Wednesday, April 05, 2006

What do new free dailes mean for paid papers?

The Wall Street Journal did a story today (April 5) questioning whether free newspapers will replace paid papers. Unfortunately for the free newspaper industry, the example the WSJ uses is Phil Anschutz's Baltimore Examiner. The problem is that the Examiner chain has never made money. Anschutz has been running the San Francisco Examiner for two years now and it has had no impact on the Bay Area. The number of ads is roughly the same as it was two years ago (minus the adult ads he removed presumably because of his Christian beliefs). And while he was puffing up the page count a year ago, now the San Francisco Examiner has settled down to between 40 and 52 pages a day. If the Wall Street Journal wanted an example of a successful free daily, perhaps it should have used the Vail (Colo.) Daily, Aspen (Colo.) Times or the Palo Alto (Calif.) Daily News -- all profitable for several years and each an institution in its own community.

One significant error in this story by the WSJ's Joseph T. Hallinan is "The Examiner is the brainchild of billionaire Philip Anschutz ..." Our recollection is different. On Feb. 24, 2003, the Examiner switched from a paid broadsheet to a free daily under the ownership of Ted Fang, who openly admitted he was copying the format of the Palo Alto Daily News. Initially, the front page even had four stories (two wire, two local) and a strip of ads at the bottom -- just like the Palo Alto paper. A year later, on Feb. 19, 2004, Anschutz bought the Examiner from the Fang family for a reported $20 million. Since then, he's done two re-designs of the paper, but stuck with the free tabloid format. The only thing it appears Anschutz really added to the mix was a right-wing editorial page, probably not the smartest move in San Francisco.