Saturday, March 22, 2008

Fines for unwanted papers proposed again

The Examiner is in trouble again for dumping newspapers on doorsteps and driveways against the wishes of property owners. Days after the chain reached an agreement to stop a Maryland legislator's plan to fine publishers for unwanted papers, a San Francisco official is proposing similar legislation there. San Francisco Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi told the San Francisco Chronicle that half the complaints he receives about litter are about newspapers. And, as this picture from the San Francisco blog shows, the culprit is the Examiner. None of the other major papers in the city deliver to homes except the Chronicle, which only goes to subscribers.

Mirkarimi, who is one of 11 elected members of San Francisco's legislative branch, has drafted a law that reads like Maryland legislator Tanya Shewell's bill to stop unwanted Examiner deliveries in suburban Baltimore. Mirkarimi would require publishers of home-delivered free papers to include a phone number or e-mail address that homeowners could use to put their address on a do-not-deliver list. If the papers keep coming, the newspaper would face a $100 fine for the first violation, $200 for the second and $500 thereafter.

Examiner Publisher John Wilcox told the Chronicle that his paper already has a number residents can call to stop delivery and that the number is printed on the plastic bags it uses. He said that the first time 25,000 such bags went out, fewer than 200 people called.

Wilcox said the Examiner will obey the new law, "but it has got to be something of course that is doable and reasonable."

The Examiner has other options. It can pay the fines and keep delivering unwanted papers -- owner Phil Anschutz, with a net worth of $7.9 billion (according to Forbes), has lost tens of millions of dollars on the Examiner chain since he went into the newspaper business four years ago. Apparently cost is no object to him.

It could also sue the city of San Francisco over the law. The risk, however, is that if Anschutz loses, the precedent will possibly create difficulties for more careful distributors who have been delivering free newspapers for years without complaints.

In Maryland, the Examiner and other free papers convinced the legislator who was proposing a similar law to shelve the legislation so that they could have another chance at solving the problem themselves. The Examiner's delivery technique is also drawing fire in Washington, D.C., where it was the subject of a scathing TV report (see item below).

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!

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Examiner slammed in TV report

The Examiner and other papers have convinced a Maryland legislator to drop her plans for a "Do Not Deliver" law to fine newspapers that continue to deliver to residents who don't want them, the Associated Press reports. But a day before the compromise was reached, the Examiner's delivery problem was the focus of a highly critical piece on Washington's ABC affiliate, WJLA. (Click here to read the script of the report and see the video.)

Residents who were unsuccessful in getting the Examiner to stop delivering called WJLA's "Seven On Your Side." Reporter Ross McLaughlin illustrated the problem at the beginning of his report by dumping a pile of unwanted examiners on his desk.

"Look at this," he says, with a graphic behind him saying "Make it Stop" above the Examiner's logo. "Examiners piling up in people's neighborhoods. Residents say they are a nuisance. Some soggy, soaking wet. Also a security risk because it says 'Hey, I'm not home!'"

McLaughlin talked to residents who have been repeatedly calling the Examiner to stop the paper, and one even had a list of the times he had called. The story noted that a system designed to stop the papers from being delivered — putting a red dot on a mailbox — didn't work.

Examiner executive Michael Phelps gave the TV station an interview and promised to correct the problem. The story didn't say how he would solve the problem which has persisted since the Examiner began delivering to homes in Washington and Baltimore.

Meanwhile in Maryland, state legislator Tanya Shewell (right) told the AP that she will pull her bill to fine newspapers that repeatedly deliver unrequested newspapers after four publications, including the Examiner, promised to change their ways.

The papers would put their phone numbers in 12 point bold font on the second page of their publication and increase their supervision of carriers.

“We’re certainly not out to hurt businesses, but we do need to answer constituents’ concerns,” said Shewell.

New Hampshire daily switches to weekly

After two years in business, the Manchester (N.H.) Daily Express has become a weekly. "The paper's owners found the community embraced the local news, but advertising levels could not support the cost of publishing the paper five days a week," the Express said in a front-page story Wednesday. The paper's owners have an alt-weekly and a motorcycle monthly in Manchester. Two newsroom staffers lost their jobs in the change while other employees will be reassigned. At right is a full-page house ad the Express ran announcing the switch.