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From AJR,   May 1998  issue

Small Dailies Are Dying In California   

Zoned editions of large city papers stamp out small stand-alone papers.

By John Morton
John Morton (mortoninc@msn.com), a former newspaper reporter, is president of a consulting firm that analyzes newspapers and other media properties.     

If newspapers these days regularly keep before taxes 20 cents of every dollar they take in, reinforcing the notion that printing a newspaper is like printing money, why would Copley Newspapers shut down two dailies in the suburban Los Angeles market?

The short answer has to be that the Santa Monica Outlook, which was closed, and the San Pedro News-Pilot, which was merged into another Copley paper in nearby Torrance, were either losing money or not making enough to justify continuing. The long answer touches on changes in the marketplace and in newspaper competition that can, indeed, make some dailies expendable.

Santa Monica had been served by the Outlook since 1875 and San Pedro by the News-Pilot since 1901. Over most of their histories the papers prospered by close association with their communities, supported mainly by locally owned retail stores seeking expo¥ure before local residents. This remained largely true even as the Los Angeles market sprawled over remaining vacant spaces with subdivisions and shopping centers.

In time, though, increasing competition from zoned editions of the Los Angeles Times and from a proliferation of weeklies and other publications started to sap the papers' circulations. The Outlook, at 23,800 circulation weekdays, lost more than 9 percent of its circulation over the last 10 years, and the News-Pilot, at 13,000, lost more than 18 percent. Copley's Torrance Daily Breeze, now at 91,000 weekdays and Sundays, into which the News-Pilot was merged, similarly suffered, losing more than 18 percent weekdays and 11 percent Sundays.

Even more damaging were changes in local retailing. Instead of an advertising base made up almost wholly of locally owned stores, regional and national retail chain stores moved in to dominate the market, as they have in almost every community in the nation. These chains have become major advertising forces, and they much prefer spending money with newspaper companies that cover a multitude of communities where they have stores.

Amplifying the effects of this has been the recent trend of "clustering" newspaper ownerships. MediaNews Group has enlarged its presence in the Los Angeles suburban market with acquisitions and now has 430,000 weekday circulation and 460,000 on Sundays.

Right after Copley announced the closings, I participated in a telephone panel discussion on a local public radio station that involved the Outlook's editor, editors of three weeklies focusing on Santa Monica, a MediaNews executive responsible for the Los Angeles market and the head of the Los Angeles Times' zoned editions.

All agreed that when a community loses its daily newspaper, something irreplaceable is gone that diminishes community identity (the weekly editors were a bit reticent on this point). The Times executive said his paper would step up zoning efforts in Santa Monica and would eventually have a daily zoned edition.

A question arose about why Copley had not tried to sell the papers as a way to preserve community voices. Well, the MediaNews executive said, there had been discussion, but a price could not be agreed upon. The implication is that since MediaNews was the only logical buyer because of its cluster nearby, the only option left was shutting down.

The dailies in Santa Monica and San Pedro have not been the only ones in the greater Los Angeles market to fall victim to the market and competitive forces described above. By my count, 10 other daily titles have disappeared over the last 10 years through suspensions, mergers or conversions to weeklies.

Dean Singleton, chief executive of MediaNews, said it is a rare chain advertiser that will go below what he calls the third layer of newspapers in buying advertising. In the Los Angeles market, the Times, as the only metropolitan-wide daily, is the first layer. MediaNews by dint of its total circulation is now the second layer, and the Orange County Register is the third.

"It's hard enough to get them to buy three deep," said Singleton. "The small stand-alone newspapers are in the fourth and fifth layers, which is why so many of them have closed down."

Although the phenomenon of dailies losing market support is most prevalent in dense, heavily populated markets like greater Los Angeles or northern New Jersey, the same forces can impact newspapers located relatively near medium-sized and small cities as well.

If the open country that once separated a small daily from a larger one in a larger city is filled up with the larger city's sprawl, the smaller daily can find itself in trouble. There are several examples of this around the country. These and the remaining stand-alone papers around some big cities suggest there will be more dailies dying.