'San Diego Union-Tribune,' Newark 'Star-Ledger' Up For Sale

The San Diego Union-TribuneTwo regional metro dailies are being sold by publishers who think the newspaper slump is going to get even worse. Last week, the Copley Press announced that it is selling Union-Tribune Publishing, which publishes the San Diego Union-Tribune. Also last week, Advance Publications said it would sell the Newark Star-Ledger unless employees agreed to a "large-scale buyout" that would cut about 15% of the paper's employees.

Copley has retained Evercore Partners, an investment firm, to analyze different plans for divesting itself of Union-Tribune Publishing, which includes the Spanish-language newspaper Enlace, Today's Local News in North County and SignOnSanDiego, a Web site.

The move follows the sale of its other newspapers and properties in California and the Midwest. These include the Copley News Service, now renamed the Creators News Service; nine newspapers in Illinois and Ohio, bought by GateHouse Media Inc.; and the Daily Breeze in Torrance along with three Los Angeles weeklies, bought by Hearst Corp.

According to the most recent report from the Audit Bureau of Circulations, covering September 2007-March 2008, the San Diego Union-Tribune's Sunday circulation fell 6% compared to the same period in 2006-2007, to 355,537--while weekday circulation fell 3% to 288,669.

Also last week, Advance Publications delivered an ultimatum to the staff of the Star-Ledger, saying that 200 employees out of the total 1,400 would have to accept buyout offers by October 1 or face the sale of the newspaper. Likewise, 25 employees must accept buyouts at The Times of Trenton, another Advance publication under the same threat. Advance is also closing its Newhouse News Service, based in Washington, D.C.

In a memo to employees, publisher George E. Arwady wrote that "although we have implemented a variety of plans to reduce expenses and create new sources of revenue, our financial picture continues to deteriorate. We simply have been unable to offset the unprecedented and continuing steep decline in advertising revenue. Therefore, we now have a genuine crisis. The situation is critical--we are currently on life support."

According to the March ABC figures, the Newark Star-Ledger's Sunday circulation fell 12% to 500,382 compared to the same period in 2006-2007, as daily circulation fell 7% to 345,130.

Of course, the ongoing collapse of print ad revenues makes it especially difficult to sell newspapers. Arwady did not bother trying to paint a rosy picture for buyers, but Harold W. Fuson, Jr., the executive vice president of Copley, went through the motions. Performing a tricky balancing act, he admitted on one hand that "the last couple of years have been a difficult period for the newspaper industry, especially those in a real estate-dependent market like San Diego."

On the other hand, Fuson said, "we have every reason to believe the business will rebound with the economy," while "the Union-Tribune's combined newspapers and Web site readership is very strong." But he added that "the uncertainties pose too great a risk to sit still."

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