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PLANNING PREPARES EVANSVILLE FOR A NEW NEWSPAPER Death of evening Press, narrower web, more space -- what's a paper to do? Plenty.

EVANSVILLE, Ind. -- The three-month-old Evansville Courier & Press is living proof that planning pays off.

Born Jan. 1 from the locally-owned Evansville Press, which died Dec. 31, and the E.W. Scripps Co.'s Evansville Courier, the Courier & Press was in gestation for months.

It bears some resemblance to its parents, but in many ways it is its own being. And the delivery was complicated.

"We did this to try to get over the changes all at one time and then sort it out later," says Publisher Vince Vawter, who coincidentally had worked at papers in Memphis and Knoxville, Tenn., when those cities each became one-newspaper towns.

Evansville's fate was sealed in 1993, when Scripps told Press Publisher Robert Hartmann that it would not renew their host-tenant joint operating agreement when it expired in 1998.

The "changes" -- some made over several weeks, some overnight Jan. 1 -- were extensive. They included:

* Running the final edition of the 19,000-circulation evening Press on the 54-inch web both papers used, then switching overnight to a 50-inch web.

* Persuading advertisers to pay the same price for narrower ads.

* Designing the Courier & Press to include a bigger newshole than the Courier, a new local section front, two pages of comics and features drawn from the Press.

* Realigning a slightly larger news staff to adjust from a competitive situation to a dominant one.

* Winning over Press subscribers.

* Overhauling all circulation delivery routes.

* Bringing on-line a new classified ad system.

* Expanding an already sizable flexographic commercial printing operation.

Planning started in the middle of 1997. Market research detailed what readers liked most about each paper, leading to such decisions as including "Press" in the new paper's name (it has a long history as a Scripps proving ground before Scripps sold it in 1986 and bought the Courier), and turning over the back page of the front section to jumps, not color ads. "The Press always jumped to the back," Vawter says.

"This is an area that doesn't like change. We were worried about that," says Vawter. The Evansville Courier Co. serves advertisers and readers in Indiana, Kentucky and Illinois -- an area that is enjoying good economic times with the ramping up of a 1500-worker Toyota plant and a recently opened steel plant.

So the company methodically set out to change the expectations of advertisers and the habits of thousands of readers upon the "dissolution" of the Press. Other local media "did quick math" and said circulation was going to "drop in half," says Advertising Director Butch Hughes. This news and the web width change prompted him to put the ad staff through three months of training to prepare them to counter advertisers' objections.

"We made a specific point of making a sales call -- a four-legged sales call," Hughes says, with a rep and a manager visiting advertisers to show them the new 50-inch web width and lay out why ad rates would not change.

Part of the pitch, says Jack Pate, the sales and marketing director, was that "we're taking away the duplicated portion -- we're making your buy more efficient."

To try to ensure that circulation equaled the JOA's unduplicated number, Circulation Director Jerry Liddle made "assumptive" subscribers out of the Press home-delivery readers. Three billing cycles later, Liddle says, 13,241 of the 14,392 unduplicated readers are Courier & Press subscribers -- a retention rate of 92 percent that he hopes to boost even higher in the next few months.

Daily circulation stands at 73,500, Vawter says, down from the combined daily circulation of nearly 80,000. Sunday circulation is 106,400, which is up from last September's Audit Bureau of Circulations FAS-FAX figure of 105,600.

To help familiarize readers with looming changes, the paper circulated in December and January a 30-page, four-color reader's guide, including "a section-by-section overview of news content" and scads of phone numbers into the building. Readers also were drawn into a 12-week series of contests in which Browser, the company's mascot, "buried" his bone around town; winners got $10,000 cash if they found his bone.

Reader response to the Courier & Press has been good -- puzzles had to be restacked and the comic strip Snuffy Smith had to be resurrected, but no one complained when the Press's Ann Landers took the place of the Courier's Dear Abby -- and advertisers have stayed aboard. "We've seen a continuing increase in classified," says Hutchins. Adds Pate: "We're growing revenues over last year."

In the newsroom, Editor Paul McAuliffe is adjusting to a staff that's grown by three and a newshole about 30 percent larger than before. While competition "keeps a paper honest," he says, it also "leads to redundancy" as each paper tries to advance stories, sometimes needlessly.

The end to competition, McAuliffe says, "frees you to follow your own vision for what the newspaper ought to be." Now, the three daily editions in their new "handy size" constitute "a metro paper for the entire area."
COPYRIGHT 1999 The Cole Group
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Copyright 1999 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 29, 1999
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