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Democrat-Gazette starts another newspaper war 

Hussman targets Arkansas Times with free weekly.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette has begun advertising for staff for a free weekly newspaper it plans to publish in coming months.

The paper would target younger readers — “Active,” “Yuppies,” “Young” and “Single” — according to internal documents provided to the Arkansas Times by a Democrat-Gazette employee.

Arkansas Times publisher Alan Leveritt calls the idea a clear attempt by Democrat-Gazette publisher Walter Hussman to suck up the Times’ share of the advertising revenue in the Little Rock market.

According to the memos, the content of the new weekly — possible names suggested for the new paper include “Focus” and “Mo” (as in, “More”) — will focus on entertainment and pop culture interesting to readers ages 20 to 45. One of the memos, titled “What We Need,” said no one over age 40 should be hired as editor.

The proposal suggests the paper feature “media types [readers] can relate to,” “down to earth stories,” “photos, photos, photos,” and regular sections on bars, clubs, sports, health, and a retail based section.

The Times learned of the Democrat-Gazette’s plans last week. Up until then, the plans for the weekly — which our source said have been in the works for a year — had been kept secret within the organization, including the hiring of key positions.

Democrat-Gazette general manager Paul Smith was not forthcoming with the Times last Friday. He told a reporter that the D-G had been discussing plans for a weekly for “a month, maybe” and said higher-ups weren’t sure if the paper would ever be printed.

On Sunday, however, the Democrat-Gazette advertised for six positions with the “new weekly publication.” D-G promotions director Crystal Thurman said Tuesday she was “overseeing the staff,” but not as publisher.

Smith discounted the idea that the new weekly was designed to try to steal the Times’ advertisers. “You’re [the Arkansas Times] kind of a political newspaper,” Smith said. “[The proposed weekly] is really going after the people that want less information — that are not heavy core newspaper readers, that just want brief information. It’s really going after that.”

The Times’ source said, however, that Smith had been pushing the content of the paper in a more political direction and it’s likely to include political columnists. The internal memos referenced the Times repeatedly.

Smith said the weekly would allow the D-G to serve readers who want “abbreviated news” without alienating “serious newspaper readers” by altering the content of the daily paper.

Smith similarly deflected the suggestion that a Democrat-Gazette free weekly runs contrary to publisher Hussman’s longstanding policy against giving away news content via the web and other sources. “It’s not giving away the content that other people are paying for,” he said.

Richard Karpel, executive director of the Association of Alternative Weeklies in Washington, D.C., said that “faux alternatives” — entertainment-based weeklies spun off by dailies to grab the territory and revenue of established alternative weekly papers — is a nationwide phenomenon that has met with limited success. Karpel said the Democrat-Gazette’s move is “unusual” in that “they’re so late.” Several weeklies started in the past three years have already folded.

Some of the failures are due to the fact that the dailies’ parent companies shrink at the freewheeling nature of alternatives, which don’t shy from profanity or risque subject matter. Media General, owner of the Tampa Tribune, just pulled the plug on its Tampa weekly Orange after it reported on a store whose name is a slang word for female genitalia.

In the venture, Hussman is emulating the company he beat in the Little Rock newspaper war, which ended in 1991 with the Arkansas Democrat’s takeover of the Arkansas Gazette, then owned by Gannett Publishing. Gannett Publishing has started weeklies in several towns it publishes dailies in — Boise; Cincinnati; Indianapolis; Louisville; Lansing, Mich.; Rochester, N.Y.; and Greenville, S.C. — to snatch younger readers (and advertisers) from independent alternatives. Like most faux weeklies, the newspapers focus on entertainment — “where to buy the best martini,” Karpel said — rather than news.

Gannett’s latest strategy, Karpel noted, is to control distribution of the weeklies by creating companies to contract with retail and grocery stores to maintain their news racks. The company pays to run the racks and then charges a fee to competitor publications to appear in places they once were in for free.

Times publisher Leveritt said that the Times is named over and over and again in the Democrat-Gazette’s documents and that those documents have been passed along to the Times’ lawyers to consider in light of antitrust laws. Given how closely the D-G documents mimic the Times’ advertising and promotions strategy, Leveritt discounts Smith’s assertion that the new weekly isn’t targeted at the Times.

“Walter Hussman is one of the smartest people in newspaper publishing and he knows the economics of small city alternative newspaper publishing,” Leveritt said. “So we both know the Democrat-Gazette isn’t starting a faux-alternative newspaper for the money. There exists only one reason, and that is to eliminate a strong dissenting voice to that of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in this community and to further monopolize the newspaper advertising market in Central Arkansas. More specifically and recently, we have offered a strong dissenting view of Walter Hussman’s efforts to influence and control the Little Rock School Board. I think we have his response right here.”

Hussman’s deep bankroll makes this a David v. Goliath contest. His monopoly daily in Little Rock has an editorial staff of 250, compared with the Times’ nine, and he owns monopoly dailies in Hot Springs, Camden, El Dorado and Texarkana, among other newspaper, cable TV and other assets worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Leveritt said he isn’t running from the fight. “Over the last 30 some odd years any number of competitors have tried to swallow the Arkansas Times,” Leveritt said. “We’re about as digestible as hickory nuts. I wish Walter had bigger fish to fry but if he wants to come after us, we’re ready to go.”

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