Unbundle. Rebundle.

Media criticism.
Feb. 10 2005 5:56 PM

Unbundle. Rebundle.

What the new Washington Examiner tells us about the media gestalt.

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Earlier this month, a free tabloid wearing the heraldic eagle logo made famous by William Randolph Hearst's San Francisco Examiner joined the newspaper heap that gathers on my suburban Washington lawn each morning.

Titled the Washington Examiner, the paper's logo doesn't include the highfalutin "Monarch of the Dailies" motto of Hearst's original Examiner. But its billionaire owner, Qwest Communications founder Philip Anschutz, possesses ambitions every bit as royal as the old press baron. Anschutz entered the newspaper business in early 2004 with the purchase of the San Francisco Examiner, which post-Hearst owners had reduced to a free daily tabloid. In September, he bought a Washington community newspaper chain, revamped it, and rebadged it the Washington Examiner. Signaling his expansion plans, Anschutz has filed for trademark rights to the Examiner name in nearly 70 cities.

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Other newspaper companies publish free dailies for subway commuters, but Anschutz is the first to carpet-bomb high-income addresses in a metro area with free home delivery. The Washington Examiner delivers approximately 210,000 copies each morning to D.C.-area addresses and drops another 50,000 at street boxes. This compares to the Washington Post's daily paid circulation of about 700,000. (Disclosure: The Washington Post Co., which also publishes the free Express tabloid, owns Slate.)

Unbundling payment from delivery is an audacious, expensive gamble. But with a fortune of $5.2 billion, Anschutz can afford it—he's wealthier than Charles Foster Kane, the publisher protagonist of Citizen Kane. When chided in the movie by a financial overseer that he's losing a million dollars a year on his newspaper, Kane quips, "You know, Mr. Thatcher, at the rate of a million dollars a year, I'll have to close this place in—60 years."

Like theatrical productions, new publications deserve a try-out period before being judged. That said, it's not premature to describe today's Washington Examiner as a mash-up of short local stories by staffers, brief wire pieces, and abridged articles from the New York Times and other newspapers. In other words, the Examiner has unbundled from its pages the depth and breadth one ordinarily expects from a metropolitan daily. This young paper is barely a serf, let alone a monarch.

Yet the Examiner isn't the only local unbundler, just the most conspicuous. On the Web, Craigslist and eBay are unbundling parts of the newspaper classified market, as are jobs sites (Monster, CareerBuilder, et al.), various car sites, and search engines.

The Washington Post has fought the unbundlers and falling circulation—down 10 percent for the daily edition over the past two years, according to this November Post story—by unbundling chunks of its once-unified advertising portfolio. Its parent company now chases AWOL readers with a bevy of free, specialty publicationsaboutapartments, new homes, moving to D.C., retirement living, and cars, not to mention the Express("designed to be absorbed in 20 minutes," says its Web site). Coming soon from the Post Co. are free pubs about weddings and golf. In the November Post story, Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. told his newsroom of his plans to win readers back with shorter stories and bigger graphics. (Shades of the Examiner!)

There's a long newspaper tradition of unbundling in the face of competition. Back in the early 1920s, big city dailies—especially Sunday editions—functioned as the home entertainment center, commercial bazaar, and primary information source for American families. The eclectic newspaper package offered every constituency something special. Shoppers browsed for goods on the bounteous ad pages. Comics splashed across whole pages at a time for both young and old readers. Fiction by pulp artists and "serious" writers ran in serial form, often in dedicated "fiction" sections. Some papers published daily magazines, where the feature form flourished. Columnists translated city life into newspaper vernacular, and editorialists crusaded.

Oh, and important news got reported in Section One.

But newspaper hegemony ended when radio took hold as a commercial medium in the middle of the decade. First, radio unbundled breaking news from the newspaper package, eliminating the need for five or six updated daily editions. Next, radio unbundled from newspapers the market for fiction with broadcast dramas. The newspaper's sports franchise took a hit as well, as broadcasters aired baseball and football games, and variety and music shows stole other leisure readers. Reporters are reluctant to acknowledge that newspapers are ads that happen to have stories printed on the back—and that they're really advertising-industry employees. Yet anybody working at a newspaper in the 1920s would have understood that radio, an extraordinarily cheap way to reach a mass audience in those days, was unbundling the ad market and shrinking the newspaper advertising base.

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