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 revenue 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, is delivered with a morning newspaper that has wider distribution. The Superior Telegram, which remained a paid newspaper, mails its print editions.
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 online content.
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 revenue with The Capital Times under unique operating rules that are similar to ? and yet still distinctly apart from ? a joint operating agreement.
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.
Jobs were cut. Carrier delivery was eliminated. The paper is now mailed to readers.
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 Tribune 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.