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Rupert Murdoch's Neighborhood Papers

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Over the past few weeks, three companies have been vying for control of Newsday.

Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, which owns the New York Post, began the bidding at $580 million.

Days later, the owner of the Daily News, Mortimer Zuckerman, matched Murdoch's bid.

And then Cablevision, jumped in, offering $650 million to the Tribune Company, Newsday's owner.

Cablevision has never run a newspaper before, and that may be one reason the Tribune Company hasn't yet accepted their offer.

The New York Times' Richard Perez-Pena tells WNYC Rupert Murdoch is still very much in the game.

One reason: his relationship with Tribune Company's owner, Sam Zell.

PEREZ-PENA: They've spoken favorably of each other publicly. Murdoch has given Zell advice on running Tribune company. They recently did a deal making the San Diego TV station that Tribune Company owns into a Fox affiliate which makes it a lot more profitable. So there's a bit of a relationship there.]

HOST: If Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation does get Newsday, it'll round out a local media empire that also includes the New York Post, and two dozen papers in an overlooked category: community-based weeklies. WNYC's Ilya Marritz now reports on how they fit into Murdoch's media strategy....

REPORTER: When Michelle Rea heard in 2006 that News Corporation was buying community newspapers in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens, she was appalled.

REA: I was absolutely terrified.

REPORTER: Rea is the executive director of the New York Press Association. She represents the small fish in the pond: community weeklies and ethnic newspapers.

REA: I was so afraid that once they got sucked up they would lose all of the local imprimatur, they would lose connection to the community.

REPORTER: But 18 months have opened Michelle Rea’s mind about Rupert Murdoch.

REA: So far so good. What the future holds, I have no idea.

REPORTER: Murdoch’s News Corporation paid sixteen million dollars for two chains of community weeklies: the Times-Ledger papers of Queens and the Courier Life Papers in Brooklyn. They’re actually medium sized fish in the big media pond of New York. The free weekly Courier Life papers have almost as many readers as the daily Houston Chronicle, which costs fifty cents.

But Murdoch-watchers didn’t get it - What would a press baron who resembles The Very Hungry Caterpillar want with some rinky dink rags in the boroughs?

If you really want to understand this stuff, says CUNY journalism professor Jeff Jarvis, you have to think like an ad sales person.

JARVIS :The battle starts with saying we’re serving queens better than anybody or Brooklyn better than anybody. A then you can go to the advertisers and say now you can buy both queens and Brooklyn from me at a good price.

REPORTER: Jarvis sees a local media landscape where bit by bit, Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post is nibbling away at the ad base of its archrirval, the Daily News.

JARVIS: The New York Daily News is only by a hair still ahead of the New York Post. And so if you add in the community papers and you add in the influence those can have, and you Newsday that gives the local market to the Post in that case if Murdoch succeeds in getting them all.

REPORTER: Weeklies offer circulation of more than a half million in the coveted boroughs of Queens and Brooklyn. Most of them actually make money. And they’ve proven to be considerably more resilient than bigger papers, because they offer something you can’t always find on the internet.

JARVIS: there’s only one paper that’s gonna be covering my school board and my sewer board and these other fascinating things…it’s unique in a market that’s otherwise turning into a commodity.

REPORTER: Now, here’s where Michelle Rea’s worst nightmare doesn’t come true: the independent local weeklies say they’re actually able to compete quite successfully with Murdoch’s neighborhood papers. It could be posturing, but the publishers WNYC spoke with say their business hasn’t suffered.

SCHENKLER: I do not believe I’ve lost advertising to the consolidation of the Bayside Times with Post.

REPORTER: Meet Mike Schenkler. He’s the publisher of the Queens Tribune, and he’s now in direct competition with Murdoch’s Bayside Times for readers in northeast Queens.

He says the Bayside Times actually looks pretty much the way it did before it was bought by News Corp, right down to the occasional typo.

But isn’t he afraid that Murdoch could one day pump money and resources into the Bayside Times, making the Queens Tribune look liked chopped liver?

SCHENKLER: They could very well become…much slicker looking, much better looking, printed on newer presses, they might surpass some of the community newspapers in appearance and slickness and maybe even get in more expensive editors so there are fewer typos and better proofreading and sharper photos, cause they have the Post photographers, but the more that’s done on West Side of Manhattan, less input that civic Organization in Ozone Park org has.

REPORTER: They call it “refrigerator journalism”. It’s news of that new stop sign in Ozone Park, or the score from the last Benjamin Cardozo High School basketball game, or the obit for your neighbor who fed the pigeons.

The moment Murdoch’s papers seem to lose that local touch, Schenkler says, they will be toast.

Maybe. It’s probably too early to say exactly what Rupert Murdoch has in mind for the Bayside Times or the Canarsie Digest. WNYC requested an interview with News Corporation but got no response.

But at least one community newspaper editor who works for Murdoch was willing to go on the record. And he says there have been changes.

KIRBY: I think we were able to produce a more attractive newspaper.

REPORTER: Kenton Kirby stayed on at Caribbean Life after it came under the News Corporation umbrella. Today it’s printed on New York Post presses. Kirby says he likes the way it looks, but there have been changes that could make no editor happy.

KIRBY: Advertising has been as you know the main focus of the new owners ….if we want to get all the articles in obviously, we’ll have to shorten some stories…but then we can still get the message out.

REPORTER: What’s more, Kirby says, circulation has come down about twenty percent since the purchase.

In January of 2007, a few months after the acquisition, thirteen staffers were fired, mostly from the ad side. Howard Swengler sold ads for all the Courier-Life papers in Brooklyn.

SWENGLER: They had security guys that came in and while you were removing your stuff, they were watching everything you did.

REPORTER: Exactly why he was fired is a mystery to Swengler, but here’s a guess: he made too much money, and he had a lot of the same accounts as the New York Post ad sales team. Now they’re selling a lot of the ads in Caribbean Life.

Swengler says in just the few months he spent working within News Corporation, things got much more corporate. There was a new employee rulebook, and no more petty cash to attend chamber of commerce luncheons.

When he was fired, the news was read to him by his longtime bosses. He says it sounded like a message from corporate headquarters.

SWENGLER: It was kind of awkward that I had relationship with my bosses and they were reading something so that they would not make a mistake and say something that was wrong.

REPORTER: This summer, those publishers will find themselves in a delicate position. A year and a half ago, when the papers were purchased, they signed two-year contracts with News Corporation. The idea was to assure continuity. And they’ve done it well. Many readers probably would never connect the Park Slope Courier or the Flushing Times with the twenty nine billion dollar corporation that runs Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, channel nine, channel five, and the New York Post.

And maybe soon - Newsday.

For WNYC, I’m Ilya Marritz.

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