Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Reborn Florida daily to go entirely free

For years the Boca Raton (Fla.) News had been sputtering as it was handed off from one owner to the next. It has had five owners in 10 years and lost money most of that time.

But now the Boca News is profitable after it improved the quality of its Sunday paper and began delivering for free to homes selected by advertisers. The paper currently costs 25 cents in racks on weekdays and 75 cents on Sundays, but owner Craig Swill says he expects to go entirely free at some point this year. It is already free at most retail locations, he says. The News also has about 10,000 online subscribers who get PDFs of the paper daily.

The improved Sunday edition averages 80 broadsheet pages and is loaded with local news. It also has society pages, a healthy real estate section and around 15 inserts from regional and national advertisers.

"I am pleased to report that the Boca Raton News has made a tremendous turnaround and is profitable and is growing with this part paid and part free model," Swill tells

Today the Boca Raton News has a circulation of nearly 25,000 on Sundays, which is about the same as when it was owned by the now defunct Knight Ridder chain a decade ago. Weekdays, the circulation is about 10,000, roughly half of when it was part of KR.

The backstory

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, KR invested $3 million in an ambitious project at the Boca News paper called "25/43," which was designed to lure readers in that age group.

The paper was redesigned to appeal to people too busy to read a newspaper. Shorter stories. More color. No jumps. More maps and graphs. Editorial judgments shaped by focus group research. In other words, it was Knight Ridder's response to Gannett's USA Today.

Here's a link to a 1998 American Journalism Review story on the 25/43 project and another story from the New York Times printed in 1991.

The experiment didn't increase revenue or circulation. In fact the Boca News lost ground to the Tribune Company's Sun-Sentinel to the south and Cox Newspapers' Palm Beach Post to the north. KR sold the paper to Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. in 1997. CNHI then sold it to a local businessman who sold it to another local. Finally, Swill acquired it 2-1/2 years ago.

Swill already had free weeklies in Coral Springs and Parkland, Fla., and was adding products such as coupon books, when the opportunity to buy the Boca News came along.

He sold the Boca News's presses and outsourced the printing to two companies. He moved the paper from its 30,000-square-foot space to a 6,000-square-foot location. He also pulled the plug on AP, the TV listings, pre-printed comics and most syndicated content.

And while a handful of newspapers have converted from broadsheet to tabloid, the Boca News has gone the opposite direction.

"We switched from tabloid to broadsheet as our focus groups kept on stating the same thing, 'I remember the old Boca News when it was a real newspaper, big and with many sections.' So, we took all of our special sections and put them into Sunday's paper, made it broadsheet and switched to a top tier commercial printer," Swill tells

The News began publishing only local, community news. And now it is making money.