Monday, April 14, 2008

BostonNOW closes, Baltimore "b" opens

A big day for free daily newspapers. BostonNOW abruptly closed after a year in business while the Tribune Co. launched a youth-oriented free daily in Baltimore modeled after its successful RedEye in Chicago.

BostonNOW posted a story on its Web site this morning that said today’s edition would be its last because of tough economic conditions its investors face in Iceland. The following is from that story:
    “The death of any newspaper is a sad thing,” stated CEO Russel Pergament, “but the death of a vibrant, flourishing newspaper because of economic turmoil thousands of miles away is beyond sad and is something we never anticipated and for which we were totally unprepared.”

    “Our overseas investors are honorable people who have endeavored to fulfill all obligations to this newspaper,” he continued, “but the tumult in foreign credit markets has forced a change in our original understanding and their focus now appears to be primarily upon their core retail holdings. North American media is not even a distant second.”

    “This newspaper, not even a year old, is right on track for profits in Year Three, just as the business plan called for,” says Publisher Mike Schroeder, “so this decision by our overseas investors, while perhaps understandable, is deeply troubling.”

    BostonNOW’s editorial content, especially its strong local reporting, has been picked up dozens of times by Boston’s paid dailies and TV outlets. The Economist magazine lauded BostonNOW in January as one of the finest free dailies in the United States.
Today's final edition carries a full page house ad bragging about how it scooped the Boston Globe on a story. Yet Monday's edition didn't mention BostonNOW's closure. The Globe will likely carry that story tomorrow.

BostonNOW had 52 full-time and 100 part-time staffers, who will all be losing their jobs. The closure is also a setback for Pergament, who started a group of successful weekly papers in the Boston area and later launched Boston Metro. He was seen as the face of BostonNOW.

Boston Metro remains but in a weakened state. In the past few months, it lost both its editor and publisher. And Metro International put it up for sale in January, but there has been little or no interest on the part of would-be buyers.

The news is better in Baltimore where a new free daily with a one-letter title — "b" — hit the streets today.

Launched by Tribune Company's Baltimore Sun, the "b" will be aiming for the 18-to-34 age group. It is modeled after Tribune's successful RedEye in Chicago, which emphasizes quick-read news items, sports and a lot of entertainment.

The first edition had 40 pages and the initial distribution was 50,000. The paper hopes to have a circulation of 100,000 by year's end. The cover story showcased photos of Baltimore's neighborhoods.

Baltimore already has a free daily, billionaire Phil Anschutz's Examiner. But the two papers will be different in terms of news coverage and distribution. The Examiner reads like a traditional daily but has a conservative slant on national news. The "b," if it is anything like RedEye, will focus more on the nightclub scene than the country club scene.

The b's choice in distribution methods could give it an advantage over the Examiner when it comes to advertisers. The Examiner is has been widely criticized for throwing papers on driveways. In the eyes of advertisers, this kind of controversy shows the Examiner isn't reaching its intended audience. On the other hand, the "b" will be able to say that its audience is self-selected because its readers are choosing to pick up the paper each day from a rack or a stack at a store, coffee shop, bar, gym, etc. That will make a "b" reader more desirable to an advertiser than an angry homeowner who gets an unwanted Examiner.

If the "b" succeeds like RedEye has, don't be surprised if Tribune opens similar papers across the country. While Tribune faces troubles on many fronts, its free dailies are definitely a bright spot -- and perhaps the company's future.