Newspapers in Arlington, Tex., and northern Florida are just two examples of suburban-ring newspapers, started as weekly community papers, to blossom into daily, paid-circulation papers with color capability in the last year.
Driven partly by cost-savings achievable through off-site printing, new suburban papers are finding enthusiastic readers eager for news from local governmental bodies, police and court reports and local features-the kind of news big-city metro papers don't provide even with zoned editions. Along with readers come the advertisers, eager to reach suburban consumers.
ADDING LOCAL VOICE
"We're giving the local communities what they want, which is their own voice," says Duane L. Chichester, general manager-publisher, Hernando (Fla.) Today, a Media General Group newspaper that touts regular ads from AT&T Corp., Florida Leisure Acquisition Corp. and Pizza Hut. "The center of our readers' world is Hernando County, and they want a newspaper that tells them what is happening in their world."
Hernando Today began as a twice-weekly free newspaper. In 1990, with 43,000 households receiving the paper, it switched to three-day-a-week publication, with two days paid and the third free. As an enticement to switch to paid subscriptions, the paper offered readers a card good for merchant discounts.
PAID CIRC GAINS
The paper still samples potential subscribers with free editions, but it has boosted paid circulation to 15,000; it now publishes six days, excluding Sunday. A page b&w ad is $1,480.50; color is $1,845.50.
"We've enhanced the credibility of the paper in the eyes of advertisers by switching to paid circulation," says Mr. Chichester. "Paid circulation. . . means readers want that paper and pay more attention to it."
Advertisers are convinced Hernando Today is serving their needs better than other, bigger papers.
"They have comparable, competitive rates compared to the St. Petersburg Times and Tampa Tribune," says Steve Specht, PR director for Florida Leisure.
"But they also have higher loyalty and readership than the big metropolitan papers. We don't advertise exclusively in Hernando Today; we do buy advertising in the other papers, but more often, we choose Hernando Today because more of their readers are our customers. We know we're reaching our target audience when we buy ads in Hernando Today," Mr. Specht says.
"It seems like most of my customers subscribe to Hernando Today,"' says Mike McGlamary, parts and service director, Flammer Ford, an area car dealer. "Several years ago, I was using the St. Petersburg Times, but I cut them off and switched to Hernando Today after finding out that's the paper that my customers subscribe to.
"What I found is that my business has gone up since I began advertising in Hernando Today," he says. "and it's cheaper to advertise in."
Hernando Today is one of several suburban-ring papers being nurtured by Media General. Company executives are convinced the future of newspapering lies in very locally oriented suburban papers.
"We have found the big metro papers aren't serving suburban communities very well," says Jeffrey Green, VP-sales and marketing for the Tampa Tribune and Media General's Florida Regional Newspaper Group. "What small communities really need is a local publisher and staff that is serving the local community with news and advertising relevant to their lives."
What makes suburban dailies like Hernando Today possible cost-wise is that they generally can take advantage of a parent company's distribution and printing facilities.
"These small dailies don't need full press operations," says Mr. Green.
"Full-page pagination is done in the local editorial offices and sent electronically to the presses at the Tampa Tribune, which prints and distributes the paper. For $100,000 to $150,000, you can set up and do business as a newspaper," he says. "That wasn't possible a few years ago."
Gary Jacobson, publisher and editor of The Arlington (Tex.) Morning News, an independently operated publication of A.H. Belo Corp.'s The Dallas Morning News, credits more efficient newspaper technology as well as the continued support of local advertisers. These two factors have helped build the paper into a daily.
IBM TO DEP'T STORES
The Morning News, started in April 1996, expanded to a seven-day paid-circulation paper by July. Among the advertisers in the paper are Dillard's and Foley's Department Stores; IBM Corp., Healthsouth Arlington Day Surgery and America West Airlines.
"We've been very pleased with the reception we have had in Arlington," says Burl Osborne, president of Belo's publishing division and publisher and editor of The Dallas Morning News. "Both circulation and advertising have progressed at rates that are more than we had expected."
It was less than three months after launch as a Wednesday-through-Sunday newspaper that the Arlington paper began publishing seven days a week.
"We didn't expect to add a sixth or seventh day until much later in the year or even next year," notes Mr. Jacobson. "But we moved it up based on the reception we've had."
To date, paid circulation has climbed to 20,000 daily; 25,000 on Sunday. The paper costs $4 per month for home delivery; newsstand prices are 25 cents weekdays, 50 cents on Sunday.
What's happening in Arlington shows the potential that suburban-ring papers have, Mr. Jacobson contends. He points out the city not only is a suburb of both Fort Worth and Dallas, but it is one of the nation's fastest-growing cities.
Between 1980 and 1990, population grew 62%. The city's current population of 289,000 is projected to increase 10% by 2000. Arlington residents are more likely to be under age 35, college-educated and employed.
About half of those employed work in Arlington; a total of 71% are employed in Tarrant County. Although they have higher median incomes ($45,677), they are less likely to be homeowners, according to the newspaper's research.
"Every story in the paper has some relevance to the Arlington reader," says Mr. Jacobson. "That's what has made us so successful."
OTHERS LOOK TO MARKET
The success suburban-ring papers in Arlington and northern Florida are enjoying has fueled the desire of other publishers to look at their own free weeklies and wonder whether they too can turn them into paid circulation dailies.
Minnesota Sun Publications, covering 21 communities surrounding Minneapolis-St. Paul, is in the midst of a program to have homeowners begin "voluntarily" paying for subscriptions to the free weeklies.
"We look at it as being along the lines of paying for public television," says Dennis Mindak, publisher of Minnesota Suburban Publishing, which owns Minnesota Sun Publications.
"Our niche is to serve the individual communities, giving them the information they want about city councils, police and education that they're not getting from [metro papers]. And we're hoping they [subscribers] see the value of helping support a community newspaper," he notes.
Eventually, Mr. Mindak hopes Sun Papers will be subscriber-supported, which would enhance the value of the paper in advertisers' eyes.
"There's more credibility in advertising in a publication that people pay for," says Mr. Mindak. "We know many communities can't really support a daily paper, but there's no reason we can't build to the point where we have paid-circulation weekly newspapers. The potential certainly is there."