Competitor Cries Foul in Columbia

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By: Jennifer Saba

Not all the juicy action in newspaperdom is happening at the large metros. Look no further than Columbia, Mo., perhaps the smallest town with two dailies, for some good old-fashioned jousting that does not involve ornery shareholders.

For nearly a century, the Columbia Daily Tribune, owned by the Waters family, has been a crosstown rival of the Columbia Missourian, a not-for-profit daily that serves as a training and research laboratory for the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism. Their relationship has grown increasingly acrimonious since February 2006, when in the Missourian decided to stop using its creaky News King press.

Vicki Russell, associate publisher of the Daily Tribune (an afternoon paper with about 18,000 circ), admits the Missourian is a good training ground for cub reporters. “What we do not like,” she says, “is when the Missourian, understandably, tries to figure out how to generate revenue but creates unfair and unrealistic commercialism in the marketplace.” The Missourian, a morning daily with a circulation of about 7,000, is published by an independent organization, the Missourian Publishing Association ? comprising 15 board members who oversee the operation. (The board also publishes a weekly and a bilingual tab.) The paper employs about 40 full-time professionals, including faculty members.

The board had long considered outsourcing its printing. “The Missourian has never had a lot of money to spare, and budgets are pretty tight,” says W.H. “Gus” Harwell Jr., the board’s president. “We are always looking for ways to save money.” General Manager Dan Potter says the paper bleeds several hundred thousands of dollars each year.

The belt-tightening strategy gained momentum last February when the Jefferson City (Mo.) News Tribune began operating its new $15 million MAN Roland press and production plant. The Missourian’s board took interest: Members realized that if the Missourian outsourced its printing to Jefferson City, it could afford full color on every page (the Missourian prints roughly 16 to 20 pages every day). “I have shouted about color for many years,” says Harwell, who once served as Knight Ridder’s senior vice president of operations. “We are not preparing students appropriately if we don’t teach them to deal with full color.”

The Missourian sent out requests for proposals (RFP) in late August, specifying that bidders print every page in full color and enter into an advertising network. But the Daily Tribune stepped in and challenged the Missourian for tying the printing contract to an ad-revenue share.

Furthermore, the Daily Tribune countered that the RFP was “too restrictive” because it favored the Jefferson City News Tribune. “We did not feel it was appropriate for a lab newspaper to be selectively partnering with any Missouri newspaper,” says associate publisher Russell of the Tribune.

The Missourian quickly changed the bidding specifications, stripping out the advertising network. “I think we bent over backward to accommodate objections,” says Potter, who insists the bid was not rigged. There’s a provision in the university’s bylaws that allows for sole-source agreements only if the entity can make a case that a single vendor can supply the need, he adds.

Even after the new specifications, the Daily Tribune never actually threw its hat in the ring, Russell confirms; the paper’s press couldn’t handle the full-color capacity. Although the Daily Tribune ? which also prints The New York Times ? has a singlewide one-around Goss Universal with 12 color towers, Russell says, “For us to configure our press to print full color” without the paper losing capacity would take more units.

Subsequently, only one bidder came forward when the Missourian re-sent the RFP: the Jefferson City News Tribune. The Missourian started printing on that press officially the first week of December, and Potter expects the move will save the paper about $5,000 a month.

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