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East Valley Tribune tries new approach in changing market

The East Valley Tribune will put more focus on its online edition beginning in January.

The East Valley Tribune will put more focus on its online edition beginning in January.

PHOENIX – A daily newspaper in suburban Phoenix stakes its future on a bold experiment in hopes of surviving a declining industry: reducing the number of publication days of its print edition while posting news on its Web site daily.

The East Valley Tribune, owned by Freedom Communications Inc., is the largest newspaper in the country to take this approach as the industry struggles with competition from Internet news sources, dwindling circulation, an economic downturn and slumping revenues from advertising, particularly classifieds.

“It wouldn’t surprise me to see more of this as the tsunami that has hit the newspaper business moves on,” said John Morton, a veteran newspaper analyst based in Silver Spring, Md. “It looks like conditions are going to be negative certainly through 2009 and perhaps through 2010.”

The approach intends to reduce the high costs of producing and delivering printed newspapers while retaining readers and advertisers as the industry moves deeper into online and niche publishing.

Two smaller newspapers in Wisconsin — The Capital Times in Madison and The Superior Telegram — have already made similar changes. Earlier this year, both papers went from six to two days a week with print editions and focused their daily news online.

The Capital Times, a paid paper that was converted to a free publication during the change, is delivered with a morning newspaper that has wider distribution. The Superior Telegram, which remained a paid newspaper, mails its print editions.

But the East Valley Tribune, with a combined paid and free circulation in excess of 100,000, will be the largest daily to take the leap when the changes go into effect in January. The Christian Science Monitor, with a circulation of about 50,000, next year will become the first national newspaper to drop its daily print edition and focus on publishing online.

The Trib, as locals call it, had a high water mark paid circulation of 94,500 in 1997. It competes in the Phoenix metro market with nearly 40 weeklies and the Freedom-owned Daily News-Sun in Sun City, but the longtime battle has been with The Arizona Republic, the nation’s 10th-largest newspaper and Gannett Corp.’s biggest daily besides USA Today.

N. Christian Anderson, an Arizona State University journalism professor and a former Freedom Communications editor and executive who had oversight over the Arizona newspaper, said a combination of factors prompted the changes at the Tribune.

The newspaper was suffering from the economic downturn and faced stiff competition for classified ads from Web sites. It also was considered a secondary advertising outlet, behind The Republic, that could be dropped by big retailers once things got tight economically. “It’s not a story that’s unique to the East Valley,” Anderson said.

Tribune Publisher Julie Moreno announced in October that the paper would cut 142 jobs, or 40 percent of its staff, by January. The paper will no longer be distributed in the affluent suburb of Scottsdale or Tempe, home to Arizona State University, or charge subscribers. Papers will be tossed onto driveways and stacked into free racks in four targeted, growing communities, Mesa, Chandler, Gilbert and Queen Creek.

“You give something up on the fringes to get more on the core,” said Jonathan Segal, president of Freedom Communications, which also owns the Orange County (Calif.) Register and 31 other dailies and 77 weeklies.

Freedom, based in Irvine, Calif., is a privately held company partly owned by two of the world’s largest investment groups, Blackstone and Providence Equity Partners.

Segal said Freedom may make similar changes at its other newspapers, but specifics would be dictated by the unique factors of each market.

Clayton Frink, publisher of The Capital Times in Madison, Wis., said changes at his paper in May weren’t intended to cut costs, but to raise the Times’ Internet presence and expand its circulation.

The Times had suffered falling circulation for at least five years, losing 500 to 1,000 readers each year before dropping to 16,500, when the paper decided to focus its reporting online and use the Web to promote its print editions.

Circulation has risen to about 85,000, now that it’s delivered by The Wisconsin Journal, the dominant daily newspaper. The Journal shares an advertising operation and splits revenues with The Capital Times under unique operating rules that are similar to — and yet still distinctly apart from — a joint operating agreement.

If the Times were a single-market paper without such an agreement, the online focus wouldn’t have made sense, since online ad sales, while growing, come nowhere near matching the proceeds from print ads, Frink said.

Three hundred miles away, in a northern Wisconsin town near the Minnesota border, The Superior Telegram began October offering more online content and reducing publication of its paid print edition from six to two days because of falling advertising revenue.

“It’s what the market can support,” said Ken Browall, the general manager of a newspaper group that includes the Superior Telegram.

Jobs were cut. Carrier delivery was eliminated. The paper is now mailed to readers.

The Telegram also considered eliminating the print edition altogether and becoming an all-Web operation, but kept the print edition because it’s still a large piece of its franchise, its older readership is fond of the print edition and some parts of its market are in rural areas with slow dial-up Internet connections.

Dumping the print edition is appealing because it would eliminate a large chunk of a paper’s expense base — newsprint, printing, and paying press operators and drivers, said Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst with the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla.

But papers aren’t doing it because online advertising is a small piece of newspaper revenue, and it’s risky to remove the traditional link to readers, Edmonds said.

Edmonds believes the printed newspaper will eventually fade, but it will endure another 10 to 20 years to offer more analytical and investigative content.

Dick White, an East Valley Tribune subscriber and president of a group of religious leaders who lobby the Legislature on immigration, health care and education policies, said the newspaper has a strong record of digging deep into stories that matter to readers and that he is concerned the changes will lead to less scrutiny of government.

White said readers will suffer because the paper will report on fewer communities and journalists who seek deeper explanations and have developed expertise are being laid off. “This is a serious blow to the community’s ability to receive that kind of analysis,” White said.

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On the Net:

East Valley Tribune: http://www.eastvalleytribune.com/

The Capital Times: http://www.madison.com/tct/

The Superior Telegram : www.superiortelegram.com/

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