In light of BostonNow’s closure this week (apparently for investment-related reasons), I’ve been mulling over the future of free metro papers in the U.S. The Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post and The San Diego Union-Tribune are among newspaper companies that have developed free (or discounted metros). Some have done so in response to a deep-pocketed effort by billionaire Philip Anschutz, and his Examiner papers, to storm their markets.
There are now Monday-Saturday print editions of Examiners in San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Seattle, Denver and other markets. They seem to be geared up to have regional offices. Its Internet editions are published in 57 markets, and now reach 2 million unique visitors, according to Examiner collateral.
When initially launched a few years ago, on the backbone of the dying San Francisco Examiner, the papers did not have an Internet strategy, according to company insiders. But now, synergies with a snappy Internet edition are clearly are main part of the strategy. This is combined with a red-line philosophy that focuses its print distribution on upper demographic households. Seventy percent of its readership is college educated; 85 percent have a household income over $75k.
Content-wise, the newspapers largely make do with wire copy for news, sorted under various “examiner” themed sections (i.e., “Automotive Examiner,” “Right Side Political Examiner,” “Go To Education Examiner,” “Celebrity Examiner”). For local flavor, they are building a strong base of columnists/bloggers in several markets. Baltimore, for instance, appears to be among the most developed.
On the Web sites, the local information is filled in with syndicated content. Traffic information, for instance, comes from Traffic.com and Outside.in (providing conversations about traffic — nice). Events come from Zvents. Yellow Pages are provided by Yellowpages.com. Movies are provided by Fandango. Shopping is from ShopLocal.com. And weather comes from Weatherbonk.com.
There are also links with other Anschutz projects, such as Christian-themed Walden Media (“Adventures of Narnia” movie) and The Foundation for a Better Life, as well as his AEG Worldwide entertainment conglomerate. The links alone would never pass the objectivity tests of most newspapers.
But most of the package is fairly attractive and compelling — especially for a generation getting their headlines on Yahoo! Mobile. It is a nice 1-2 print/online punch with a breaking news factor that isn’t always emphasized enough in local news/blogger aggregator sites (Topix, Outside.in, OurTown, AmericanTowns).
Examiner is currently advertising for account executives for auto, real estate and recruitment. Auto dealers are getting the biggest push and are provided with significant discounts over local dailies. That’s not hard to do. But are the dealers dying to support another newspaper effort? It is still hard to establish the readership value of these metros.
My own free metro in San Diego, Today’s Local News, comes from The San Diego Union- Tribune. It is delivered to every household that does not subscribe to the flagship paper from Wednesday to Sunday — whether they like or not. My neighbors usually have several copies littering their driveway by the end of the week. But I like it. The problem is I only spend about 45 seconds on it. Is that a good place for Hoehn’s Honda to advertise? I read The LA Times for over 25 minutes.