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Perfect timing: 'Arkansas Times' capitalizes on the loss of 'Arkansas Gazette' with strong, growing numbers.

EAGERNESS, BUSINESS sense and luck have made for a successful debut year for the Arkansas Times.

Soon after the 172-year-old Arkansas Gazette closed Oct. 18, 1991, Alan Leveritt, president of the Arkansas Writers' Project Inc., and Olivia Myers Farrell, AWP chief executive officer, decided to convert the monthly Arkansas Times magazine into a weekly metropolitan newspaper.

One year later, the numbers at the Times may speak louder than the paper's readers or critics.

Of the $680,000 the company raised to start the paper, it's had to use far less than expected.

Projections were that the paper wouldn't be profitable for quite sometime.

"We're not supposed to have a profitable month for two years," says Leveritt, but he points out that some months have been extremely profitable.

April was the biggest sales month for the Times in the history of the publication.

The paper is so far $185,000 ahead of revenue projections.

But editorial decisions at the Times reflect advertising struggles and ideas.

For instance, the paper's short-lived society section was cut due to lean times in sales.

The "Beyond Our Borders" section was added not only to enhance news coverage but to serve as a vehicle to sell advertising.

Slick special sections such as spring and fall fashion features help the paper hold onto its magazine heritage.

And the new weekly supplement "Auto Arkansas," which the Times produces in conjunction with 12 other central Arkansas newspapers, is another source of consistent revenue.

"It's a real powerful tool," Farrell says of the coalition. She also hints at future collaborations.

Farrell says "Auto Arkansas" is helping teach the Times how to handle classified advertising.

"We haven't been able to figure out how to do classified sections," she says.

The Times has had 1 1/2 pages of real estate classifieds since its debut, but Farrell says, "We're fumbling with that."

"You sort of make it up as you go along," Leveritt says of learning the newspaper business.

But it's not as if he or Farrell are novices.

Circulation statistics prove that.

As a magazine, the Times had a circulation of more than 27,000.

It now has a circulation of 40,000. The paper's first renewals are coming in, and so far, 45 percent of the new subscribers are keeping the paper.

Farrell says projections were that only 35 percent of the new subscribers would renew.

In total, there is a 60 percent renewal rate. The circulation is expected to remain at 40,000.

That compares with the magazine's highest renewal rate of 45 percent.

"There were a void, so we definitely had an opportunity," Farrell says.

But the loss of the Gazette didn't guarantee the Times a spot in the community, and it isn't yet a finished product.

"I still see us creating a new kind of newspaper product," Farrell says. "It needs more shaping."

That is apparently a view readers share.

Too Little, Too Much

When the Times converted to a newspaper, Anita French decided to give the publication another try.

She used to be a subscriber to the magazine but says, "I thought it was suffering the same thing it's suffering from today. It's too provincial."

This tops the list of complaints about the paper.

Of those criticisms, Editor Max Brantley says, "The one that I am sympathetic with the most is the complaint, 'You don't have enough about my part of the state."

Half of the Times' circulation is in central Arkansas, but Brantley hopes to continually strive for more statewide appeal.

However, Jay Friedlander, chair of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock Department of Journalism, says, "When you do that, you lose something."

Friedlander says, "It's a different kind of animal now," and "I don't know that it's possible for it to be all things to all people."

Brantley says, "There are a lot of people who thought they were going to get something different."

And there are those pushing for something different.

Leveritt says he often is asked when the publication will go daily.

Then there are others who want their subscriptions canceled because they are so disappointed.

One of the most frequent criticisms is that the publication is too liberal and one-sided.

"It is a bit on the liberal side," French says. "And that's coming from a Democrat."

David Schimmel, a reader in DeWitt, says "There's been a few articles that I decided were so liberal or one-sided that I couldn't read and just quit."

Schimmel, a self-described "conservative," is keeping the paper because "it's nice to know what the other side is thinking sometimes."

He also says, "It's refreshing to see a different point of view since the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette is so conservative."

Farrell did not initially like the Times' narrow editorial stance.

"I wanted to be the everyman paper," Farrell says.

But because of the Democrat-Gazette's conservative outlook, Farrell has changed her mind.

"If I ever get weary, I think, 'We have got to do this paper.' There's just value to perspective."

Brantley and Leveritt contend the paper offers more than just one viewpoint.

Friedlander says, "Like its predecessor magazine, Arkansas Times the weekly newspaper has a point of view, an attitude, if you will."

The paper's attitude is what Friedlander thinks is still evolving.

"Physically, the publication is pretty stable, but I think it's searching for itself in terms of what it wants to be editorially."

He says, "I am still a little put off by the mixture of hard-hitting political reporting and restaurant reviews."

Readers have not expressed a problem with that combination, but many of them have complained about the number of advertisements.

Brantley says there is a minimum 50 percent editorial content that usually reaches closer to 55 percent, but he guesses that the tabloid form somehow causes the ads to be more prominent.

He agrees the paper needs a redesign and says one will be forthcoming.

Brantley would also like improved graphics and photography, and he admits the paper's proof-reading is not careful enough.

But he says the Times offers some of the best reporting in the state.

Griffin Smith Jr., executive editor of the Democrat-Gazette, says, "We notice what they have to say, and in some cases we're covering the same ground and in some cases we're not."

Competition aside, Smith says, as a reader "I felt like their writing style and rhythm was better attuned to a magazine and monthly style.

"They were better as a magazine than as a newspaper."

Though the daily Gazette may be gone, Leveritt likes to think he's here to guarantee the Democrat-Gazette has competition.

Although he is publisher, it's the editorial product for which Leveritt shows his zeal.

He interrupts his explanation of advertising sales at the Times to jump from his office chair and adamantly point to the paper's May 7, 1992, premiere issue hanging on a wall behind his desk. It features a story about a prison inmate who died after a beating.

"Do they think we're asleep?" Leveritt exclaims, growing more incensed that people might think that without the newspaper war there is a dearth of investigative reporting in Arkansas.

It reminds him about another prison note. He runs from his office to the newsroom to make sure the item is included before press time.

"Hopefully, we'll have something the Democrat won't," Leveritt says as he resumes the interview.

According to a readership survey by Simmons Market Research Bureau in New York, 87 percent of Times readers subscribed to the Gazette.

"We got a whole lot of mileage from Gazette loyalists," Farrell says. One third of the paper's readership does not subscribe to the Democrat-Gazette.

The Gazette factor is just one positive boost for the Times.

Even with complaints and canceled subscriptions, something is working.

As Friedlander says, "People may complain, but they're apparently subscribing."
COPYRIGHT 1993 Journal Publishing, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Rengers, Carrie
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:May 3, 1993
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