For more than a year and a half, the newspaper chain that owns the Oakland Tribune worked on a secret project that was supposed to rejuvenate print journalism in the San Francisco Bay Area.
It was to be a free daily tabloid that would bring harried commuters and non-reading young people back into the newspaper fold -- and do it with attitude. Its cartoony code name, The Daily Flash, was an adaptation from the newspaper that employs Brenda Starr, and seemed a brazen challenge to Berkeley's not-quite-daily community handout, the Daily Planet.
But it was one of the Tribune's corporate rivals, Knight Ridder, that appears to have engineered The Daily Flash's downfall. Last month Knight Ridder launched a free tabloid daily of its own in Berkeley. The Daily Flash, postponed for more than a year, was suddenly demoted from a superhero of an idea to sidekick.
And that's a tragedy, said The Daily Flash's inventor, perennial newspaper editor David Burgin. Mr. Burgin's aim was to rethink everything about the genre and make newspapers exciting again. "It would have been a paper that you couldn’t possibly have conceived," he said.
I'm the Nostradamus of the industry. ... I don't see anything that connects the average guy in the street with a newspaper, and I damn well don’t see anybody under 40 reading papers.
-- David Burgin
For starters, the front page would have looked more like America Online's home page than any newspaper now printed -- lots of colorful graphics, bold headlines and an "interactive," conversational feel.
Editorials would have trumpeted reform ideas from page 2, and columns would have been sprinkled throughout the paper. Even news stories wouldn't hesitate to opine on the "upshot" of the news -- something Mr. Burgin says reporters hesitate to do today. Editorial cartoons would have graced the front page.
Above all, the paper would have had a strong voice, the key, he said, to keeping readers engaged. And the whole thing would have been tied in closely to its own Web site. It would have looked nothing like other free daily tabloids that have sprouted up around the country in recent years.
"None of these tab dailies anywhere in America come close to what I would have put out," Mr. Burgin said. "They're all off base. They all miss the point. They're all just cowardly, half-assed bad ideas. The industry needs a new patois. A new way to speak. Hard news and fairness and all that stuff need to be re-examined."
Mr. Burgin, who got his start as a cub reporter for the late New York Herald Tribune, has been the top editor of more than a dozen papers across the country, including the Oakland Tribune, the Orlando Sentinel, and two other extinct titles, the Dallas Times Herald and Houston Post.
His last editorship, of The San Francisco Examiner, ended three years ago “in a blaze of glory,” he said, when he had a heated falling out with the publishers, the Fang family. (This writer worked as city editor at The Examiner under Mr. Burgin.) The Berkeley paper was supposed to be his long-planned comeback from involuntary retirement.
He approached his old friend, Dean Singleton, whose national MediaNews Group owns the Tribune's parent company, Alameda Newspaper Group, asking him to stick a toe in the expanding free daily newspaper market. But the for more than a year the project never got funded, Mr. Burgin said, beyond his contract and planning and design meetings at the chain's offices in Pleasanton.
Meanwhile in February, Knight Ridder, which already owns the San Jose Mercury News, the Contra Costa Times and various Easy Bay weeklies, moved in. It purchased a chain of free daily tabloids, all called the Daily News, on the other side of the San Francisco Bay -- on the peninsula between San Jose and San Francisco. Last month Knight Ridder started printing a few thousand copies of a new Berkeley edition, called the East Bay Daily News. Now, The Daily Flash's prospects look even more remote.
Our profit margin is every bit as good as that of paid dailies.
-- Dave Price, Publisher, the Daily News
Kevin Keane, vice president and executive editor of the Alameda Newspaper Group, declined to comment specifically on his company's plans. "Certainly, every newspaper group in the country is considering getting into the free daily market," Mr. Keane said. He added that not everyone is convinced that the model can produce a healthy enough business to sustain a quality local news operation. He referred questions about his company's plans to his publisher, John Schueler, who did not return calls for comment.
Mr. Burgin sees most traditional newspaper companies as unwilling to change, despite unprecedented threats to their profitability, primarily from the Internet.
"Newspapers are so dead," he lamented. "They’ve got to be different, and not just improved. I don't think the heavy hitters in the industry actually believe what's happening. [They think] 'Newsprint goes up and newsprint goes down. The ad lines will come back.'
"Well, they won't. I'm the Nostradamus of the industry. I can see it, I can smell it. I don't see that energy. I don't see anything that connects the average guy in the street with a newspaper, and I damn well don’t see anybody under 40 reading papers."
Some traditional big daily papers, such as the San Francisco Chronicle, are better than they used to be, Mr. Burgin said. But better isn't good enough. And the proof may be that despite its near-monopoly position in San Francisco, the Chronicle is apparently losing at least $62 million a year, Editor & Publisher Magazine reported earlier this month.
Rise of the free dailies
In the past five years, more than a dozen high-profile free daily tabloid newspapers have been launched in cities across the country, such as New York, Boston, Chicago and Washington. Some of those papers were even started by dominant metropolitan dailies in the same cities, a strategy aimed at getting non-readers into the habit of reading news in print. The hope is that eventually those readers will mature and graduate to the meatier parent paper.
The Examiner, which was re-launched as a broadsheet paid-circulation daily paper in the fall of 2000, emerged by the winter of 2003 as a free daily tabloid with less than a third of its previous staff.
While Mr. Burgin was long gone by then, it was actually closer to the model he envisioned when he first met Examiner publisher Ted Fang.
"When Ted Fang asked me what he should do I said, put out a tabloid and make it free," Mr. Burgin said. "And have the numbers. Have a bigger circulation than anybody. Get the circulation that way instead of having to build it. But he convinced me that the old Examiner had 120,000 circulation. They didn't have anything, maybe 20,000. It was pathetic."
In February 2004, the Fangs sold the then-free tabloid Examiner to Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz, who proceeded to register the name Examiner in 69 cities across the country. In February, apparently convinced that free dailies had a financial future, Mr. Anschutz started another Examiner in Washington, D.C. The San Francisco Examiner also produces editions on the peninsula, but so far none has surfaced in the East Bay.
Adapt or die
Dave Price, one of two publishers of the Daily News chain that launched
its East Bay edition last month, said he had heard "rumors" about
the Alameda Newspaper Group planning to put out a free daily tabloid. But he
said he didn't take that into account when he decided to start his newest edition.
"We've been thinking about the East Bay for a long time," Mr. Price said. "We're happy to be there, and it's been a big success. It's growing faster than the Palo Alto paper did at this stage."
So far the East Bay Daily News is pretty flimsy -- eight pages filled mostly with wire-service news and recycled stories from other Knight Ridder publications. But Mr. Price hopes that it will catch on and expand beyond its current press run of 7,000 copies, which in turn will allow him to hire more than the current dedicated staff of two journalists.
"We've been making money for a long time," Mr. Price said. "We're only 10 years old and our profit margin is every bit as good as that of paid dailies."
Mr. Burgin sees the free-paper strategy as a potential savior of the industry. Most paid newspapers have been losing circulation for years, and advertisers have been particularly scarce since the dot-com market collapse in 2001. Something radical and creative needs to be done to bring back both readers and advertisers, Mr. Burgin said.
"A newspaper's like a shark," he said. "If you don't move, you die.
"Change is coming like a freight train, and too many publishers and editors are clinging to what was, and thinking they’re doing something about it. They’re doing nothing, and we’re going to see the sad demise of a lot of newspapers. It’s here. The layoffs and everything else are coming. I see a lot of bravado, but I don’t see anybody doing anything about it."