Friday, October 10, 2008

An overlooked baron of free dailies

Reports about the free daily newspaper industry usually overlook one of its most successful publishers, David Black of Victoria, British Columbia (not related to Canadian-born British former media mogul Conrad Black).

One reason is geography — the financial media and those who cover newspapers are on the East Coast while Black's empire is in western Canada. Another reason is that his company, Black Press, is privately held, so it doesn't furnish quarterly earnings reports, which would put the company on the radar screen of those who cover the newspaper industry.

But do some digging and you'll find Black Press owns 170 newspapers in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Washington, Oregon, Hawaii and Ohio. They include the Akron Beacon Journal and Honolulu Star-Bulletin. But the majority of his publications are small, profitable community newspapers.

Black's newspapers have state-of-the-art websites, but he's making money with print.

"I'm bullish on newspapers, especially community newspapers,'' Black told Bloomberg News. "I think they are a really solid business.''

Most of Black's community papers are weeklies, but he has two interesting free daily operations:
    • the 10,600-circulation Kitsap Free Daily serving Kitsap County on Puget Sound, west of Seattle. Black owns six weeklies in the same area, and their sales reps are able to cross sell between the daily and weekly publications. The group shares the same printing press, back office operations, news reporters, etc., making the arrangement cost effective.

    • and a 81,900-circulation group of 17 free dailies in British Columbia. The average circulation is 4,818 with the largest being the Victoria and Nanaimo editions at 10,000 each. Black has stayed out of Vancouver, where two free dailies (Metro and 24 hours) operate, and instead has concentrated on the suburbs and small towns. It's a far flung group, too, with 200 miles between the westernmost paper, in Comox, and the easternmost, in Kelowna.
Most of the stories in the 17 papers are the same except for a few local reports. However, the zoning allows each community to have its own nameplate and gives local advertisers the ability to just advertise in one edition if they choose (see rate card). Similar to the situation in Kitsap, Black owns weeklies in the towns where he has free dailies, so advertisers in the weeklies are often upsold into the free daily. Because of this arrangement, Black was able to say that the papers were immediately profitable soon after he started them in 2005.

Black told the Globe & Mail newspaper in 2005 that the key to making these newspapers succeed is keeping costs low and distributing them efficiently, where people gather. His free dailies also challenge the notion that free dailies can only survive in large cities with mass transit systems.

To read more about David Black, see this profile by the Seattle Weekly in July. The photo of Black is from the Seattle Times.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Paper's redesign copies competitor

A curious thing has happened in San Francisco. One free daily appears to have redesigned its front page nameplate to look a lot like its competitor.

Above is The City Star, a free daily the Examiner started two years ago in an attempt to kill off an independent free daily, the Daily Post. Apparently the Examiner, owned by billionaire oilman Phil Anschutz, didn't want another free daily in town. Recently the City Star has changed its front page design. See below.

The nameplate is now four-inches wide, just like the Daily Post. The Star now has teases to the left of its nameplate and an ad on the right, just like the Daily Post. And, the Star has a column of national news briefs, just like the Daily Post.

But in the two years since the Star and Post have been going head to head, the Star still hasn't picked up much advertising. It's typical issue is 16 pages, while the Post is running between 24 and 44 pages a day.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Canada's '24 hours' puts copy on the cover

Since the beginning of tabloid-sized newspapers, editors have debated whether to put news copy on the cover or put large headlines and photographs.

New York's Post and Daily News are famous for screaming headlines and bold photos that attempt to sell the reader on a major story that starts inside. Today's most successful urban free dailies, amNewYork and Chicago's RedEye, have magazine-like covers, emphasizing one story with a single photo, with a couple of teases.

But community free dailies have taken a different approach, putting as many as four stories on the front with text, like a smaller-sized traditional broadsheet. Examples include the Conway (N.H.) Daily Sun, Denver Daily News, Aspen (Colo.) Times, Aspen Daily News, Palo Alto (Calif.) Daily News and Santa Monica (Calif.) Daily Press.

After considerable research, the Canada's chain of "24 hours" free dailies has switched from the magazine-cover format to one with two stories that have text. It's really a hybrid of the two styles since there still is a large photo that promotes a story inside along with teases along the top.

24 hours -- with editions in Toronto, Ottawa, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver -- calls the format "hi-speed news."

"Insights from our readers, prospective readers, advertisers and ad agencies set the course for the redesign," said Chris Brockbank, vice president of marketing at 24 hours parent Sun Media. "Essentially they want sharp and fast headline news and a consistent, quick navigation system to get to content they want.

"We've put the emphasis squarely on those characteristics in this first step of our program to introduce improvements driven by research," Brockbank said.

Arizona free daily cuts back to 4 days a week

In suburban Phoenix, the 102,000-circulation East Valley Tribune is switching to a 4-day-a-week publication schedule, eliminating 142 jobs including that of its executive editor Jim Ripley, and ending distribution and coverage in two cities, Scottsdale and Tempe.

The changes are dramatic for the paper that switched from paid to free distribution (with paid subscriptions) last year. Management is blaming the downturn in advertising but also said its parent company, Irvine, Calif.-based Freedom Communications, has not been able to trim costs fast enough to offset that drop despite three rounds of layoffs.

The changes will take place in early January, and those losing their jobs are getting three months notice.

"The new print edition will have two sections — one for local news and a second for sports, entertainment and late-breaking news. Both sections will be tabloid-sized, and the front page of the newspaper will look similar to its current layout. Zoned editions are planned for each of the four communities," said an announcement posted Monday night on the paper's website.