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.

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.

The number of newspaper titles (and total circulation) started to slide with the advent of radio, and every new medium—television, transistor radios, cable, the VCR, the Internet, satellite broadcasting, cell phones—has given it another shove. Business Weekreported last summer that daily newspapers' readership dropped to 55 percent of households in 2002 from a high of 81 percent in 1964. This newspaper industry Web page shows total circulation as basically static since 1960, even though the population of 180 million has increased by about 115 million.

Such statistics usually get cited at the beginning of a "woe is the daily newspaper" sermon, but surviving newspapers have proved fairly imaginative in rebundling themselves in the face of competition. When audiences flocked to radio (and later television), newspapers served them—reluctantly at first—by running comprehensive listings and writing about the programs. Newspaper companies repositioned themselves as "media" companies, acquiring broadcast licenses of their own. As television proliferated, newspapers avoided duplicating what readers had already learned from watching television and concentrated instead on explaining the deeper meaning of news events. Sometimes the most eager consumer of sports copy is somebody who watched or listened to the entire game. Having learned so much, he hungers to know even more.

One consolation for newspapers was that electronic media weren't invincible, either. AM radio suffered first when television displaced it as the general purveyor of entertainment and again in the early '70s when FM radio became the preferred music channel. AM was forced to reinvent itself as a talk and news medium. Broadcast television went through similar permutations when cable arrived, and satellite television is giving cable similar conniptions today.

In recent decades, no paper has so rebundled itself as assertively as the New York Times. The process began in the mid-1970s, as Executive Editor A.M. Rosenthal (abetted by Arthur Gelb) scandalized the staff and snooty readers by rebundling into the Times the traditional array of service journalism and specialty sections (weekend, food, home, science, Sunday magazine supplements, etc.) that wouldn't look out of place in a 1920s newspaper. The tinkering continued into this decade with the launch of the Circuits and Escapes sections. If only the Sunday Times ran a page of comics, it could reclaim the title of home entertainment center!

In the 1990s, the Times started to unbundle itself from the city and reconceive of itself as a national newspaper. If the national Wall Street Journal was the newspaper of the American businessman, the Times wanted to be the daily newspaper of the American elite—and the destination for high-ticket national advertisers. By the end of 2002, more than a third of its paid circulation came from outside the New York City market *, according to this company breakout. The Times obviously competes with the other national dailies—the Journal, USA Today, and the Financial Times—but increasingly its target will be the anemic local daily, such as the Cleveland Plain Dealer or the Oregonian. This leaves besieged local dailies with a number of alternatives: Fight for the established general news niche, go local where the Times can't match you, or go free like the Examiner.

Perhaps the grandest unbundling act of all time came when the Internet shook awake. Practically every newspaper moved an edition to the Web in the relentless chase for readers and advertisers, and today thousands of ad-supported U.S. and international newspapers can be read for free. At some not too distant point, broadcasters will feel the pinch of the media that they once shoved aside and be forced move their product down the wire and over the airwave. Magazines and radio will follow, too, and as all of these digital properties bump against one another one can only imagine what feats of bundling and unbundling they'll perform to distinguish themselves from one another.

The moral of today's story, then, is that nobody's niche is safe and all the dancers must keep moving. Which brings us back to the Washington Examiner: Given the history of media, the dynamism markets, and all the shifting technology, does Philip Anschutz know something the rest of us don't? Do rich ZIP codes really need the tightly edited, free read on newsprint that they can already get faster and fresher for free on the Web?

If he commits himself to losing $10 million a year on his Examiners, we'll only have to wait 520 years to find out.

Correction, Feb. 11, 2005: This article originally referred to New York City circulation of the Times; the reference should have been to circulation in the New York City market. The wording has been changed. Return to the sentence.

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.