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Newspapers are scrutinizing radical methods of The Examiner

The Examiner is a bold media experiment that breaks a lot of rules. With bottom-line-conscious publishers at many papers trying to find new sources of revenue, The Examiner is given away for free. At a time when the trend is to distribute papers to urbanites along transportation routes and on downtown streets, The Examiner is deposited on driveways and porches. And in an era when two newspaper towns are vanishing, The Examiner is challenging a dominant daily in two major markets.

''The business philosophy is the newspaper industry is so ossified in its thinking," says John Wilpers, editor in chief of the Washington Examiner. ''We think the industry needs to rethink how we do business."

Operated by billionaire Philip Anschutz, The Examiner launched in San Francisco in February 2004 and in the nation's capital this February. Anschutz has also trademarked the Examiner name in more than 60 cities -- including Boston -- generating speculation that the papers could someday sprout like weeds across the country and might show up on the doorsteps of Massachusetts residents.

The paper has developed a unique formula. It is a graphically snappy tabloid with a focus on local news and conservative-leaning opinion pages produced by a small staff. It is distributed free to households with incomes of more than $75,000. Examiner executives say the goal is not to knock out their more powerful rivals, The Washington Post, (700,000 daily circulation) and the San Francisco Chronicle (480,000). Rather, the goal is to appeal to readers looking for an easier-reading alternative to the big metro daily and to attract advertisers who can efficiently target dollars to reach high-income consumers.

''I think you have to go in with a premise that we are living in a time and generation of folks that really don't believe you should pay for access to news," says San Francisco Examiner publisher Scott McKibben, explaining the business philosophy. ''You must run your operation with a high degree of cost discipline. You must have an exceptional distribution network."

It is too early to know whether the strategy will work. But industry analysts and executives are watching with rapt interest.

Patrick J. Purcell, publisher of the financially troubled Boston Herald, has cited The Examiner in discussions at the paper, leading to questions about whether he might adopt a similar strategy. Purcell told the Globe he is intrigued, but says the home delivery costs are a serious obstacle.

''It's a pretty interesting strategy. . . . It's something we've got to watch," Purcell says. ''Obviously it takes a lot of capital to get it going. . . . We're looking at it, but to take on 200,000 [home deliveries] out of the gate would be a bit of a stretch." Globe publisher Richard H. Gilman largely agrees with Purcell. ''It's an interesting concept but expensive to execute," he says. Asked about the possibility of The Examiner coming here, he adds: ''We don't know their plans exactly, but I'd have to say that if they're looking for a market that is already quite crowded with newspaper competition, then maybe they should try Boston."

'A different attitude'
One morning not long ago, the lead stories in The Washington Post concerned Shi'ite resistance to US forces in Iraq, news that Pope John Paul II had considered resigning in 2000, and word that a painkiller was being pulled off the market because of safety concerns. The front page of the Washington Examiner that day was dominated by the news that the city's new Major League Baseball team was unwilling to foot the bill for extended public transportation service at the ballpark.

''We try to be smart but fun," says Wilpers. ''We'll put stuff out front that has a different attitude than the Post."

In a crisp, tight tabloid format, The Examiner focuses on regional happenings with a healthy dose of lifestyle, entertainment, gossip, and sports packaged in shorter stories. Both the Washington and San Francisco versions are produced by about 50 full-time newsroom employees who are not unionized. About 260,000 daily Examiners are printed in the Washington region, with 210,000 of those distributed directly to homes. In the San Francisco area, circulation is about 163,000, with 110,000 papers delivered to targeted neighborhoods. According to company spokesman Jim Monaghan, the percentage of home delivery customers who cancel the paper hovers between 2 and 3 percent in both cities.

Leonard Downie Jr., executive editor of The Washington Post, says The Examiner ''looks to be a pretty well-packaged tabloid." But he adds: ''They can't come anywhere near covering the metropolitan area completely."

Downie questions whether there is room for The Examiner in a market dominated by the Post, where The Washington Times already provides a conservative counterweight to the Post, and where the Post Company's own free tabloid, express, already offers a quick condensed daily read. ''What is their niche?" he asks.

''They don't have a strong editorial identity," says Erik Wemple, editor and media writer for the weekly Washington City Paper. ''The local reporting does not distinguish The Examiner so far. It's not splashing. It's not bouncing off the front page."

The San Francisco Examiner got better reviews from the weekly San Francisco Bay Guardian, which recently ran a story saying the paper ''is doing an amazingly good job of keeping up with, and sometimes outdoing, the much larger San Francisco Chronicle on covering local news."

''I think it has probably wisely focused on local news and I think they do a decent job," says Chronicle editor Phil Bronstein. He calls the Examiner model ''an interesting way station, but I'm not sure it's the final destination."

Anschutz's gamble
One of the most intriguing elements of the Examiner saga is Anschutz, a politically conservative 65-year-old magnate who, according to Monaghan, has not given a formal interview since 1974. (Monaghan said Anschutz would not speak with the Globe.) A Kansas native who originally made his fortune in oil and gas, Anschutz controls about 100 companies and owns five Major League Soccer teams in the United States. His company, Regal Entertainment, is the largest movie theater chain in the country, and the Anschutz film operation produced the Ray Charles biopic ''Ray."

One theme that emerges in Anschutz's career is that he is a patient investor who goes bargain hunting. ''The Anschutz model is to find assets that are underperforming and undervalued," says Monaghan.

Newspaper analysts seem to view Anschutz's gamble with admiration and caution.

John Kimball, chief marketing officer for the Newspaper Association of America, says The Examiner has chosen an expensive distribution model and wonders if that will pay off in ad revenues: ''Do you get a crack at a different level of advertiser because you targeted those specific demographics?"

David Cole, publisher of the News Inc. industry newsletter, gets the San Francisco Examiner at home and says the paper might have picked a good launching pad. ''You have to have the right market, [and] how I define the right market is a single, large, somewhat slow-moving entity somewhat like The Washington Post and San Francisco Chronicle," he says. Without specifying which locales, Cole predicts there might be three or four more cities in which an Examiner could take root and be viable.

Not surprisingly, the prospect of Examiner proliferation is being monitored in the newspaper business. And when discussing the spreading Examiner trademark, Monaghan measures his words carefully. ''Those communities are all being looked at because there's a certain amount of due diligence needed to protect the trademark," he says. ''This will be driven in various markets by opportunity."

Asked whether he expects another Examiner or two to pop up, Monaghan is a little more blunt.

''Sure," he says. ''I would think so."

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