Free dailies flout conventional wisdom


Conventional wisdom has long said that you might as well toss your money out a window as start a daily paper. Readership and advertising are in decline, as traditional papers face a variety of competitors. One aspect of this struggle is playing out in Laconia, the only city in New England other than Boston with multiple daily newspapers. Laconia’s two dailies are the 82-year-old Citizen and the Daily Sun, which is all of six years old. The Daily Sun is an example of a new type of paper: tabloid format, low budget, small staff, strongly focused on local news, and free. Yes, free: the Sun is available six days a week at newsstands and retailers. No Sundays, no home delivery. The Sun is a sister paper to the Conway and Berlin Daily Suns. They have overlapping ownership, and share a printing plant in Ossipee. The Conway and Berlin Suns are owned by Mark Guerringue, Adam Hirshan and David Danforth; the Laconia Sun is owned by Guerringue, Hirshan and editor/publisher Ed Engler. Engler calls Danforth “the George Washington of the free daily.” In 1978, Danforth came up with what Engler calls the “Danforth model” when he founded the Aspen Daily News in Aspen, Colo. The “Danforth model” operates a free daily newspaper in a resort community. Today there are Danforth-style papers in several Western resort towns. Danforth has since pursued a variation on the theme: He founded free dailies in Palo Alto and Santa Monica, Calif., two “abandoned” markets no longer served by traditional local papers. Berlin native Mark Guerringue was an editor in Washington, D.C., when he heard about the Danforth model. He thought it would be a perfect fit in the Mount Washington Valley. He and Hirshan founded the Conway Daily Sun in 1989, and added the Berlin edition in 1994. They joined with Engler to launch the Laconia paper in 2000, directly competing with an established daily for the first time. They chose Laconia because they could use the Ossipee plant, and because they would have the mornings to themselves; the Citizen comes out in the afternoon. Cost-cutters As opposed to traditional daily newspapers, this is a boom time for free dailies. There are the commuter-friendly Metro papers in several large cities, including Boston. There are ventures like Bluffton Today in Bluffton, S.C., which combines a lively Web site with a free daily print edition. But the biggest force in the field is billionaire financier Philip Anschutz. Two years ago, he bought the troubled San Francisco Examiner; last year, he launched a free daily Examiner in Washington, D.C., with a Baltimore Examiner to follow this spring. He has trademarked the Examiner name in more than 60 major cities, with the apparent aim of establishing a chain of free dailies — competing directly with the nation’s largest newspapers. Major cities are one thing, but Conway? A market like Conway is considered too small for a daily paper. And fighting an established paper, as all three free New Hampshire dailies are doing, is a loser’s bet: How can you attract enough readers to sell enough advertising to keep the presses rolling before you burn through your capital? And if that’s not bad enough, how can you do it while giving away your product? Well, for one, it’s a lot easier to get readers to pick up a free paper. Besides, circulation revenue doesn’t come close to the publisher’s cost. “The lay public thinks you make money by selling papers,” says Engler, “but very little comes from that. Mostly it’s advertising.” It also helps to cut costs to the bone. The Laconia Citizen has about 50 employees; Engler’s Daily Sun has a full-time staff of eight. How do you produce a paper with so few people? Focus, says Engler: “The front page is totally local.” National and world news is covered in brief digest form, if at all. And Engler admits, “We pick our spots to some extent. Sometimes we have to say no to possible stories.” That’s a crucial difference, according to John Howe, the Citizen’s general manager and executive editor. “Our mission is to cover the area completely. We follow stories from beginning to end. We try to help people understand their community better.” Mark Guerringue admits there is less depth and breadth in a free daily. “We’re like a discount airline,” he says. “Southwest or Jet Blue get people from point A to point B, at lower cost. We deliver less news, but how much are readers willing to pay for the extra content in a traditional paper?” In terms of appeal to advertisers, each side stakes a claim. Guerringue says traditional papers with local monopolies charge high rates, and his papers offer a bargain. But John Howe maintains that the Citizen is a better value: “Our circulation is paid for, and audited.” That means advertisers have some assurance of what they are getting. He also claims the Citizen reaches more people, because people get it at home instead of casually picking it up. Still, quite a few advertisers are opting for both papers. “As a reader and an advertiser, I think we’re very lucky to have both,” says David McGreevey of McGreevey Buick/Pontiac/GMC/Mazda. “The Daily Sun has almost become the USA Today of our town. There aren’t any long stories, but you get a good sense of the local news.” To some extent, McGreevey tailors his messages accordingly. “We might put more copy into a Citizen ad, because people are more likely to spend more time with it.” Pete Irwin of Irwin Ford/Lincoln-Mercury/Toyota/Scion also likes having both papers too, although he professes to be unclear on the results. “There’s an old expression in advertising: 50 percent of your ad dollars are wasted — you just don’t know which 50 percent. It’s not a precise science.” Newspaper ‘crisis’ Guerringue will never be mistaken for Philip Anschutz, but he does have plans, and they include starting a free daily in “a bigger city in New Hampshire,” although he won’t name names. Guerringue may be helping to usher in the discount airline era of newspapers, but as a lifelong journalist and newspaper reader, he is concerned about the future of his medium. “If the big papers lose critical mass, there will be fewer journalists in the world,” he says. “The Washington Post has about 500 reporters; that’s about the same as the three TV networks combined.” But he believes the industry faces bigger issues than free competition — the Internet being No. 1 one on the list. He wonders if there will be any newspapers at all — free or not — 20 years from now. “The writing is on the wall,” said Guerringue. “The industry is facing a crisis. Free papers will provide some news; they are one possible avenue to ‘save’ newspapers.”
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