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From AJR,   May 1999  issue

More Sports Sundays   


By Mary Louise Schumacher
Mary Louise Schumacher has worked as an intern and freelance writer for the Times and the Post.     

The Washington Post has been walloping its cross-town neighbor the Washington Times in circulation for years, particularly on Sundays. But the Times is making an end run in an effort to score some additional readers by transforming its Sunday paper into a sports-dominated edition called the Sunday Sports Times.

"The Post has a very strong paper, and we just decided it was best not to compete with a frontal assault," says Dick Amberg, general manager for the Washington Times Co. "The idea is to differentiate."

Since the upstart was launched in 1982, the Times' niche has always been national news that is "politically incorrect by design," according to Editor in Chief Wesley Pruden. The paper exploits its scrappy underdog standing, ceding the paper-of-record status to the Post on most fronts. But the Times touts an increasing ability to go head-to-head with the Post on sports coverage and is banking on that ability, along with what Pruden calls "a huge and growing market for sports," to make its Sundays more successful.

The entire A section of the new Sunday paper consists of sports, with most of the hard news that normally appeared in the Sunday Times folded into rear sections.

The Times has little to lose by experimenting with the Sunday Sports Times, which debuted April 18. While the Times has about an eighth of the Post's daily circulation, its Sunday numbers, at 57,000, are significantly more dismal. The Post, at 1.1 million, has nearly 20 times the Sunday circulation. The Times has lost about 10,000 Sunday readers since 1993, while the Post has lost about 60,000.

"We're fenced in by these strong Sunday papers," Pruden says, noting competition from the Baltimore Sun and the New York Times as well. "We are one of the few papers in America whose Sunday circulation is smaller than the daily." The Times' daily circulation is 101,000.

The Times has lost money from the start, though Amberg says the losses are being reduced each year. He would not disclose how much the owners have poured into the paper but said it was "significant." The May 1997 issue of The Washington Monthly put the figure at more than a billion dollars.

Pruden says he knew it would take something out of the ordinary to cure the Sunday blues. The hope is that a specialized sports edition will attract avid to casual sports fans, some of them readers who would otherwise not buy the Times because of its reputed conservative bent, Pruden says.

To get that added attention, the Washington Times Co. has developed an ad campaign with a cost "somewhere in the half million dollar range," Amberg says.

The Sunday Sports Times is a broadsheet, heavy on photographs, graphics and color. Covers showcase a centerpiece feature on issues, trends or a particular athlete; a story reviewing a big Saturday game or a walkup for a Sunday game; and a column.

The idea, says Sports Editor Gary Hopkins, is "to own the big games," with beefed-up coverage of popular college and professional sports. The paper is increasing its coverage of women's sports, as well as recreational sports like hiking and biking, and running a children's page. The Times, however, isn't attempting to compete with the Post's coverage of high school sports just yet. "That may evolve," Hopkins says, "but that is something that takes a big commitment, power and time." Hopkins is getting about five new hires, including three full-time reporters, to bring his editorial staff total to 32. The Post has a sports staff of about 50.

The first edition of the new Sunday paper included 104 columns of sports, a significant boost. In the past, the Times rarely ran more than 60 columns of sports on Sunday. The Post devotes about 75 columns to its Sunday sports section, says George Solomon, the Post's assistant managing editor for sports.

Solomon welcomes a challenge from the smaller paper, but he doubts the Times will ever match the Post's coverage of high school and international sports.

"I think we are better, but I think they are good," Solomon says. "We do things differently. I think people will have to judge for themselves."