Table for Two?

Taking a look at the remaining two-paper towns

On Tuesday morning, Seattle became a one-newspaper town, as the 146-year-old Seattle Post-Intelligencer printed its last edition and became a Web-only publication. Words from Seattle Times publisher Frank Blethen reflect the prevailing sentiment: “Though The Seattle Times and the Seattle P-I have been fiercely competitive, we find no joy in the loss of any journalistic voice. Today’s announcement is an acknowledgement that in the current economy it is a struggle for even a single newspaper to be profitable and impossible for multiple papers in a single market.”

A struggle for even a single newspaper to be profitable and impossible for multiple papers in a single market. On the heels of the Rocky Mountain News’s closure, the question may seem rather non sequitur: What’s the future of the two-paper town? It’s an academic question as much as it is a practical one. “There’s no substitute for competing newspapers in journalism,” newspaper analyst John Morton tells us. “However, it doesn’t have great national significance because the two-newspaper town has just about disappeared in this country. This has been going on, the closing of the weaker of two papers, for fifty years, and we’re getting to the end of it.” And indeed, the conversation has raced forward to qualify (and in some cases try to quantify) the trickle down to zero.

Asked about the significance of slowly losing the two-paper town, newspaper analyst Lauren Fine tells us via e-mail: “Given the struggles of the industry and newspapers in towns with just one, it isn’t surprising that it is hard to make two economic.” Without sugarcoating it, she adds, “Arguably, competition makes the product stronger but there is so much competition online and elsewhere that I don’t think it means much at all.” Nevertheless, we wanted to take a look at which major metropolitan areas still do have two competing papers, and how they’re weathering the storm.*

Boston, Massachusetts

The Boston Globe (daily circulation 323,983)’s news-gathering operation has reportedly shrunk from a full-time staff of 552 in 2000 (not including the staff of boston.com) to 379 in 2009 (including boston.com). In January, management announced another round of buyouts (and possibly layoffs) directed at the newsroom.

For the six-month period ended September 30, the Boston Herald saw daily average weekday circulation fall 9.9 percent to 167,506 copies, compared to the same six-month period in 2007, according to Audit Bureau of Circulations data. In December, Herald publisher Patrick Purcell said he was committed to keeping Boston a two-newspaper city.

Chicago, Illinois

After declaring bankruptcy last December, the beleaguered parent company of the Chicago Tribune (weekday circulation 516,032) has most recently been in the news for postponing plans to sell the Tribune Tower, the 940,000-square-foot tower at 435 N. Michigan Ave. that houses the Tribune newsroom, because of the “moribund” downtown real estate market.

Meanwhile, since Feb. 18, the Chicago Sun-Times (weekday circulation 313,176) has had a new editor, Don Hayner. The change comes at a time when the paper’s parent company, the Sun-Times Media Group, is dealing with a new board of directors and a Conrad Black-era tax bill of up to $600 million. In January, Alan Mutter of Newsosaur called the Sun-Times “the No. 2 newspaper in what, at best, has become a 1½ newspaper town.”

Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas

Not quite a two-paper town, but perhaps close enough. The Dallas Morning News, owned by the A.H. Belo Corporation, has a daily circulation of about 350,000. Following a joint distribution agreement with its main competitor in the area, McClatchy’s Fort Worth Star-Telegram, last September, the two papers have begun sharing content. In early March, Star-Telegram publisher Gary Wortel announced that the paper would reduce its work force by about 12 percent and also cut wages. Beginning Mar. 30, the single-copy price of the weekday Star-Telegram (circulation just over 200,000) will double to $1, and its Sunday edition will go for $2, which match the Morning News’s current prices.

Detroit, Michigan

In December, Detroit Media Partnership CEO Dave Hunke, publisher of the Detroit Free Press, announced that, starting March 30, both the Free Press and the Detroit News (also operated by the partnership) will limit home delivery to Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays. The rest of the week, the newspapers (thinner, but with less advertising) will be available at newsstands. The intended effect, as reported in the Free Press: to “allow both papers to maintain their news-gathering forces, shift resources to their Web sites, develop new ways to deliver information digitally, enhance multimedia offerings—and, for the foreseeable future, keep Detroit one of the nation’s few remaining two-newspaper towns.” The Free Press, a Gannett paper, has a weekday circulation of 298,243; the News, a Media News Group paper, has a weekday circulation of 188,000.

