Just before the upstart Long Beach Register printed its first edition, the withered Long Beach Press-Telegram decided to add newsroom staff and more pages to its paper.
No, that was not decades ago; it was just this summer.
Oddly, in an era of recurring newsroom cuts and emerging digital platforms, two local newspapers are engaging in an old-fashioned and expensive print showdown.
The anachronistic battle made Long Beach, a city of a half-million residents, into a phenomenon, given how it’s considerably smaller than other remaining two-newspaper towns, such as Boston and Chicago.
“It will be difficult to grow the pie for newspaper subscribers in a market like Long Beach,” said Gabe Kahn, a professor at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, who doesn’t believe the war will last long. “It’s about how long can you go before you retreat and cede ground to the other person. Each player might have a different number in mind as to how much they can lose.”
The Register, owned by Aaron Kushner’s Freedom Communications of Irvine, has hired about 20 newsroom employees and a handful of sales people this year. It launched in August as a five-day-a-week paper wrapped around Freedom’s Orange County Register. It plans to launch a Sunday edition in coming weeks.
The paper now has about 10,000 subscribers, said Publisher Ian Lamont.
“We certainly are making an investment,” he said, though he declined to say how much.
The Press-Telegram, owned by MediaNews Group of Denver, is digging in, too. In recent years, the paper had cut reporting staff and shared stories with sister newspapers in the Los Angeles News Group, which includes the Los Angeles Daily News and Torrance Daily Breeze. The Press-Telegram has about 60,000 subscribers.
But it has beefed up in the face of the competitive challenge from Orange County. Press-Telegram executives have said the paper is hiring reporters and editors for its news and sports coverage, and opinion sections.
John Paton, chief executive of Media-News, told KPCC-FM (89.3) in August that he was prepared to spend big in Long Beach.
“Whatever resources Kushner is going to spend in that market, he’s a fool to think we would not match that,” Paton said. “The resources he’s going to spend, we already spend an X-factor more than that for the Long Beach Press-Telegram. Plus, we’ll spend more than that defending our territory.”
Neither Paton nor Los Angeles News Group executives would comment for this article.
‘Paper of record’
The Press-Telegram has a long history as the hometown paper. It’s been around since 1897, though it has changed.
It was published twice daily for decades until its former owner Knight-Ridder changed it to a morning-only schedule in 1984. The paper was then sold to MediaNews in 1997 for as much as $100 million, according to reports at the time.
The Press-Telegram has since suffered deeply from the recession and an industrywide downturn in ads and classifieds. In 2006, the Press-Telegram building, the paper’s longtime headquarters, was sold to real estate developers who converted it to condominiums, while the paper’s staff moved to an office tower.
In 2011, the paper cut its reporting staff by half, down to roughly 10 reporters. The paper’s sports writers and photographers were shifted to the offices of the Daily Breeze.
Kushner, who led the group that bought Freedom Communications last year, saw an opportunity. Kushner has spent aggres-
sively to increase print coverage at its flagship paper, the Orange County Register, along with its smaller community papers in the area.
He brought that approach to Long Beach this year, and hired Lamont, a former publisher of the Press-Telegram.
That’s when the Press-Telegram embarked on an extensive advertising campaign, using the motto “We Are Long Beach” on buses around town.
The same month, the Press-Telegram organized an event featuring Randy Gordon, chief executive of the Long Beach Chamber of Commerce and other community members to show off its ties with the community.
Sarah Bennett, executive editor at online newspaper Long Beach Post, said she’s witnessed an improved product from the Press-Telegram.
“It was a fight-or-flight situation – I think they needed to,” she said. “They’re the hometown paper and they’re trying to maintain that paper-of-record status.”
The Register meanwhile is touting subscriber gains. It started this year with about 2,600 existing Orange County Register subscribers in the Long Beach area and claims it has grown that to 10,000.
One challenge to further gains is that the Long Beach Register is more expensive. A subscription, which includes the Orange County Register, costs about $30 a month. The Press-Telegram charges half that.
Bennett doubted that Long Beach’s lower-income residents will pay for news, saying they are more likely to seek out free news online. They can do that at the Press-Telegram website.
Stories from the Long Beach Register staff are on the Orange County Register’s site behind a pay wall. The paper does not yet have a standalone website. Lamont said it will be launched shortly.
Kushner is known for emphasizing the print product and has said that digital ads aren’t yet making enough money to justify outsize investments.
By comparison, MediaNews papers, which are operated by New York management company Digital First Media, have committed to making Web content free, with a strategy characterized by Paton as stacking digital dimes to meet print dollars.
Kahn said he believes that there will ultimately only be one victor.
“This is one place where you see the strategies go head to head,” Kahn said. “Clearly the market cannot support two players.”
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