Newspaper Wars

The northern Colorado newspaper market is a real pie fight.

Fort Collins Weekly publisher Joel Dyer knew that a recently announced partnership with the daily Greeley Tribune would necessitate some major changes, beginning with his paper's name. Because the Weekly will be published twice a week as of early August, the old moniker no longer fit. He eventually settled on Fort Collins Now, but hadn't gotten around to reserving the appellation with the Colorado Secretary of State's Office when folks at another weekly, the Rocky Mountain Chronicle, locked it up out of sheer prankishness. In exchange for giving up rights to the handle, Chronicle associate publisher/associate editor Joshua Johnson says all his staff wants are, believe it or don't, "some fruit pies." However, he's adamant that these pastries be independently produced and filled with local ingredients — two attributes that, in his view, no longer characterize the Weekly/Now.

Dyer laughs off the demand, describing it as "just them having fun." But he takes umbrage at the implication that the Weekly gave up its editorial independence when it entered into a relationship with the Tribune. The Weekly/Now retains control over its content, he says, "and we get to cover way more news than we ever did before, which is exciting to us." Plans are in place to bump circulation from 33,000 to 45,000 and triple the size of the news staff with an eye toward branching out even further. "Initially, we're going to a Friday-Saturday publication schedule," Dyer allows. "How we'll grow into the future, I'm not exactly sure."

Such expansion at a time when most newspaper staffs are contracting portends even more heated competition for readers in this fast-growing part of northern Colorado — a metropolitan triangle formed by Fort Collins, Greeley and Loveland. As of last year's column about the flood of print products in the region ("Paper Chase," December 7, 2006), five free weeklies were in regular circulation there: the stand-alone Weekly and Chronicle, plus RH Weekly (affiliated with the Loveland Reporter-Herald), Ticket on the Street (from Fort Collins's daily paper, the Coloradoan) and a Tribune offering, NextNC. Today's total is officially one fewer: Tribune publisher Steve Weaver says NextNC will now become his paper's weekend guide, although some copies will still be available for street-side pick-up.

Yet the Trib's sponsorship of an expanded Weekly/Now escalates the conflict, turning the latter into a heat-seeking missile aimed directly at the Coloradoan. While Dyer won't come right out and say that an old-fashioned newspaper war is brewing, he concedes that he looks upon the Coloradoan as the Weekly/Now's only real rival, and he's obviously eager to start throwing punches. "I think the next few years are going to be wildly interesting in Fort Collins," he says.

The Coloradoan is no easy mark. It's owned by Gannett, a firm that's much larger than Swift Communications, the comparatively modest parent company of the Tribune. However, the paper is hardly immune to the economic forces battering newspapers across the country. In September 2005, the Coloradoan's publisher, Dorothy Bland, and executive editor, Michael Limon, resigned amid sliding circulation. The following year, the paper suffered through a round of layoffs that mostly impacted non-editorial positions. Then, in June, another ten workers involuntarily bid farewell. Most of the recent cuts involved business-siders, too; current executive editor Bob Moore says one and a half newsroom positions have been eliminated via layoffs since October 2005. Still, Moore isn't foolhardy enough to declare that the worst is over. "I've learned it doesn't pay to try and figure out where we're going to be in six or twelve months," he acknowledges. "We are where we are."

Moore says he's not sure if the Tribune is specifically going after the Coloradoan, "but they're certainly targeting the Fort Collins market, and if you look at the demographics, you can begin to see why. Fort Collins has a greater number of likely newspaper readers and a more attractive audience for advertisers than what they have in Greeley." He feels that the tag-team approach "speaks to the difficulty both papers are having in reaching advertisers and audience," and doubts that the Weekly/Now will be able to ramp up beyond its two-times-a-week strategy anytime soon. In his view, "The Greeley Tribune is essentially able to pay for the second day by discontinuing their NextNC product, and judging by their decision to kill it, it's clear it wasn't as successful as they wanted it to be. In the short term, they're able to go to that second day because they have the expense resources already committed. But it'll be very interesting to see if they can add subsequent days — and I would be surprised if they can. Reaching an audience with a printed medium is an increasingly difficult task in the current environment."

The Tribune's Weaver isn't nearly as aggressive in his comments, downplaying the idea that hostilities are imminent and stressing that his publication and the Weekly/Now haven't merged. Dyer "owns his paper, and we own our paper," he says. "We're collaborating. The collaborative model is the way we like to work." The Weekly/Now sales staff will assist the Trib in Fort Collins and Larimer County, he notes, while folks on the news side will provide the Trib with editorial assistance and occasional content. With regard to the Weekly/ Now potentially increasing its number of publication days, Weaver insists that Dyer will make that choice on his own. However, he concedes that, as the bi-weekly's printer, "we'd love to print more of them."

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