Honolulu, Hawaii

The Honolulu Advertiser, a Gannett paper, and its competitor, The Honolulu Star-Bulletin, had a joint operating agreement through 2001. The Star-Bulletin, the smaller of the two, is now owned by Black Press of Victoria, British Columbia. According to Morton, the Star-Bulletin has been “bolstered by its being owned by a company that publishes a lot of free weeklies,” because it has managed to combine some advertising efforts with them. The Advertiser, meanwhile, announced it would be dropping its standalone Monday tabloid business section as well as its Saturday editorial page. Editorial and opinion editor Jeanne Mariani-Belding asked readers some portentous questions: “We want to hear from you on which of our regular columns…you enjoy, and which ones you can live without. Are you interested in more or less national and international coverage?”

Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota

Just over two years after being bought by Avista Capital Partners, a private equity firm, the Minneapolis Star Tribune (daily circulation 322,360) last month filed for bankruptcy. On March 11, the Star Tribune reported that it is seeking “a total of $20 million in annual labor cost savings,” including $3.5 million from its printing plant. It is exploring the possibility of printing its cross-town rival, the Media News Group-owned St. Paul Pioneer Press. The Pioneer Press (circulation 184,973), meanwhile, has asked union workers to take a week of unpaid time off, as the paper seeks to cut costs.

New York City, New York

There’s the New York Post (daily circulation 625,421), New York Daily News (632,595), and The New York Times (1,000,665). Match those up with some last names: Murdoch, Zuckerman, Sulzberger. Of the Post, analyst Morton sums up drily, “In New York, it’ll depend on how long Murdoch is allowed to lose money on the Post.” The Times Co., meanwhile, has taken steps to draw down its $1.1 billion in debt, including reducing capital spending and selling off assets, such as its stake in the Boston Red Sox. You’ll remember it also just cut a deal to borrow $250 million from Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim. The Daily News, for its part, was included on a list of the next ten papers to fold (made by financial Web site 24/7 Wall Street). Still, note, in the month of February, it grew its Web site traffic 38 percent to 4.9 million unique visitors (compared to February 2008), and on March 12 announced a partnership with SalesSpider.com, a small business social network.

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is owned by Block Communications (the Block family also owns the Toledo Blade), and has a daily circulation of 212,714. The Tribune-Review is owned and published by Richard Mellon Scaife (individual circulation numbers aren’t available, as the Tribune-Review Publishing Company mandates that all of its dailies combine numbers). Last May, the two papers reached a deal for one company to deliver both papers, with some exceptions. (Morton notes that the Tribune-Review is basically a suburban paper that has established an edition for Pittsburgh itself, but says he thinks it counts as a two-paper town.)

Tucson, Arizona

The Arizona Daily Star is the morning paper owned by Lee Enterprises (daily circulation 94,055). It has a joint operating agreement with the smaller afternoon Tucson Citizen (circulation 17,000). Although there has been some last-minute confusion over the paper’s ultimate fate, the Citizen is likely to cease publication on March 21, after 138 years in business. Its parent company, Gannett, announced in January that it was putting the Citizen up for sale, but was holding onto its 50 percent interest in the joint operating agreement it had with the Daily Star, and the Feb. 19 deadline for bids has since passed.

Washington, D.C.

The Washington Post Co.’s earnings dropped 77 percent in the fourth quarter of last year, and executive editor Marcus Brauchli is merging the downtown newsroom with the paper’s Web-based operation in Arlington to cut costs. Called the “feisty competitor” to the Post, The Washington Times has about one-seventh of the Post’s circulation and has dropped its Saturday print edition. But it gets its funding from the Unification Church, and along with the free Washington Examiner, helps fill the newspaper hole in D.C.

(Note: Philadelphia has the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News, but those two papers are owned by the same company (Philadelphia Newspapers, which just filed for bankruptcy), so we didn’t include it. And while the Las Vegas Sun and the Las Vegas Review-Journal are two entities, the Sun appears as an insert inside the Review-Journal, so we didn’t include Las Vegas either. Also: In a recent Poynter column, Rick Edmonds wrote that joint operating agreements are also still present in Charleston, W.Va.; Fort Wayne, Ind.; Tucson, Ariz.; Salt Lake City; and York, Pa.)

Jane Kim is a writer in New York.