City Paper is not for tourists
At 4:55 on a rainy March morning, Eduardo and Wendy Rios inch along the 300 block of South Highland Street in Arlington Heights in their minivan. They drive at a walker’s pace because their job is to toss fresh editions of the Washington Examiner onto the front lawns of suburbanites. As they approach the house at the end of this block, however, they hold their fire. No red-sleeved news product will land on the yard of this particular brick colonial.
And there’s a reason for that. “He complained,” says Wendy Rios.
That may be an understatement. The house in question belongs to Matthew Morrissey, a fiery Arlington denizen who has forged a contentious relationship with the area’s new tabloid. Since last September, Morrissey has issued five pleas to the Examiner—and its corporate predecessor, the Journal—to stop delivering the free newspaper to his home. After each plea, Morrissey again got unwanted early-morning plops on the lawn.
On Feb. 12, Morrissey went public with his frustrations, testifying before the Arlington County Board on the Examiner’s delivery policies, in an appearance covered in the Arlington Sun Gazette. In his statement, Morrissey recounted his trouble getting satisfaction from the Examiner. “The problem is that they are littering our neighborhood, and our front yards, with newspapers we do not want,” said Morrissey in his statement.
After his board appearance, Morrissey ceased receiving the Examiner. “Only after going to a public meeting and outing these guys did it stop,” he says. “Not every citizen has the time to do that.”
Fourteen Arlington citizens, however, have had time to send flaming complaints to county authorities. Some of the complaints include the residents’ exasperated entreaties to the Examiner, and their tone can’t be boosting morale at the fledgling paper’s editorial offices. On March 4, for example, Arlington resident Jeanne Briskin included this line in an e-mail to the Examiner: “Stop delivery of the examiner to my home…immediately. I did not request it, and do not want it, at all, ever.”
Like Morrissey, Briskin reported no luck in getting the paper to cut off delivery and wasn’t pleased about handling disposal duties. “I do not want to clean up what I consider to be trash that you dump on me,” wrote Briskin to the Examiner.
The complaints—and the red plastic piles that inspire them—have made their way to the top of Arlington municipal government. Arlington County Board Chair Jay Fisette has asked the county manager to probe the litter complaints. Not that Fisette isn’t perfectly familiar with the issue to begin with. “Count me as a passionate advocate of the free press, but I’m also an environmentalist who picks up unwanted litter, and I’ve been busy lately,” says Fisette.
Litter gripes, nasty letters, public testimony—this isn’t the buzz that the Examiner set out to generate when it made its debut on Feb. 1. With original reporting on local news and an unconventional opinion section, the six-times-a-week paper was to wow the region with its journalism. Yet the Examiner’s biggest splash to date has come from its very own business plan, one that laser-targets certain rich, mostly white neighborhoods for home delivery, regardless of whether residents want it (Dept. of Media, “It’s All in Black and White,” 2/11).
Jim Monaghan, a spokesperson for the Examiner’s owner, pooh-poohs the delivery snafus. “There are challenges any time you start a new effort,” he says. Monaghan also suggests that Dept. of Media’s interest in the issue has more to do with rivalry than journalism. “Companies often try and disparage and limit competition. It gets interesting when papers do that.”
The success of the Examiner plan carries implications that go far beyond Arlington and the Washington metro area. Clarity Media Group has filed to trademark the Examiner name in nearly 70 U.S. cities, in an unsubtle hint that owner Philip Anschutz hopes to ride this business model to media moguldom. Someday folks in nice parts of such cities as Albuquerque, Fresno, and St. Paul may be getting the red-sleeve treatment.
The Examiner tells advertisers that it attracts young, rich readers—between 25 and 54 and making more than $75,000 per year. It snares a portion of its target audience through news boxes and hawkers at Metro stations. But the key is the home-delivery program, whereby Examiner execs can boast that they’re blanketing this neighborhood and that neighborhood. “This is what they’re doing different from what everyone else has tried to do,” says veteran newspaper analyst John Morton. “What it enables them to do is go to advertisers and say…‘If you want to reach these people, you can do it through our paper at a much cheaper cost.’”
The whole thing falls apart, of course, if the chosen recipients aren’t even unsheathing their Examiners. Arlingtonians are already formulating theories on communitywide apathy toward the paper. Douglas Kruth, who has lodged a complaint with the Arlington County Board, estimates that “less than 10 percent of the people that get it read it.”
Kruth and others have responded to the Examiner’s home-delivery outreach with a threat of sorts. They’re worried that when they travel, the Examiner will stack up on their driveways, welcoming burglars to their empty homes. “I will make a point with Law Enforcement officials and my insurance company and ensure that they know that the DC Examiner contributed to the issue,” wrote Kruth to the paper.
Big shots at the Examiner are awakening to the PR pitfalls built into their business plan. After fumbling cutoff requests in the Examiner’s initial weeks, they’ve begun making the no-delivery orders stick. Gilah Langner, a Cleveland Park resident who came back from a trip in mid-February to find a lawn strewn with Examiners, reports a successful stoppage. “We complained, and they got the message,” she says.
And Arlington complainants also speak of more consistent nondelivery of the paper lately. For that, they can probably thank the Rioses. In their rounds, Wendy Rios clutches a master list of opt-outs that governs every toss from the delivery van. Getting the delivery exceptions right can be tricky in the dark early-morning delivery hours, because addresses can be hard to discern. So the Rioses have driven through the neighborhoods in the daylight “to see the numbers,” says Eduardo Rios.
Asked how many folks were on the list, Wendy Rios replies, “Many, many, many,” revealing several sheets of single-spaced addresses. Within three blocks of Morrissey’s home, for instance, at least six other households had registered for no Examiners. The list, says Wendy Rios, grows slowly; perhaps one or two addresses get added each day.
Whatever its selling points and drawbacks, the paper’s delivery model doesn’t appear to be either seducing or repelling advertisers just yet. Carey Rupp, marketing coordinator for Vein Clinics of America, says her organization’s account with the Examiner simply carried over from Journal days. “We haven’t taken too close a look at it now that it’s changed over,” she says. And Angela Spicer, owner of Synergy Day Spa, says the ad for her new business in the Examiner has nothing to do with the paper’s unique business model. “I just want to get saturation at this point,” she says.
So the Examiner has saddled up a colossal home-delivery operation for people who haven’t asked for the paper; it has fielded nasty complaints from many of them; and it’s working with distributors to carve out the opt-outs. All that work to learn what the Washington Post discovered last year through a series of focus-group sessions—namely, that many folks wouldn’t even take its paper for free; they just don’t want it piling up. “I have a recycling bin at the front door, and [the Examiner] goes straight in it,” says Kruth. “I looked at [the paper] once to find out how to contact them.” —Erik Wemple