Tuesday, March 04, 2008

A vote of confidence for free dailies


Put yourself in the position of Freedom Newspapers' chief executive Scott Flanders and his fellow board members six months ago. They decide to convert a 102,000-circulation suburban Phoenix paid daily into a free daily. For them it's an experiment. Will people still read it? Will the advertisers renew their contracts? Does it have a future?

They're brave. They're going where companies like Gannett, The New York Times and McClatchy have not gone before.

Then things get ugly. The subprime mortgage crisis spooks the real estate industry. Real estate ads disappear from newspapers. The slowing economy makes it harder for corporations to borrow money.

Despite these ominous signs, the East Valley Tribune succeeds. It has got to be succeeding based on this February 25 press release from Tensor Group, which makes single-width web presses that are used by small- and mid-sized newspapers. The release says Freedom has bought a press for the Tribune capable of printing 48 tabloid pages in one run (32 of them in color).

Look, if you're doing well you're not going to announce it to the world. Yet this announcement by a third-party suggests that the conversion of a paid daily to free is working out. Well enough that its corporate parent wants to sink $4 million or $5 million (my guess) into a new press.

One other piece of information. Terry Horne, the new publisher of Freedom's Orange County Register, came from the Arizona Republic, which obviously kept a close eye on its suburban competitors. In fact, he oversaw the Republic's attempts to expand into the suburbs of Phoenix. If Horne thought the East Valley Tribune free daily was a bad idea, wouldn't he have told his bosses?

We suspect the East Valley Tribune will become a giant among free dailies. Buying this press is a vote of confidence for the future of free daily newspapers. Cheers!