Lee’s slow learners 

A 17-month experiment by Missoulian parent company Lee Enterprises to publish a free weekly newspaper aimed at adults under 30 came to an abrupt end Thursday, Jan. 26, when coreweekly closed its Madison, Wisc., doors and fired its staff with no notice.

Announcing the venture in 2004, in coordination with Lee’s jointly operated Capital Newspapers, Chief Executive Officer Mary Junck said the weekly would serve to test the waters for potentially similar publications in other Lee markets. These days, of course, Lee markets are found all over the map, since Lee purchased the Pulitzer newspaper chain in summer 2005, making Lee the fourth-largest newspaper publisher in the nation with 52 dailies and more than 300 traditional weeklies in 23 states.

The alt-weekly publishing world—which often dismisses chain-owned “alternative” weeklies as “faux alts”—reacted with interest both to the debut and the failure of the endeavor, since it had been seen from the start as an attempt by a major publisher to steal market share from locally produced independent newspapers. With more than 40,000 college students at the University of Wisconsin, the mid-sized Madison market is attractive but also competitive, since it’s already home to two professional daily newspapers, two daily student newspapers, two biweekly student papers, the minority-owned and -focused The Madison Times, and The Onion, not to mention the 64,000-circulation alt-weekly Isthmus.

While the impact of coreweekly’s closure on Missoula’s media may be slim to none on its face, the news takes on meaning in light of Lee’s expanding role in the increasingly conglomerate-dominated media landscape and its attempt to branch into the niche of alt weeklies. James Hopson, Lee’s vice president of publishing in Madison, didn’t return a call from the Independent seeking comment about the closure, so for context we’ll have to rely on CEO Junck’s forecast upon coreweekly’s inception: “We’re looking forward to what we’ll learn in Madison.” The lesson, apparently, is that publishing a successful weekly that people want to read isn’t as easy as it looks. Heck, for a perfectly reasonable consulting fee we could have told them that.

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