Tracking the readership of a free newspaper is like trying to bottle a vapor. What's not difficult to determine is advertisers' desire to target young consumers.
"Advertisers increasingly want that young, upwardly mobile audience," said newspaper analyst John Morton. "And they'll pay to be a part of a product that can deliver it."
Central Indiana's two biggest newspapers aimed at readers with a strong interest in the city's night life and only a fleeting concern about long-term savings plans have been competing for readers and advertisers hammer and tong for two years. Both are free. Both claim vibrant circulations and strong financial health. Neither publicly acknowledges the other as direct competition. But some say Intake, owned by McLean, Va.-based Gannett Co. and launched by The Indianapolis Star two years ago, is intent on putting the city's other free weekly, Nuvo, out of business.
Intake officials dismissed such talk and said they are concentrating on growing their audience with a mix of "where to" guides and lifestyle articles.
Nuvo, a locally owned alternative newsweekly founded in 1990, tries to appeal to readers with what the newspaper's management describes as a mix of arts, features and in-depth pieces with social relevance.
While Nuvo claims its press run is holding steady at 50,000, Intake this summer boosted the number of papers it prints from 50,000 to 70,000.
"We had so many locations where every copy was taken, we felt it was time to increase the number of copies printed," said Kevin Poortinga, Intake editor and general manager.
Though both publications target readers under 40, there are several key distinctions between the two, said Jim Brown, associate dean of the journalism school at IUPUI.
In-depth, investigative journalism is more a staple for Nuvo, Brown said, while Intake pursues lighter fare. Nuvo delves into politics and other community issues that Intake usually doesn't tackle. Intake is heavy on trend news sought after by 20-somethings, he added.
Both papers have a heavy dose of write-ups about restaurants, music, movies and other nightlife attractions. But their varying approaches, Brown said, likely means Nuvo's readership skews somewhat older.
Though readership is difficult to track for a free publication, Poortinga said his e-mail box has gone from receiving a few notes a day about Intake to overflowing with reader response. He said Intake officials are in the process of studying circulation and readership for the publication more closely.
"Anecdotally, I'd say Intake has grown by leaps and bounds as far as product awareness," Poortinga said.
According to Scarborough Research, a New York-based media research firm, Nuvo's four-week total readership is an estimated 173,000, while Intake's is 114,000. Those numbers-which were taken from studies this year-represent the total number of people who read the publication at least once during a monthlong period. Some of those readers might read the publication multiple times.
If Nuvo is winning the war to attract readers, it would appear Intake has an edge with advertisers.
Intake, which started out printing about 64 pages per issue, has grown to an average of 104-128 pages per week, Poortinga said, with advertising making up 50 percent of the paper.
Nuvo, McKinney said, averages 64 to 72 pages a week, with 55 percent of its content advertising. Though growth during the most recent fiscal year has been mostly flat, McKinney said, Nuvo has remained profitable and has an eye on growth in the coming year. McKinney wouldn't disclose finances.
Gannett doesn't release revenue or profit figures of any of its specific holdings, so it's impossible to say how much cash Intake is generating. But Poortinga said the publication has been profitable almost since the outset.
Intake's open rate for advertising is $40.90 per column inch. Frequency discounts can drop the rate to $21 per column inch. Nuvo figures its ad rates differently, but its advertised rates appear to be slightly lower than Intake's. Nuvo, which quotes prices from full-page to 1/32 of a page, charges $1,378 to $2,756 for a full-page ad, depending on the number of times the ad runs.
How those published rates translate to the bottom line is anyone's guess.
"Almost no one is charging their full open rate," said Morton, a newspaper analyst since 1971 and president of Silver Spring, Md.-based Morton Research Inc. "With competitive pressure coming not only from other papers but other media outlets, and especially the Internet, most papers are cutting ad prices."
Intake is likely selling ads in some cases by cutting Star advertisers a good deal to appear in both publications, which would cut the profitability of Intake.
It's not uncommon for newspaper groups to package advertising for their various products, and sell them far below the price in their rate card, Morton said. "Who knows? [Gannett officials] could be adding advertisers in Intake for next to nothing."
Still, Nuvo's financial arsenal pales in comparison to Gannett's, putting the independent at risk, Morton said. Already, Intake has grown its news staff to 18. Intake also uses the Star 's sales and support staff. Nuvo has a news department of six and total staff of 27.
While McKinney concedes Intake has more resources than his publication, he said Nuvo has developed a local pool of solid free-lance writers whom readers are familiar with.
Poortinga said Intake is less intent on putting Nuvo out of business than on providing local advertisers a stable of products that reaches the entire community.
"We're trying to present our clients a total package," Poortinga said. "If they want to reach a younger audience at a good price, we want to be able to provide that."
Despite Poortinga's contention that Intake is not intent on squashing Nuvo, industry observers said Gannett has a history of trying to put other media outlets in its markets out of business.
"Clearly, Intake is a predatory publication intent on eliminating Nuvo from the market," said Brian Howey, publisher of the locally based Howey Political Report and former Nuvo news editor. "I think everything Intake has done has positioned them to try to take over this sector."
"Gannett has become famous for using economies of scale and leverage with advertisers to drive competitors out," said IUPUI's Brown. "I think you might be starting to see that here."
Howey said Nuvo's demise would mean Intake would have a market stronghold and could increase ad prices exponentially.
"I think another danger is losing a valuable, independent voice in this community," Howey said. "As an advertiser, I want a non-Gannett-owned publication as an option."
Killing Nuvo to boost Intake's readership would be a strategy aimed at boosting the Star, Morton said.
"Newspapers have been losing readership since the late 1980s," Morton said. "And they're doing anything they can to attract the next generation of newspaper readers."
The strategy of publications like Intake, Morton said, is to attract young readers and have them graduate to the mainstream daily.
"The daily paper is where the real money is," he said.