Over Lunch, at the Bar, and Over the Cubicle Wall

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A Trying Week In Free-Daily Land.
Although big newspaper wars have cooled off in most cities, the rise of free dailies targeting commuters has put a little battle back in the business. The competition in Chicago ends tomorrow, when The Chicago Sun-Times publishes the final edition of its Red Streak freebie, but New York City’s brethren are both scrambling ever more fiercely as the transit-union strike disrupts the commuter flow on which they feed.

Not that the New York handouts admit to even sweating.

“We’re no different from any other newspaper,” said Floyd Weintraub, senior VP, amNewYork, on Dec. 20, the first day of the strike. “We printed a full 320,000 copies and got them all out.”

The paper typically puts many of its copies in readers’ hands at the entrances and exits of New York City subways, however, so its hawkers had to be redeployed. “We moved all our hawkers all over the place,” Mr. Weintraub said. “We had them bused in, we had them picked up. We had people out to park-and-rides and at the bridges. We fulfilled our mission to the advertisers. We expect to do so again tomorrow.”

Both amNewYork and its rival, Metro New York, also hope readers grab copies from the boxes that are always deployed around the city -- particularly if those readers usually accept a copy on the way into the subway. Keep an eye on this space; the last New York City transit strike lasted 11 days.

In Chicago, The Sun-Times said it has pulled the plug on 3-year-old Red Streak, which it launched partly to thwart the aspirations of RedEye, the competitor published by The Chicago Tribune. The Sun-Times said, essentially, that it had accomplished its mission.

“We didn’t feel that The Tribune was in a strong business position in RedEye,” said John Cruickshank, publisher, The Sun-Times, and chief operating officer, The Sun-Times News Group. Both Red Streak and Red Eye recently dropped their 25-cent price tags and went free, something Mr. Cruickshank seemed to view as a success. “We finally went free a little while ago because we thought it would push them over the edge and it did,” he said. “They are no longer able to charge.”

That said, it can’t have helped Red Streak’s future that it was losing money. “We really were looking at the budget for next year and how we wanted to spend the money we have,” Mr. Cruickshank allowed.

And at RedEye, executives considered themselves the winners. “Today the business is as healthy as ever,” said Brad Moore, general manager. “Circulation is up to about 100,000, which is 25% over where we were this time last year.”

Mr. Moore denied that RedEye went free for any reason related to Red Streak. “We made the decision to go free because it provides our readers the most convenience,” he said. “And that decision has allowed us to expedite growth.”

Now we’ll see whether the absence of a competitor can help grow RedEye further. Mr. Moore said he anticipates RedEye will turn in its first full year of profitability in 2006.

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