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Big media target weekly newspapers.

Like Rodney Dangerfield, free weekly community newspapers have never received much respect among the brahmins and high priests of American journalism.

They have been dissed by a protective daily newspaper industry as "shoppers" and "throwaways." University journalism departments, heavily endowed by newspaper chains and owners of dailies in one-newspaper towns, often refuse to acknowledge them or dismiss them as the "litter" of an otherwise noble profession.

Victor Jose, who has been the force behind The Graphic in Richmond, Ind., for 40 years; hopes to turn that state of disrespect around with a new book, "The Free Paper In America: Struggle for Survival." Community newspapers can no longer be ignored by the U.S. journalism establishment, declares Jose, as they now reach an estimated 88 million readers.

Jose calls upon a close boyhood friend, author Kurt Vonnegut, to write a foreword to what constitutes groundbreaking work on free newspapers. Vonnegut offers the usual jeremiad tinged with humor for the book. His jeremiad is aimed at the paid daily newspaper industry.

As Vonnegut notes, and as Jose argues forcefully later in the book, community newspapers are the last vestige of the independent news voices that characterized the Colonial period in America; they also are lone examples in the news media of how free enterprise is supposed to work; and they are now the most responsive medium left for the local readers and advertisers whom they serve.

Free independent weeklies also are targeted for extinction--either through buyouts or predatory practices--because of their very success. As Vonnegut notes: "Why are paid dailies, as often as not parts of enormous chains, doing this, doing what the First Amendment of our Constitution says our government institutions themselves must never do to any publication? They are doing it in order to perfect their monopoly on ink-on-paper advertising in their areas of circulation."

Jose chronicles some of that dirty work in violation of the spirit of the First Amendment later in his book. But first he examines the evolution of free newspapers into respectable products as a post-World War II phenomenon.

Among the flags Jose unfurls to illustrate the thriving free weekly news business in America are: the Bensonhurst Paper of Brooklyn, N.Y.; Coffee County News of Douglas, Ga.; California's Rancho Santa Fe Review; Beach & Bay Press in San Diego; Community Ad-visor of Marshall, Mich. and Webster-Kirkwood Times in suburban St. Louis.

Jose breaks the stereotype that all free papers are shoppers. He surveys figures of the Independent Free Papers of America (IFPA) that show 65 percent of the "freebies" carry news. Of those, 48 percent have a newshole that is at least 25 percent or more. Jose notes that these papers have become respectable news products comparing favorably with paid circulation papers.

In an increasing number of one-daily newspaper markets, where the dominant media are often chain-owned, the free community weekly is often the only print option left for local advertisers and readers. This has led to some Armageddon-like clashes and encounters.

Legal precedents lost

Jose details two very important examples of legal encounters between daily newspapers and independent free weeklies from the 1980s--one case occurring in Salem, Ore., and the other, in Orlando, Fla.

The author laments that both cases were settled out of court. If they had been allowed to proceed to trial, Jose argues, they could have provided precedents and clarified both issues of fair competition and attempts to monopolize.

In 1974 the Gannett Co. bought a family-owned news business that published the two daily papers in Salem, the morning Oregon Statesman and the evening Capital Journal. With strongarm tactics, Gannett tripled the profitability of the acquired company in two years by shrinking news, eliminating ad discounts, hiking rates and charging "make ready" ad fees.

Advertisers rebelled, according to Jose, and contacted a Portland-based company of community weeklies. Advertisers pledged full support if the weekly company would launch a free circulation paper in Salem. The new weekly Community Press was established, and it was welcomed by advertisers. The paper was profitable from the first issue.

Gannett did not wait long to react and strike back against the weekly. "Operation Demolition" was set in motion by Gannett to fatally cripple the Community Press. Gannett offered hefty rebates for advertisers to abandon the Press; it generated rumors that the weekly was about to fold; it threatened ill treatment of local advertisers if they refused to switch to the Gannett publications.

The big squeeze by Gannett choked and finally strangled the Community Press. However, owners of the Press retaliated with a lawsuit accusing Gannett of unreasonable restraint of trade, conspiracy to monopolize and illegal trade practices.

Gannett settled the case for about $4 million in 1981 before it could go to trial and yield an adverse verdict. An antitrust investigation by the U.S. Justice Department also was ended. "Thus, an incomparable opportunity to bring this affair fully into the light of public awareness and to strengthen antitrust standards in the industry had been lost, never to be regained," author Jose observes.

The Orlando case

The Orlando case involved an attempt by the Chicago Tribune Co. to monopolize the Florida newspaper market area of Orlando. While the Salem case involved predatory practices to kill competition, the case in Orlando focused on the issue of whether a daily paper can be allowed to buy out its direct print competitor.

In the Orlando case, the Chicago Tribune-owned daily, the Orlando Sentinel, wiped out its smaller competition under the now well-known credo, "if you can't beat 'em, buy 'em out."

The early 1980s Orlando case may seem quaint and aberrant today, especially to St. Louisans who are witnessing the buyout of the giant Suburban Journal weekly group by Pulitzer--without so much as a peep from the justice Department. But in 1984, attorneys with the antitrust division of the U.S. Justice Department got what they wanted in the Orlando situation--a judgment to stop monopoly--a complete and unconditional divestiture.

Rather than contest that decision, the Tribune Co. complied with the judgment. In divesting its Florida newspaper purchase, the Tribune Co. lost about $3 million of the original purchase price. But the company avoided the possibility of a court verdict that would have set a dangerous precedent for the Tribune Co. and other news chains intent on swallowing up the competition.

In retrospect, the Orlando case seems to be the last gasp of Justice Department enforcement of the Clayton Antitrust Act in the area of newspaper monopoly. The Reagan Administration Justice Department came to take a dim view of antitrust enforcement and any meddling with "business growth." That view has largely carried over to succeeding administrations.

In "The Free Paper in America: Struggle for Survival," Jose laments the lost opportunity of the 1980s with the Salem and Orlando cases. Those two situations could have established precedents against buyouts and predatory practices that result in news monopolies.

As a past publisher and ally of free community newspapers, author Jose is wary about the future of his profession. The chains have all but completed their destruction of multi-newspaper towns and their rush to monopolize the daily industry. Now, the weekly chains are being targeted and gobbled by the same daily giants. The only news morsels left on the plate as competitors to the giant chains are the free, independent, weekly newspapers.

If there is any hope for the survival of the free, independent, community weeklies, according to Jose, that hope must rest in "the entrepreneurial spirit of independent free paper publishers who are motivated by a natural desire and consumed by an unnatural obstinacy." (Don Corrigan is a partner in, and an editor of a free, independent, community weekly business which publishes the Webster-Kirkwood Times and South County Times.)
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Author:Corrigan, Don
Publication:St. Louis Journalism Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2000
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