While the business metrics are a little sketchy, the Times has done well enough in San Francisco and Chicago to forge ahead in a push to eventually field as many as 10 or 12 such local supplements in its biggest circulation markets outside New York.
As in the earlier ventures, the Times’ news partner is a recent digital start-up, the Texas Tribune.
The Times has described the added regional pages as a circulation retention strategy — a sweetener for subscribers in the chosen markets. There is no way to measure precise impact, “given the complexities of a market,” Times president Scott Heekin-Canedy told me in a e-mail interview, “but anecdotally we know our readers are very appreciative of the additional coverage.”
Overall, 2010 has not been a good year for Times circulation, down 8.5 percent daily and 5.2 percent Sunday in the period ended March 30. But those numbers are influenced by industry trends, a series of price increases and tougher competition in both circulation promotion and editorial scope from The Wall Street Journal.
Advertising has been a modest plus for the regionals as well, though part of four pages a week in two markets with circulation ranging from 40,000 to 70,000 is a blip in the Times’ total ad business. “We’re not diving into the local newspaper business in these markets,” Heekin-Canedy said.
, the associate managing editor who oversees the news side of the regionals, told me in a phone interview that he thinks they “are working like gangbusters journalistically.”
The Texas expansion does mark a maturing of the editorial formula. With the lead story, the Times aims for “a piece of enterprise reporting,” something fresh for Times readers. A strong column helps too, Schachter said.
Texas will be a bit different, Schachter said, with its state-wide scope and a partner already up and running. (The Chicago News Cooperative was just starting when it became the Times’ content partner in November and the Times’ San Francisco bureau and stringers provided content for the first six months there before Bay Citizen took over.)
In addition to Texas Tribune’s public policy reporting, the Times plans to publish some cultural and lifestyles coverage in the new regional pages. Evan Smith, who was a longtime editor of Texas Monthly before becoming editor of Texas Tribune, will commission and edit the additional content separately from his duties at the Tribune.
All copy for the regionals flows through the Times’ national desk in New York, requiring a somewhat early news close, 6 p.m. on Thursday nights and mid-day Saturday.
I (and others) suggested as the first regional editions launched last fall that the Times’ strategy seemed a bit predatory, picking markets where the metros — the San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury News, and Chicago Tribune — had been hit especially hard by cuts in news staff and news space. I asked Schachter for a reaction.
“I don’t see how it can be,” he replied. “The Times is at a wildly different price point — $770 [a year for seven-day subscriptions outside New York]. And what we are doing in no way compares to the volume of news the local paper produces.”
He conceded, though, that “the organizations we work with all emerged out of a concern for the state of local journalism.”
While I see the distinctions, I think the Times already attracts affluent, educated readers who may mainly be interested in national, international and cultural news in which the Times excels and have marginal interest in their local metros (themselves much more expensive than a few years ago). That dollop of local coverage just tilts more attention plus circulation and ad revenue to the Times.
The Times will face some challenges to keep expanding the regional push. San Francisco is its biggest market outside New York and Chicago its third, Schachter said. The Texas markets together have about the same circulation as Chicago. So other potential markets might prove too small by comparison — or lack a substantial alternate news source partner like the three chosen so far.
Then there is Boston — a huge news market and surely a good one for the Times. But could the Times engineer a regional strategy there without undermining its sister paper, the Boston Globe?
Whatever the venues or pace of growth for the regionals, the Texas foray, debuting Oct. 29, is this month’s iteration of a newspaper industry truism: the Times and its none-too-friendly national rival, the Journal, continue to invest in editorial expansion while flat staffing or further contraction are the rule elsewhere.
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Texas Tribune would provide cultural and lifestyle content for the new regional edition. In fact, Texas Tribune’s contributions will be limited to state policy stories, and cultural and lifestyle news will be produced separately.