In rapidly growing cities, readership and advertising bases blossom, but so does the distribution area-often at a pace that keeps papers struggling to build out their own infrastructure, ranging from distribution facilities to delivery trucks. Rising prices for newsprint, fuel and other essentials add to the strain.
The pressures are geographic and demographic. Not only do newspapers have to serve a larger area, but they also have to appeal to a younger, more mobile and ethnically diverse readership. And the problems are faced by venerable center-city dailies as well as their scrappy suburban rivals.
Such concepts as online newspapers are all well and good, but in a sprawl environment, the newspaper must arrive on time at the reader's doorstep, no matter how far away from the printing press that doorstep is.
With growth and sprawl often come concerns about how far to take distribution beyond a publication's existing reach, and at what point far-flung distribution becomes too costly, says Earl J. Wilkinson, executive director of the Interna-tional Newspaper Marketing Asso-ciation. Publishers also have to consider the changing face of readers, and the need of a publication to become or remain locally relevant to that audience.
"The solidification of suburbia ... has generated new competitive tensions with metros and long-established suburban newspapers," Mr. Wilkinson says. "I think the metros are keeping up, but I'm not 100% certain of the longer-term economics associated with serving wider and wider geographies with-even with zoned editions-what is essentially one single print product."
"Keeping up" must be on the minds of newspaper executives in the rapidly growing metro areas of Phoenix, Houston and Miami. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, the Phoenix-Mesa, Ariz., area's population grew an estimated 34.6% from April 1, 1990, to July 1, 1999; in Texas, the Houston-Galveston-Brazoria area's population grew 20.4%; and in Florida, Miami-Fort Lauderdale increased 16.2%.
By anyone's reckoning, Maricopa County is a big place-some 9,000 square miles and 3 million residents in greater Phoenix.
"Clearly geography is an issue for us," says Jim Diaz, senior VP-strategic development and marketing at The Arizona Republic. The 400,000-plus circulation daily has divided the city into three reporting and distribution zones-Southeast, Northeast and Metro. Scattered throughout are longtime residents, boomer and senior retirees arriving from outside the state, and Mexican immigrants. In fact, Hispanics top 800,000, or 25%, of the local market population, up from 22% in 1990, Mr. Diaz says.
Two downtown printing facilities feed multiple distribution sites in the city and suburbs. To speed up delivery, carriers use digital displays mounted in vehicles to show subscriber households; this also helps deliver papers pre-packaged with targeted inserts.
In the suburbs, the East Valley Tribune serves a population of 1.2 million, says Karen Wittmer, Tribune publisher-CEO and corporate VP-Arizona for parent Freedom Communications, Irvine, Calif. The suburban population was 807,000 in 1990 and is projected to top 1.9 million in 2020.
The Tribune has a winter-high circulation of 122,542, up 40% from a decade ago, Ms. Wittmer says. It also has several sibling papers-the Sun City, Ariz., New Sun daily, a twice-weekly and six weeklies.
Such growth is a good news-bad news proposition, Ms. Wittmer says. Advertising and circulation opportunities run high. While the company has upwards of four more years' growth capacity on its printing facilities, the challenge is keeping up with the fast-expanding suburban communities.
"This kind of growth really taxes your infrastructure," she says. "It's an issue of keeping up with all the infill, developing the routes and utilizing your resources the best you can to stay productive in a growing marketplace."
When Joycelyn Marek arrives at the downtown offices of the Houston Chronicle, she knows that subscribers 55 miles away-or anywhere in Harris County's 1,788 square miles-have already received their paper, often by the promised 5:30 a.m. delivery time.
With the market growing more than 30% over the last decade, meeting that distribution goal has been a daily challenge, says Ms. Marek, VP-marketing and electronic products. The Chronicle, whose circulation tops 500,000, has three presses and several warehousing and distribution facilities in downtown Houston. Several times a year, the paper hosts focus groups to determine if it's meeting local market needs, and the Chronicle frequently redesigns its distribution patterns and regions to boost delivery efficiency.
"It's a lot of logistics and moving schedules around and attention to press time," Ms. Marek says.
Much of the Chronicle's newest growth has come in the city's oldest areas. With a new baseball park and basketball arena, housing is being built to serve thousands of new residents.
Competing for suburban readers is Westward Communications' Pasadena (Texas) Citizen and West-ward's Houston Community News-papers chain. Each week, West-ward's two print sites, in Pasadena and Conroe, print a total of 506,000 copies of its two dailies and 25 weeklies, says Publisher Buzz Crainer.
To keep pace with the region's growth, the company in 2000 consolidated its printing facilities from three to two but added additional capacity. This limits the time Westward's four trucks and even advertisers now spend ferrying content between different facilities and to distribution sites.
"It's not so much that we have difficulty getting it off the presses," Mr. Crainer explains. "We're faced with travel time and the traffic. If a product comes off late and the truck is going to Sugarland 45 minutes away, you hit rush-hour traffic and have carriers waiting."
On the demographic front, some 64% of Houston's growth over the last three years has been in the Hispanic market. Although the Chronicle doesn't have a Spanish-language edition, it occasionally will print stories in Spanish.
With the Atlantic Ocean and the Florida Everglades creating natural barriers to growth, the Miami-Fort Lauderdale market nevertheless has sprawled westward to the edge of the Everglades and north through Broward County.
Boundaries and barriers haven't made growth any easier, admits Kathy Trumbull, general manager for south Broward and director-strategic areas at the Tribune Co.'s South Florida Sun-Sentinel, whose daily circulation exceeds 200,000.
While the paper serves Palm Beach County and is strongest in its core Fort Lauderdale market, the Sun-Sentinel is in a heated battle for south Broward County with The Miami Herald, owned by Knight Ridder.
Both newspapers face similar market challenges: a geographically and demographically distributed market, and a commuter population that's spending more time on the roads. "Hawkers" who sell single copies at busy intersections have become common throughout Broward County. Single-copy sales represent upwards of 30% of the Sun-Sentinel's sales, Ms. Trumbull says.
To meet the Sun-Sentinel's promise of delivering papers to remote markets by 5:30 a.m., in 1999 a team of circulation managers adjusted production schedules to print outlying market papers earlier, and push back print schedules for Palm Beach, which has a smaller commuter population and where its rival there, The Palm Beach Post, delivers later. The company also built new distribution facilities in Weston on the county's western fringe, and in south Broward.
The Herald has faced similar growth issues, including the fast-growing Hispanic market, says Cesar Mendoza, VP-circulation. In Miami, where the Hispanic population tops 52%, the company in 1998 split off El Nuevo Herald as a stand-alone title. As of September 2000, the Herald had 312,109 daily circulation and 429,221 on Sunday; El Nuevo Herald has 89,400 daily and 97,803 on Sunday, Mr. Mendoza says.
The Herald delivers daily to homes from Key West, 200 miles southwest of its downtown Miami printing facilities, to southern Palm Beach County. The company has consolidated or expanded its current 14 distribution centers throughout south Florida depending on regional growth and needs, he says.
"That has been fluid depending on how close we need to get to the community in terms of distribution or serving the advertisers," Mr. Mendoza says.
As the area grows, the planning continues, because as the Sun-Sentinel's Ms. Trumbull says, "If we miss them and the paper stays on the driveway, we've lost our chance to reach them."
Mr. Zbar, a longtime contributor to Advertising Age, also is a columnist for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.