Home Free: Is Delivering Free Newspapers to Affluent Homes a Recipe for Success in Today's Volatile Media Environment? the Fate of Philip F. Anschutz's Three Examiner Dailies Should Provide a Clue
Robertson, Lori, American Journalism Review
IN 1981, Henry Grunwald, then editor-in-chief of Time Inc., and another company executive paid a visit to newspaper consultant John Morton. Time's Washington Star had recently folded, just three years after the company acquired the daily. But Grunwald still wanted to have a paper in the nation's capital, Morton recalls. The pair asked him to figure out what kind of paper that should be.
Morton, who is also a longtime AJR columnist, conducted an analysis and came back with a verdict: "What it ought to be is free. It ought to have a distinctive but fairly conservative look," he recalls saying. And it ought to be mailed to the 200,000 richest households in the market. For nothing.
"They were appalled," Morton says; they dismissed such a publication as a "throwaway."
But "you can't do it on the same terms as the dominant newspaper," Morton says of his thinking then--and now. "It has to be free. I don't know if it will be successful, but I know every other attempt to establish a newspaper in competition with an existing one has been a failure."
In the end, Time Inc. didn't launch a new D.C. daily. But a variation on Morton's model is being tested. It only took 20-plus years for someone to come along with enough money and conviction to give it a try.
Philip F. Anschutz's Examiner newspapers--in San Francisco, Washington and Baltimore--are the only known free daily newspapers in the U.S. that are home delivered to neighborhoods that exhibit advertiser-enticing characteristics: households inhabited by 25- to 54-year-olds with kids and median incomes around $75,000. The papers have circulations between 190,000 and 250,000, with the majority of those copies dropped off on doorsteps, the rest picked up at street boxes.
But Anschutz's papers, which operate under the aegis of a company called Clarity Media Group, aren't aiming to put the established metro dailies out of business--or even compete with them head to head. Clarity CEO Ryan McKibben sees the Examiner filling both an advertising and content niche exposed by market segmentation and the circulation loss of traditional newspapers. There are readers--would-be newspaper readers--out there, he says. They're just not buying a big, fat daily. With the Examiner, consumers get those things market research says they've been clamoring for--local news, short stories, no jumps--while advertisers get a desirable audience and a good rate.
It's a direct-marketing business plan for a quick-read tabloid. And it's not cheap. The Examiner's distribution approach and its goal of beefing up its journalism make it a more expensive endeavor than your typical free subway-station tab. So far, there's not much, if any, buzz about "great stories in the Examiner." But over the past year, the Washington paper, in addition to employing young reporters, has been assembling a national team of experienced journalists. In January, it lured Stephen G. Smith from his perch as chief of the Houston Chronicle's D.C. bureau--and a long career marked by stints at the three major newsmagazines--to be executive editor. But how much great journalism can you pack into a paper that a reader is supposed to finish during the morning commute? And more important for an industry seeking a way to build readership instead of losing it, will this business model actually work?
Clarity Media Group is a private company, and it won't reveal financial information. But McKibben says he is optimistic about the Examiner's ability to fill a need for a new type of newspaper, coexisting peacefully with the major metros. "Everybody thinks this is a zero-sum game, and it really isn't," he says. "Differentiation is part of our model, and our papers are clearly a different read than the incumbent newspapers."
McKibben, a former publisher of the Denver Post, joined a Gannett paper not long after that company launched the original McPaper, USA Today, in 1982. …