By: Si Liberman Feisty director of the Worrell-owned South Florida Newspaper Network takes aim at the New York City market BRUCE S. WARSHAL, a feisty lawyer-rabbi who commands one of the nation's largest free-distribution newspaper chains, is taking aim at Manhattan. His South Florida Newspaper Network, which publishes 16 newsy tabloids, plus a number of shoppers between Palm Beach and Miami, is expected to enter the New York market this week. It will introduce the Manhattan Jewish Sentinel, a 50-page tabloid cousin of its seven-zoned, weekly Jewish Journals published in South Florida and, if Warshal's past performance as a free-swinging newspaper executive is any indication, competitors had better watch out. Since the 56-year-old Yale Law School graduate, reform rabbi and former Jewish Federation executive director joined the South Florida Newspaper Network in 1991 as publisher and director, advertising revenues and circulations have zoomed. Along the way, he has waged an editorial war with Knight-Ridder's Boca Raton News and an exclusive Boca Raton country club he has accused of barring minorities from membership. Combined circulation of his chain's 16 free-distribution papers is 450,000, up 150,000, and a random survey of advertisers indicates they are satisfied with the results they are getting. Worrell Enterprises, the privately owned, Boca Raton-based parent company of the South Florida Newspaper Network, acknowledges revenues are much higher, but declines to reveal figures. ""Bruce has done a terrific job,"" says Edwin Freakley, 49-year-old president-CEO of Worrell Enterprises. ""He has a wonderful background that's unique in publishing. He knows the area and a lot of people. He's helped consolidate our South Florida operations and taken us to new areas where we weren't before."" Warshal attributes the extraordinary growth during a difficult recessionary period to a committed staff of 250 and the introduction of several new products, including a few shoppers and more zoned editions. The papers are produced in a 45,000-square-foot plant in Deerfield Beach, Broward County. Warshal views himself as a motivator and business administrator who is normally ""very loose."" He insists on seeing editorials before publication and likes to get involved in selecting political candidates for support. ""We try to be lean and mean,"" he says. ""I don't outguess the editors. They know more about putting out a paper, and they're probably smarter than I am."" The Jewish Sentinel staff of 20 will operate out of a 2,500-square-foot, 39th Street office in New York City. It will be printed in Worrell's Gazette Leader plant in Cape May County, N.J., and its 50,000 copies trucked to Manhattan for distribution via 400 strategically placed street boxes and 200 racks in stores, apartment houses and synagogues. His biggest competitor, Warshal believes, will be Jewish Week, a 130,000-circulation United Jewish Appeal-Jewish Federation publication sent to New York contributors. ""Our advantage will be our independence, objectivity, and willingness to take strong positions without worrying about alienating contributors,"" he said. Demographics indicate that the number of Jews is increasing in Manhattan while decreasing elsewhere in the city. During his brief tenure as a Florida newspaper executive, Warshal has pushed for more in-depth community reports, added lively editorial pages to all the papers and developed another four Jewish Journal zones in growing Broward and Palm Beach county areas. ""We have the same number of employees as when I came here,"" he says, ""but I did hire an outstanding editor of the Journal [Andrew Polin]."" Seated at an L-shaped, cluttered desk in his second-floor Deerfield Beach office, he continues, ""We're not your typical free newspaper. Each publication has a separate staff, its own identity. The accent is on local news, good art, color and commentary. ""How many other free and secular papers review movies and restaurants, have bridge columns, crossword puzzles and exciting editorial pages? We try to compete with the large pay-circulation papers when it comes to enterprise."" He encouraged an investigation and in-depth coverage when the issue of discrimination entered the Boca Raton mayoral race last winter. During the early 1960s, he and his wife Lynne participated in civil rights marches, and he recalls standing just a few yards from Dr. Martin Luther King when he delivered his ""I Had a Dream"" speech. After a candidate's membership in the exclusive Royal Palm Yacht and Country Club that reportedly bars minorities had been criticized, reporters were sent digging. Their findings occupied two full pages of the chain's Boca and Jewish Journal weeklies. A third page listed each of the club's 500 members, and invited readers to inform Boca Thursday if they found any Jewish, black or minority members among them. ""Nobody called or wrote to us,"" said Dennis Feola, Boca Thursday's editor, ""apparently proving they had no minority members."" On at least two occasions last year, Warshal and his Boca weeklies editorially blasted the Boca Raton News. A Boca Monday editorial accused the Knight-Kidder daily of ""shades of McCarthyism"" for criticizing a major downtown property owner who had sued the city to block construction of a department store on property dedicated for cultural use. The News supported construction of the store. Another time Warshal vented his anger with the News in a signed op-ed column. He charged that that daily ""distorted and trivialized"" and failed to fairly report his and others' comments at a Boca Raton Council meeting. The News' unsigned column dealt with their appearance at the meeting to urge purchase of an old Jewish Federation-owned community center for use in a planned park. ""Knight-Kidder spent millions to redesign and upgrade that newspaper. What it got was a quick-read idiot paper peppered with unsigned commentary. Because stories are so brief and don't jump, reading them is like foreplay. There's no satisfaction or climax."" He concedes, however, that the News, along with the New York Times and Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, is part of his daily reading diet. ""He and I used to be friends and worked closely together,"" says Wayne Ezell, 49-year-old editor of the News. ""His views have changed since he became a competitor. His criticism is specious, incorrect, unimaginative and, I guess, expected from a little guy competing with an established paper. ""Bruce was lobbying to help the Jewish Federation unload its property, and our ""Insider"" column, which is really quite tame, said as much. That property is still for sale today. We use the same circulation auditors as he does, VAC [Verified Audited Circulations]. The figures are available to anyone who wants them."" A call to the News produced these paid-circulation statistics for the period ending April 23: 25,041 daily and 28,980 Sunday. The Newspaper Network reports that its VAC Boca Monday and Boca Thursday circulations as 25,000 each. Warshal still conducts Sabbath and High Holy Day services for a Broward County congregation. However, he hardly fits the typical, straight-laced rabbinate mold. He enjoys an off-color joke and admits to using profanity. ""Sure, it outrages and upsets some people, but it's better than smoking,"" he has observed jokingly. Co-workers describe him as a low-key, softhearted manager who has a keen business sense and cares about people. He routinely visits hospitalized employees and has been known to help financially pressed co-workers with out-of-pocket loans. ""Well, isn't that what a mensch [Yiddish for honorable human being] does?"" he asks. He believes a 19-year, multifaceted career ? first as a Cleveland labor lawyer, then spiritual leader of temples in Ann Arbor, Mich., and New Orleans, and finally as executive director of the South Palm Beach County Jewish Federation ? amply prepared him for the newspaper job he took 29 months ago. ""They [Worrell Enterprises] recruited me and took a gamble on me,"" Warshal says, ""and I'm finding the latest twist in my career psychologically and financially rewarding."nE&P ? Warshal still conducts Sabbath and High Holy Day services for a Broward County congregation. However, he hardly fits the typical, straight-laced rabbinate mold. ? (Liberman, retired editor of the Asbury Park [N.J.] Sunday Press, winters in Boca Raton, Fla.) ? ""His views have changed since he became a competitor. His criticism is specious, incorrect, unimaginative and, I guess, expected from a little guy competing with an established paper.""