‘BOCA RATON NEWS’ STRUGGLES TO MAKE MONEY

By: Lucia Moses

Publisher Hopes To Be In the Black By Next Year


Poor Boca Raton News. The Florida test market for Knight
Ridder’s famous “25-43” project to attract younger readers, it
was sold in 1997 because it wasn’t making enough money for the
parent company. Two owners later, the struggle for profitability
continues.

Current Publisher Michael Martin thinks he can get the paper in
the black by next year. But as an independent operator surrounded
by chain-owned newspapers, he’s got an upward battle.

Three years after Knight Ridder unloaded it, the Boca
News’ circulation dropped almost 14% daily to 14,030 and
27% Sunday to 14,840. Layoffs and late payments to vendors have
weakened staff morale. And to the south, the Fort Lauderdale-
based, Tribune Co.-owned South Florida Sun-Sentinel,
circulation 238,416, has been ramping up in Boca.

The paper’s precarious financial position and offers from would-
be buyers has fueled speculation that Martin is seeking a buyer.
Martin has repeatedly denied the paper is for sale, though it’s
not for a lack of offers – Martin said the latest offer came
from an eccentric developer of luxury homes named Frank McKinney.
(McKinney couldn’t be reached for comment.)

Martin, who had worked in sales and marketing management for a TV
and video production company in New York, got into newspapering
through his brother, Ralph Martin, the former CEO of Birmingham,
Ala.-based Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. Ralph hired his
brother to work at the News when he bought it for CNHI in
1997 from Knight Ridder; less than two years later, CNHI handed
off the paper to Michael Martin and a group of investors for
$10.5 million. Martin said his lack of newspaper experience
hasn’t been a minus as publisher, pointing to his 12 years in
sales and marketing. “It’s all the same business,” he insisted.

Still, by his own admission, it’s been a rough two years.
Employees left over from the Knight Ridder days had to get used
to life at an independent paper. Expenses had to be managed
tightly, and vendors were sometimes paid late. A few months after
taking over, Martin moved the paper from downtown Boca to a
corporate park in the outskirts. It took six months for the
operation to run smoothly.

Meanwhile, the Sun-Sentinel has been capitalizing on
Boca’s growth as the retirement community has drawn an influx of
younger transplants. The Sun-Sentinel now outsells the
News more than 2-to-1 in Boca; to a lesser extent, The
Palm Beach Post in West Palm Beach, owned by Cox Newspapers
Inc., also competes in Boca, selling about 5,000 copies there.

“There’s a lot of papers that do a great job of local news under
the umbrella of a big metro,” said Palm Beach Post
Publisher Tom Giuffrida. “It’s particularly difficult because the
Sun-Sentinel does a good job on local news.”

Martin said the News is on surer footing today than it was
two years ago, and he aims to get in the black by mid-2002. His
biggest problem, he said, has been high costs. To fix that, he’s
whittled the staff from about 140 to about 85 over the past two
years, saying that the paper was overstaffed compared to the
industry average as measured by the Inland Press Association. (A
1999 Inland study showed that 12 papers with circulation like the
News’ averaged 78.9 full-time employees.)

Martin’s other problem has been figuring out where the
News fits in a market surrounded by metros. Last year, he
sought a deal with The Miami Herald to combine his local
news with the Herald’s national and sports coverage. The
Herald said it decided not to go forward, and Martin, who
initially worried that going local wouldn’t be enough, decided to
bite the bullet. In his most dramatic move, he made the
broadsheet News into a tabloid, axing most of the national
and international news.

Observers of the paper nodded in tentative approval of the
change. “It’s probably the right move,” said Clement Winke Jr.,
who was the paper’s longtime publisher under Knight Ridder and
still lives in the area. “The proof will be in the product they
put out.”

Some observers and employees also privately cheered when
Michael’s brother, Ralph, who left CNHI in 1999, returned to Boca
late last year to help shape up the ad sales department. “Ralph
knows what he’s doing, but I don’t know that he has the money,”
said Steven Brown, a local businessman. “It’s just one of those
situations where nobody good has run the paper in a long time
– and as a result, the paper comes out last on the list. I
just hope whoever’s behind the paper has the wherewithal to keep
it going.”



Lucia Moses (lmoses@editorandpublisher.com) is an associate editor covering business for
E&P.



Copyright 2001, Editor & Publisher.

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