Fresh Investments Infuse Tabloid Papers

But Changes in Chicago and Boston Can't Rival the Newsprint Battle for New York

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After making the headlines for years, the nation's daily tabloid newspapers are getting back to writing them.

Four major daily tabloids have seen ownership changes within the last 15 months. The stability that the new, committed owners have given their papers has energized this portion of the newspaper business, as well as shaken off recent memories of financial troubles and labor strife.

"Reporters [at recently sold papers] can start thinking about editorial matters more than they've been able to do in the last few years, when it seemed there was a gun to their heads every six months," says Mitchell Stephens, chairman of the journalism department at New York University.

The new class of owners includes:

Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. at the New York Post, arguably the prototype sensational daily tabloid.

Mortimer Zuckerman, publishing and real estate magnate, at the New York Daily News, which rivals the Post in energy and tone.

Patrick Purcell, a former Post publisher but a longtime Boston resident, at the Boston Herald.

American Publishing Co., the U.S. division of Canadian publisher Hollinger Inc., at the Chicago Sun-Times, which has beefed up its neighborhood news coverage without tilting to the sensational.

U.S. daily tabloids approach sensationalism differently. Newsday and Denver's Rocky Mountain News insist the only thing tabloid about them is their page sizes. Still, the daily tabloid historically has been anything but subtle.

The revived energy in the business seems to emanate from New York, where three tabloids and broadsheet The New York Times are butting heads to cover the Big Apple.

The most recent New York ownership change has been at the Post, where News Corp. assumed full control of the paper from bankruptcy court last October.

This year the Post has secured new advertising from retailers such as R.H. Macy & Co.'s Macy's department store and banks including Citibank and Bank of New York, says John Ancona, the paper's VP-advertising.

Accounts such as these helped the Post recently record its biggest daily issue in five years (128 pages on March 31).

Although the poor winter weather affected street sales of the Post and many other Northeast U.S. dailies, the Post's circulation now has stabilized at around 390,000, says Publisher Martin Singerman.

He says the paper plans to undertake a consumer marketing and promotions campaign later this year, but declined to discuss specifics. The Post doesn't have an ad agency of record.

Also making headway with new owners is the New York Daily News.

The paper was ravaged by labor woes and financial problems earlier this decade. But since Mr. Zuckerman's emergence in January 1993, "the specter of the death of the News is no longer out there," says Fred Drasner, ceo and co-publisher.

The News has revived borough sections not just to localize its news coverage but also to bring back smaller advertisers.

Last fall, it added a Sunday TV section that netted national accounts such as Trans World Airlines and General Motors Corp. marques Chevrolet and Cadillac.

In New York, the News is also known for TV commercials from New York-based Ally & Gargano that stake a claim as the real New York paper-and poke at competitor New York Newsday's Long Island roots.

One spot ends with Mr. Drasner standing on a Brooklyn street with some kids and challenging Newsday's publisher to a game of stickball. As children chase a ball that Mr. Drasner has just slugged past two sewers, the spot closes with his New York-accent voice-over: "The Daily News: The most New York you can get."

"We set an attitude with those spots," Mr. Drasner says.

The campaign ran last fall but was revived last month for a 30-day stretch.

Newsday has responded with radio and TV spots from Margeottes Fertitta Donaher & Weiss, New York, promoting its talent roster.

In the seven-year history of the paper's New York edition, it's raided some of the city's highest-profile columnists, such as Jimmy Breslin, Liz Smith and, most recently, Mike Lupica.

Newsday, aside from being the least "tabloid" of the three New York tabs, considers Long Island its primary market. Touting this suburban base is part of its revised ad sales pitch, says Publisher Robert Johnson.

Strong ad categories this year include entertainment, airlines and domestic auto marketers, Mr. Johnson says.

Although its New York City circulation runs about 275,000, its metro area circulation stands at around 760,000, which rivals the figures for the Daily News and The New York Times.

Newsday recently implemented inserting technology that allows the paper to have 7 a.m. delivery throughout the entire market. And last month it converted to a two-section tabloid, with the pull-out middle section including features and classifieds.

The stability of New York's tabloids isn't lost among the people that buy ad space.

"I think the advertising community is a little more confident that those papers will be publishing one day after another," says Roberta Garfinkle, senior VP-director of print media at McCann-Erickson Worldwide, New York. "It's given us the sense that maybe we can figure them into our media plans."

New York isn't the only city where tabloid newspapers seem to be re-energized.

In Boston, Mr. Purcell's purchase of the Herald from News Corp. means that he now has the city's only locally owned paper. The Boston Globe was sold to New York Times Co. last year.

Circulation has fallen slightly this year, partly because of the poor weather. But Mr. Purcell says he hopes "to market the paper more aggressively and recoup [lost] circulation" this year.

There will be an ad campaign later this year, done in-house, though Mr. Purcell declined to give details.

Despite the circulation drop, year-to-date ad linage is running about 7% ahead of last year, Mr. Purcell says.

The one difference Mr. Purcell has from the new owners of the New York Post and Daily News is that he doesn't have the bankroll of Messrs. Murdoch or Zuckerman. But with renegotiated labor contracts and an improved ad picture, "we've got a realistic chance of success," Mr. Purcell says.

Boston media buyers seem upbeat about the paper's future chances.

"I think any changes [Mr. Purcell] will make will be for the better," says Karen Bisegna, media supervisor at Arnold Fortuna Lawner & Cabot, Boston, which regularly places client ads in the Herald. "Advertisers should be very comfortable with the paper."

In Chicago, the sale of the Sun-Times to Hollinger in February could rectify one of the tabloid's shortcomings: limited color printing facilities.

The Sun-Times has closed the circulation gap against its broadsheet rival Chicago Tribune, in part from a single-copy price hike by the Tribune. But the Sun-Times also has sharpened its coverage of backyard issues.

However, the paper's limited color capabilities has kept some buyers from using the Sun-Times as much as they'd like. Rick Rickelman, media director at Keroff & Rosenberg, Chicago, says the Sun-Times has had to turn away color ad insert orders because the presses were booked.

"We'd love for them to be as competitive as the Tribune" when it comes to color production, he says.

Sun-Times executives were unavailable for comment.

Elsewhere in tabloid-land, the forecast for Denver's Rocky Mountain News "looks strong for the remainder of the year .*.*. assuming the economy doesn't go south on us," says Publisher Larry Strutton.

Despite some now-corrected production problems earlier this year, the News reported its best first-quarter ad revenue in several years, Mr. Strutton says.

Part of that comes from full sectionalization of the paper last year, Mr. Strutton says. These sections not only divide the paper by story topics but also give the sales staffs more double-trucks and color page sales opportunities.

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