The Biz: 'Post' goes against grain, sees circ soar

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The New York Post costs its hometown crowd a quarter, has likely lost its owner Rupert Murdoch a nine-figure sum and runs Photoshop tricks on its front page that would make the Weekly World News proud.

In the run-up to the most recent Iraq war, it listed upcoming projects from anti-war celebrities and encouraged readers to boycott them. It once front-paged a story on the (false) allegation President Clinton fathered the son of a prostitute. While The New York Times is convulsed over the journalistic fabrications of reporter Jayson Blair, here's the cheerful credo of a key Post reporter: "They don't pay me to get it right. They pay me to get it first."

But America's strangest major metropolitan newspaper is the industry's leading light when it comes to selling more papers. Its circulation rose 10.2% to 620,080 for the six months ending March 31-which come atop gains in the previous four periods of 10.5%, 15.4%, 22.2% and 11.6%.

How did this happen? Is there anything less-antic newspapers can learn from it as they struggle to keep circulation flat?

In a reflection, perhaps, of the Post's garish gestalt, executives at The New York Times and USA Today declined to answer those questions.

The Post's success comes with major caveats. Its game-heavy on national and local celebrity gossip, and a generalized outrageousness-is simply different from other dailies. (Executives at the Daily News, the larger New York tabloid forced to play the CNN straight-man to the Post's Fox News, have expressed CNN-esque frustration over this point.)

That its weekday price of 25¢ in New York City has halved its tabloid competition since September 2000 has helped. It depends on an owner willing to underwrite enormous losses-a New York magazine reporter combing through Australian documents cited losses of $34 million in 1996 and $21 million in 1995-which is not a business model many wish to emulate. (Rupert Murdoch's son, Post Publisher and News Corp. Deputy Chief Operating Officer Lachlan Murdoch, will only say the paper is on track to be profitable in about 18 months.) Sunday papers can account for a third of newspapers' revenue; the Post's is a pamphlet. And the classifieds section that's most dailies' bread and butter is significantly smaller than its rivals'.

"They can gimmick up the paper and sell" more copies, says longtime Post detractor Gary Hoenig, editor in chief of Walt Disney Co. and Hearst Magazines' ESPN the Magazine and former editor of media trade magazines. The gimmick? "Not being a newspaper!"

"It's a traditional tabloid business model," Lachlan Murdoch says, meaning the international model, "which relies more on circulation revenues." He says the paper turns a profit on its 25¢ sales, and said there are no plans to raise that price.

Parts of the Post's approach have been employed by others. Last decade the Los Angeles Times halved single-copy prices to spike circulation, but failed to match the Post`s gains. Before that, Knight Ridder's Boca Raton News remade its daily with a much lighter touch, in a bid for time-pressed readers-which also failed to score Post-ian increases.

Only in New York

One reason: They weren't in New York. Most American dailies, unlike New York's tabloids, derive the bulk of their circulation from home delivery, says David Cole, a newspaper consultant and industry-newsletter editor. "As such, anything the Post might have to teach the industry is only going to affect a very small percentage of the industry-single-copy sales are only a small percentage of the industry."

"It's a hell of a good paper for the New York market," concurs W. Dean Singleton, chairman of MediaNews Group, which owns the Denver Post. "Would it work in Atlanta? Probably not." (Mr. Singleton's Denver Post and competing Rocky Mountain News saw similar circulation spikes in the late '90s, thanks to vicious home-delivery discounts for as low as a penny a day.)

On this, the younger Murdoch even agrees. "What's been successful in this market is being energetic and active," he says. "That's not to say the same formula is going to work in other markets."

The Post, now available for same-day publication in Los Angeles, may ship some extra copies around, then, but its model likely defies exporting.

Much to the relief of many newspaper executives.

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