a presentation Thursday to board members of the California News Publishers Association in Sacramento during the group’s quarterly meeting.

Tom Newton, the group’s executive director, said it has been considering partnering with Mitchell to make his AR technology available at a discount to its members – including hundreds of small weekly and daily newspapers throughout the state.

“We think this idea is good enough that CNPA could use its communication efforts to make certain that all of our members are aware of this opportunity,” Newton said.

One study showed a combination of print and digital advertising to be most effective, which the app provides, Newton said.

Newton suggested Mitchell’s system could allow weeklies to publish news updates, linked to printed images, during intervals between issues. Papers covering the Southern California mudslides, for example, could have provided more frequent coverage using the interactive news app, he said.

Newton said the Ledger Dispatch’s use of augmented reality is the first he’s heard of it being adapted to the newspaper business. Mitchell said the same. A quick Google search showed the concept isn’t entirely new, however. Other publications including magazines and overseas newspapers have at least experimented with it.

As for Mitchell, he said wants to see the traditional news business thrive again. He thinks his technology provides a crucial link between the print and digital worlds that could make newspapers more essential.

“I think this is completely how to keep selling print papers,” he said.

Hudson Sangree: 916-321-1191, @hudson_sangree