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Free Papers Less Hurt by Recession

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Free Papers Less Hurt by Recession

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Free papers less hurt by recession

Although not recession-proof, free-distribution newspapers are weathering bad times better than their paid brethren

Shoppers are by no means recession-proof, but they appear to be weathering bad times remarkably well compared with their paid brethren.

In some ways, the mood at the annual meeting of the Association of Free Community Papers in Kansas City, Mo., May 15-18 contrasted sharply with the convention held two weeks earlier in Vancouver, B.C., by the most important organization for paid newspaper publishers, the American Newspaper Publishers Association.

At the ANPA meeting, publishers were often harshly self-critical as they analyzed how they got to their present situation, and mulled ways to "restructure" newspapers for a more prosperous future.

They were meeting under dark clouds with silver linings, it might be said.

On the other hand, the shopper publishers seemed to be far more upbeat than even the most optimistic ANPA conventioneer. Their puffy white clouds had dark linings.

Shopper publishers say there are some solid economic reasons for this optimism, but it is also true that there are probably as many psychological reasons for their outlook as well.

"The people that you find at this kind of meeting are entrepreneurial," said Craig Trongaard, senior vice president of Dubuque, Iowa-based Woodward Communications. The chain owns eight shoppers, a paid community weekly, and the Telegraph Herald of Dubuque, a 34,000-circulation daily.

"For the most part, shopper publishers don't have that history of 100 years. Maybe in the last 10 or 15 years, they started that paper from literally nothing, so they're a little more used to competitive situations," Trongaard said.

When shoppers do look at history, they have good reason to be cheery in hard times, Trongaard added.

"Shoppers, unless there are extenuating circumstances, tend to do better in recessions than they do in boom times," he said.

Indeed, many publishers note that shoppers got their first big boost during hard times.

"Interestingly enough, ours is an industry that was founded in a recession -- the Great Depression," said Bruce Gotts, outgoing president of AFCP and owner of a free community newspaper in Findlay, Ohio.

Shopper publishers say this recession, as in past downturns, has made free papers more attractive to advertisers.

"One distinct advantage that free papers have is that they're not tied into the circulation doldrums that have affected paid papers," said J.J. Blonien, publisher of the Milwaukee-area Enterprise Newspapers and this year's AFCP president.

"The dailies have to realize they don't own the franchise in the market any longer," he added. "They were the king, but when they drop below 50% [household penetration], they're no longer the king."

Retailers, seeing traffic falling in their stores, are more willing in recessionary times to reach out for the greater numbers shoppers can offer, argues Douglas C. Koch, vice president of Thomson Newspapers Inc.'s shopper division.

"[Retailers] are much more willing to listen to our story" during hard times, Koch said.

"It's that advertiser who is really feeling the recession who is saying, |Hey, let's give the Pennysaver a chance.' We're getting a lot of new business as a result of the recession," said Geoffrey Calderone, president of Maryland Pennysaver Group.

Calderone's Pennysavers, which are distributed in the Baltimore area, continue to gain in advertising and revenue, although the recession has slowed things, he said.

"We're up, but we're not up where we normally would have been," he said.

"Every recession we've seen, advertisers want what we can give them: no wasted circulation, at a much less expensive rate," added Edward B. Marks, chairman of Long Island, N. …

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