Newspaper war erupting in northern suburbs

September 18, 2006

In one corner is the nation's largest newspaper publisher, Virginia-based Gannett Co., which is launching The Carmel Star Sept. 20. In the other corner is Carmel based Current Publishing LLC, which will launch the Current in Carmel in mid-October.

But the two ink-flinging warriors aren't the only bruisers in this battle. There are eight other newspapers in Boone and Hamilton counties. There are now three newspapers in Carmel; two each in Fishers, Lebanon and Noblesville; and one in Zionsville. While the region is one of the fastest growing in Indiana, journalism experts said having 10 newspapers serving a population of just under 300,000 is astounding.

"With that number of newspapers in such a condensed area, it would make you wonder how they're all going to survive," said Jim Brown, associate dean for the journalism school at IUPUI.

There are some real heavyweights in this battle. In addition to Gannett's owning four of the 10 publications, industry veterans South Bend-based Schurz Communications Inc. and Birmingham, Ala.-based Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. own two each in the bi-county area.

The Current has some big hitters behind its David-like facade.

Brian Kelly, who left Nuvo Newsweekly shortly after helping start the alternative paper, is the company's president. He also is an investor in the Southside Times, a free publication in southern Marion and northern Johnson counties, and recently started free business publications in Hendricks, Johnson and Morgan counties. Kelly also started the Greenwood Gazette in 1986. He later sold the publication to the Indianapolis Star in 1996, and the Star folded it in 2002.

Former Star sports editor and Chief of Special Publications Steve Greenberg is vice president. Other big-name Carmelites are rumored to be part of the mix, but Kelly and Greenberg refused to divulge names.

Greenberg, however, was on the campaign team to re-elect Carmel Mayor James Brainard and counts Carmel City Council bigwig Ron Carter among his friends. Terry Anker, of the Anthology Venture Fund in Hamilton County, was brought on to enlist investors to raise startup funds that Kelly said are in the six figures.

The Carmel combatants, like all the Boone and Hamilton county publishers, say they will attract readers with extensive local coverage, but the business models for their publications differ.

The Carmel Star, for instance, will distribute its tabloid free along with The Indianapolis Star to area subscribers Wednesday through Saturday. It will also be available free at retail racks and at area businesses.

The Carmel Star will initially be run out of The Indianapolis Star's Hamilton County bureau, but Carmel Star General Manager Brian Priester said Gannett officials are looking for office space in Carmel for the publication. Twelve to 15 staffers will be devoted to The Carmel Star, which will have a circulation of about 17,000, Priester said.

Response from Carmel advertisers has been strong, Priester said, but he wouldn't divulge ad rates and declined to say which companies have committed to advertising.

The Current, which is preparing to move into an office on the corner of Rangeline Road and Main Street, will distribute 28,500 tabloid-size newspapers via direct mail once a week, covering virtually every household in Carmel, Kelly said. The Current will likely start with a smaller staff than the rival Star, but Kelly said his newspaper will use a cadre of correspondents from business executives to soccer moms to assure blanket coverage of community events.

"We're going to have a new model for content," Greenberg said. "We're going to be heavy on lifestyle issues, including health care, wellness, fitness and personal finance. We're going to be a cross between Vanity Fair and a newspaper. And it will be very proactive. Not just looking at what happened yesterday or last week, but what that means for local residents and what's next."

Current officials are no more eager to divulge advertisers than are Star officials, but Greenberg said he has sold advertising packages to nine of nine Carmel businesses approached, including a 52-week contract to a health care provider to advertise on the back page and on a strip at the bottom of the front page.

"I think we'll triple or quadruple our advertising base in the next week," Greenberg said.

While ad rates are negotiable for almost all newspapers, Current officials said they charge roughly $28 for a business-card-size ad and up to $1,265 for a full-page ad. Kelly has also put together an advertising network with some of his other properties and with Home News Enterprises, which prints daily newspapers in markets such as Columbus, Franklin and Greenfield. Kelly said the network will be useful in attracting advertisers interested in a broader audience.

Industry observers said the Star will likely offer advertisers the opportunity to buy ad packages that include space in its other area publications.

Greenberg contends the Star is merely trying to jump into a money-making opportunity, but Priester said his operation was in response to reader demands, not a copycat of the Current's blueprint.

"We have been planning this for more than a year," Priester said.

The newspaper growth north of Indianapolis comes as the number of newspapers nationally has declined almost 20 percent and total newspaper circulation has dropped 15 percent since 1980, according to the Newspaper Association of America.

Newspaper advertising, however, has seen steady increases over the last two decades. Some believe those increases could be coming to an end.

"For a long time, newspapers were the only game in town," said longtime local media buyer Bill Perkins. "So the industry was able to see advertising increases by raising rates. Now, they're under increasing pressure on a number of fronts."

The primary newspaper predators are new media, such as the Internet, broadband communications, and advances in radio and television news.

In this intense war for readers and advertisers, according to Maggie Balough Hillery, a longtime newspaper editor and publisher, a successful warrior is emerging in print: the community newspaper.

"I think it's a mistake to say newspapers are waning," said Hillery, an adjunct professor at Indiana University's School of Journalism. "If you examine the struggle of the industry, it's publications that try to appeal to a mass audience that are struggling."

Statewide, national and international news can be obtained from myriad sources, but there are precious few news outlets that provide quality local coverage, Hillery said.

"These community newspapers don't have the traditional market forces bearing down on them that is driving circulation down at metro dailies," said Clint Brewer, president-elect of the national Society of Professional Journalists. "Weekly and community newspapers, which were once laughed off by the big metro publishers, are now one of the hottest commodities in this industry."

In Hamilton and Boone counties, there's another key factor fanning the flames of this newspaper war: business growth.

"Banks, auto dealers, retailers, restaurants and grocers are popping up everywhere, and are just the type of businesses that would advertise in these publications," Hillery said.

Boone and Hamilton counties' demographics don't hurt, either. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 50 percent of all Carmel residents have a college degree; that's more than triple the rate of the rest of the state. Hamilton County's median household income is near $85,000, about double the state average. Almost 30 percent of Boone County residents have a college degree, still well above the state average, and the county boasts an annual median household income of $60,000, about 50 percent higher than the state average.

There are signs that this local battle for print supremacy could be brutal.

Already, rumors fly among the competitors of financial difficulties and impending death of one or more of their counterparts. So far, those rumors are unsubstantiated.

"It takes time, but we're growing," said Mike Corbett, publisher of the Noblesville Daily Times, which launched in June 2003. "The survivors will be the ones that carve out their niche and stay laser-focused. Our niche is to be as local as we can possibly be."

As the two new contenders in Carmel brazenly come out of their corners, neither professes any fears of failure.

"We have a huge [Carmel] audience already, we're giving them exactly what they've told us they want, and we're giving small businesses a chance to reach a highly desirable audience at an affordable price," Priester said.

Current officials are ready to go the distance. "We understand Gannett has the resources, and could keep its product around a long time," Kelly said. "In an ad-rate war, [Gannett] could be very formidable. But I think you're going to see a noticeable difference in our publication. We think content is king, and we're ready to let ours speak for itself."

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