Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2006 | Dick High doesn’t think the Internet will kill the newspaper. At least not his newspaper.

“Journalism is great stuff,” said the long-time publisher of the North County Times in a recent interview. “And the Internet is part of it. We are just kicking it on the Internet, because it’s ours.”

“It’s a serious attempt to make a good newspaper; it’s a work in progress.”
– Dick High,
NC Times Publisher

High has reason to be optimistic: In still-unreleased internal figures for November, the Times posted its first jump in circulation in several years, High said, compared to the falling numbers at most major newspapers.

The contrast is particularly sharp to The San Diego Union-Tribune, the county’s biggest newspaper. Earlier this year, its parent, Copley Press, announced that it was considering selling all of its newspaper holdings except for the San Diego flagship, fueling speculation that the U-T could soon also go on the block. Following the announcement, the paper offered buyouts to its veteran employees.

The stark differences at the two biggest dailies, several industry analysts predict, may augur what lies ahead for newspapers in a world of podcasts and blogs, and for the cities they serve. As the Internet grows, papers will shrink, move to the suburbs and turn more local.

“It’s a serious attempt to make a good newspaper; it’s a work in progress,” said High, who has run the North County paper since it was created 11 years ago when Howard Publications merged three small local papers into a major daily.

According to former and current staff members, the paper has thrived with relative stability, even after Howard was bought by publicly traded Lee Enterprises in 2002, and after the Iowa-based Lee took out heavy debt to finance its purchase of the Pulitzer newspaper group in 2005.

When, earlier this year, Copley shuttered its Today’s Local News, a free daily it started to compete in the northern part of the county, some of those given pink slips were picked by the Times. While other publicly traded newspaper companies have faced pressure from stockholders to post higher profits in the face falling circulation, Lee has continued to announce sizable earnings.

In the quarter that ended in September, the company posted an operating margin of nearly 17 percent, compared to less than 3 percent for The New York Times Company and less than 12 percent for The Washington Post Co.

Though the company does not break down its performance by newspaper, High said the Times “meets or exceeds” the profit benchmarks set by its parent. (“Let’s put it this way: As often as not, their expectations are lower than I would suggest,” he said.)

“If you see papers cutting back a lot, that is a sign that they’ve given up their prospects. I’ve had some cutbacks, but I’ve added as many positions as I’ve cut,” High said.

As major papers cut their foreign bureaus, the Times sent two staff members to Iraq, and was one of the few members of the media to witness the first battle of Fallujah first hand. It plans to send another reporter to Iraq next year, and High said his strategy is to continue expanding the paper’s online offerings.

“They’ve always been a high-margin company,” said newspaper industry analyst John Morton of Lee, the paper’s corporate parent. “They’ve benefited, with the exception of St. Louis, in being in primarily small- and medium-size markets, which generally get less hammered.”

Observers say that the company’s success has come by focusing on local news, not necessarily on investigative journalism.

“I don’t know that the actual journalism at the U-T and the Times is different. It’s the focus that’s different,” said Dean Nelson, who directs Point Loma Nazarene University’s journalism program. “The North County Times figured out that community news matters.”

In recent years, Times columnist and former New York Post managing editor John Van Doorn has pushed the paper’s leadership to pursue more enterprising journalism, though to limited success.

“We are in the reader-friendly news age, whatever the hell you call it,” said Van Doorn, explaining that the paper has increased its investigative reporting over time, though not as much as he has desired. “All editors, and the publisher, and all of the people want to do the things I want to do, but we’re too lean. … That’s just the nature of the beast.”

High, who admits that the paper is not one “that goes out and bites tires,” said its focus on local news has not kept it from being aggressive. The editorial board, he points out, slammed the Escondido City Council after it passed an ordinance prohibiting landlords from renting to illegal immigrants, despite an outcry from angry readers, some of whom dubbed the paper the “Latino Times” in comments on its website.

“We break a lot of stories, we raise hell with local politicians,” High said, though “we tend to dig into things that are in front of us.”

Much of the Times‘ success and approach, both Morton and Nelson said, is a product of its business model. Unlike traditional metropolitan giants like the U-T, which cover large metropolitan areas, most booming papers of today are located in smaller, suburban areas, where the kind of people most attractive to advertisers reside. They succeed by keeping staff trim, and by covering things dear to the heart of their readers – local sports, community events, and the like.

“My personal feeling is that they would attract a bigger audience if they did more investigative reporting, and I wish they would, but I understand the business reasons for why they don’t,” Nelson said. “They don’t have the resources … to let someone work on something for a few months, and then not have it pan out. And that’s the nature of investigative journalism.”

For his part, High says he has no plans of expanding the paper’s reach south.

“I’m clear on this: The fight is in our core,” he said. “I think it’s safe to say that at this point, North County does want its own newspaper, and we seem to be their choice. We don’t take that for granted, and we have to work really hard to improve this paper.”

A spokesman for Copley did not return requests for common, though Nelson said he thinks it’s unlikely for the U-T to bring the Times‘ model south.

“It’s really hard for a big metro like the U-T to feel like it’s the hometown paper to all of the different communities in San Diego,” he said. “I think the biggest thing they learn from the North County Times is that the local paper needs to feel like the local paper. And, other than San Diego politics, I don’t know if they’re making the people in the South Bay feel like it’s their hometown paper.”

(Correction: The original version of this story said that the November circulation figures have been audited. In fact, the rise in circulation is based on unaudited, internal company data. We regret the error.)

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