Thursday, January 29, 2009

Anschutz to close Baltimore Examiner

Conservative billionaire Phil Anschutz (at left) has decided to close his Baltimore Examiner but keep open his other free dailies in San Francisco and Washington. All three are said to be losing money, but Baltimore was losing the most. About 90 people will be fired. The paper's final edition will come out Sunday, February 15.

When he opened the Baltimore Examiner in 2006, Anschutz's managers were convinced that they could build some synergy between it and the company's Washington newspaper. While 50 miles apart, they said the two could share the same printing plant while major advertisers could be convinced to spend money in both papers.

What they didn't understand is that Baltimore and Washington are culturally two very different cities. Washington, dominated by white-collar government workers and defense-industry types, has little in common with blue-collar Baltimore.

Moreover, it is widely assumed that Anschutz, who is active in Republican politics and fundamentalist Christian causes, sees his Washington Examiner as a way to influence policy in the nation's capital. On the other hand, Baltimore was expendable.

The closure of the Baltimore Examiner also shows Anschutz's pockets are not as deep as many had assumed due to his No. 36 ranking on Forbes' list of richest Americans. While 2008 was a bad year for most investors, things were far worse for Anschutz. For instance, he's a major shareholder in the Union Pacific Railroad, which lost 62% of its stock value in 2008 — about twice the percentage the Dow Jones Industrial Average lost during the same period. His stock in Regal Entertainment Group didn't do much better, dropping 43% of its value.

His attempt to establish presence in Hollywood also collapsed last year. The Los Angeles Times reported that Disney bailed out on the "Chronicles of Narnia" franchise that the studio had co-financed and co-produced with Anschutz's Walden Media because Anschutz got too greedy after the astounding success of the first Narnia film, "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe."

As Anschutz's problems in Hollywood and Wall Street were escalating, he quietly put the Baltimore Examiner up for sale.

"Initially, we were optimistic that a qualified buyer could be found because of the strong assets of the newspaper, ranging from a hard working and professional group of employees to a local-centric focus that readers appreciated," Ryan McKibben, CEO of Anschutz's newspaper company Clarity Media, said in a letter to employees obtained by the Baltimore Sun. "We also felt that a buyer would be attracted to the market because the Baltimore Sun faced significant financial challenges. Over the course of three months, we worked with several potential local and national groups in the hopes of effecting a sale. But in the end, the economic dynamics that have ravaged the print media industry also prevented a sale of the Baltimore Examiner."

McKibben, in a different letter sent today to Examiner employees in Washington and San Francisco, said the company planned to keep those papers open and intends to invest in their websites.

"Specifically, we’ve invested in the future of the San Francisco Examiner by making substantial upgrades to your website — including a new design and vastly improved functionality that will be launched at the end of March 2009," McKibben wrote in a letter obtained by the San Francisco Press Club.

The web may be the Examiner's future. It has established a group of unpaid correspondents called "examiners" who are posting stories and columns on Examiner sites set up for every major city in the U.S. McKibben's statement suggests the company's focus going forward is on the Internet.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Free daily planned for Portland, Maine

Portland, Maine will soon be getting a free daily newspaper.

Mark Guerringue, publisher of the free Conway (N.H.) Daily Sun, said the Portland Daily Sun could start circulating late this month or next, according to a report in the Portland Press Herald.

The Sun's editor will be Curtis Robinson, a veteran of free daily newspapers in Vail and Aspen, Colorado. More recently Robinson was a public affairs professional in Washington, D.C.

In addition to Robinson, the paper will have two reporters. It will publish five days a week. The printing will take place in Conway, which is about 50 miles from Portland as the crow flies.

The Portland Daily Sun will join a growing network of free dailies that began in 1989 with the founding of the Conway Daily Sun. The other papers are the Berlin Daily Sun and Laconia Daily Sun.

In Portland, the Daily Sun will go up against the 147-year-old Press Herald and its Maine Sunday Telegram. They're owned by the Blethen family, better known as the majority owners of the Seattle Times. But the Blethens are negotiating to sell the Portland papers to an investor group that includes former defense secretary and Maine senator William Cohen.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Aspen newspaper eliminates Sunday edition

With all of the cities struggling to hold on to just one daily newspaper, Aspen, Colorado is unique — this silver mining town cum star-studded ski resort of 5,804 residents supports two separately owned daily newspapers.

The Aspen Times and the Aspen Daily News, both free dailies, have been battling each other for 20 years in the playground that Robert De Niro, Kevin Costner, Jack Nicholson, Antonio Banderas and Kate Hudson call home.

The competition keeps ad rates low and keeps reporters on their toes, worrying that they might be scooped by the other paper. And, after 20 years, one would assume the papers have been profitable, or why would their owners continue to fight for so long?

On December 31, the Times announced that it was eliminating its Sunday edition but would continue to publish the other six days of the week. Publisher Jenna Weatherred, in a note to readers, said Sunday was the paper's "least profitable edition" of the week.

Not un-profitable, but "least profitable."

At the same time, the chain that owns the Times, Swift Newspapers, pulled the plug on weekly newspapers in two other communities as well as a regional Spanish-language paper. And the Times publisher said she has reduced the staff of her paper by 20 percent, though exact numbers weren't given.

"My hope is that, once this recession turns around and things feel more secure in the valley, we will be able to bring back the Sunday daily and our small community weekly papers," Weatherred said.

Each of the papers are tabloid-sized yet have a strikingly grey layout with small headlines and lots of copy. On many inside pages, copy will run for 14 inches without so much as a subhead or pull-quote interrupting the column of grey. The Times appears to have a few more photos sprinkled among its columns.

The staff boxes of the papers show that each has a newsroom of 12 to 15 people. And though Aspen might seem like a small town, they have plenty of news to cover. Last week, for instance, a 71-year-old former miner killed himself after he forced the evacuation of Aspen's downtown when he planted bombs at four banks and a drinking hole in an extortion plot. The incident forced the town to postpone its New Year's Eve fireworks display, a favorite of tourists.

The would-be bomber, as he was preparing his explosives, left a hand-written letter-to-the-editor at the Times reminiscent of another Aspen resident, the late "gonzo" journalist Hunter S. Thompson. Given the frequent controversies and celebrity sightings in Aspen, the attempted bombing probably was just another day at the office for the journalists at the Daily News and Times.

Aspen, a town with a lot of news, is fortunate to have two newspapers to cover it.