By: George Garneau
THE BATTLE FOR Central New Jersey between two larger regional papers to the north and south has been won by the Asbury Park Press.
The Press, based in Neptune, has agreed to buy the 54,000-circulation Woodbridge News Tribune and to merge it with the nearby Home News, acquired by the Press two years ago.
The sale by the Record, based in Hackensack to the north, is expected to close by the end of the year. Terms were not disclosed. Both parties are privately owned.
The joint announcement July 12 left the jobs of 130 full- and 95 part-time News Tribune employees, including 60 journalists, up in the air. Neither the buyer, Record parent Macromedia Inc., nor seller, Press parent New Jersey Press Inc., was promising any of them jobs, but both were offering consideration at their various media holdings.
The Record did not disclose what severance it would offer.
The sale deals a major blow to Malcolm Borg, the Record chairman, who spent a reported $25 million for News Tribune in the expansionist days of 1985 in an effort to establish a presence in Central Jersey. Borg ? like the Lass and Plangere families who own the Press ? has long coveted the growing market, where three dailies scratched out a living in Middlesex and eastern Somerset counties.
Largely because of debts and a down economy, Borg failed to add on the Home News, which eventually went to the Press in 1993.
Borg said News Tribune’s losses were draining corporate resources. He blamed weak advertising prospects and newsprint prices, up over over 100% in 21 months.
“We’re trying to do other things, like get into electronic publishing and our commercial printing ventures,” Borg told a Record reporter. “So, rather than continue to throw three to four million of profits being earned by our television stations at the News Tribune, why not sell what we can out of the paper, cut our losses and try to grow other aspects of the business?”
Borg’s Macromedia also owns four TV stations.
The two papers had traditionally split Middlesex County in two, the News Tribune in the east and the Home News in the west and in eastern Somerset County, where it confronted Gannett Co.’s Courier-News of Bridgewater.
Press president Don Lass said the status quo of two papers sharing Middlesex County “is no longer economically viable.” He said the combined paper would provide better coverage for readers and advertisers.
While not a surprise to anybody aware of the prolonged and often public wrangling over the newspapers, the news was still a blow to News Tribune employees.
“It had been rumored for a while, so it was a shock, but it wasn’t a surprise,” Charles Paolino, the senior editor who spent 30 years at News Tribune, said.
“Nobody likes to see a newspaper disappear . . . but you can’t deny the economic realities. It’s been evident for a long time that . . . these two papers can’t operate at a profit.”
While circulation remained steady, News Tribune publisher Jonathan Theophilakos said, “I think the straw that broke the camel’s back was newsprint prices.”
The paper was also too small, he added, explaining, “When the economy slows down and advertisers have to cut, papers our size are the first to be cut.”
While Borg invested in renovations, computer systems and personnel, and moved printing operations to the Record, News Tribune never turned a profit, spokeswoman Linda Iceland said.
News Tribune is currently printed at the Record’s Rockaway production plant. Another vestige of the optimistic late 1980s, the plant was built to accommodate growing advertising and circulation ? but they never materialized.
So, the Record has used the over-capacity to go full-scale into commercial printing. It expects $14 million in revenue this year, $20 million in 1996, from such clients as USA Today and Investors Business Daily, and profits have exceeded expectations.
The sale includes News Tribune’s name and lists of subscribers and advertisers, but not its building.
The merged paper, yet to be named, will be headquartered where the Home News currently leases offices in East Brunswick. It will be printed at the plant the Press built in Freehold Township for the Home News. The plant is currently undergoing an expansion ? additional presses and inserting equipment ? unconnected to the acquisition. The merged paper will maintain some kind of presence in eastern Middlesex, Press spokesmen Tim Zeiss said.