Friday, July 11, 2003

Journal Newspapers to The Washington Post: Drop dead.

The publisher of the Journal, a newspaper chain in the Washington suburbs, said yesterday he was “astounded” to learn The Washington Post plans to target commuters with a new weekday tabloid called the Express, a name he says the Journal owns.

“We’re going to sue their [backside] off,” said Ryan Phillips, president and publisher of the Journal. Later, he said he was consulting his lawyers and “investigating” his alternatives.

Adding insult to injury, Mr. Phillips said, is that the Post tried to steal the Journal’s thunder by announcing the free commuter paper the day after the Journal said it would begin giving its papers away at Metro stations.

On Thursday, Mr. Phillips said he e-mailed a press release to the Post, The Washington Times and other media announcing that free copies of the Journal would be available at Metro stops and park-and-ride lots beginning July 21.

The Post announced the introduction of the Express in an article in yesterday’s Business section. The article said the Post would give the Express away at Metro stops in early August. It did not mention the Journal’s plan to give its papers to commuters.

“You draw your own conclusions” about the timing of the Post’s announcement, Mr. Phillips said.

Christopher Ma, a Washington Post Co. vice president who will serve as publisher of the Express, said he did not learn of the Journal’s plan to give its papers away until yesterday. “I read it in [their] newspaper,” he said.

The skirmish is reminiscent of the New York tabloid wars. The New York Post and the New York Daily News are fierce competitors, routinely attacking each other and trying to steal readers with outlandish headlines such as “Ford to City: Drop Dead,” a classic Daily News banner from 1975.

Journal Newspapers Inc. acquired the Express, a chain of weeklies in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, in September 1992. The Journal stopped publishing the papers in 1997, but it always intended to revive the name, Mr. Phillips said.

Mr. Ma said the name Express passed a “rigorous legal review” with the Post’s trademark lawyers.

The Post’s Express is designed to appeal to readers between 18 and 34, many of whom get their news from the Internet. It will feature primarily wire-service reports.

Other big-city dailies have introduced free commuter papers to drum up interest among younger readers. The Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times introduced commuter papers last year, but it’s too soon to judge their success, industry analyst John Morton said.

The Washington Post has a daily circulation of 757,000. It plans to print 125,000 copies of the Express.

The Journal is published weekdays and Sundays in Northern Virginia and Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. Its combined circulation is about 130,000, Mr. Phillips said.

The Journal will be free at Metro stops and park-and-ride lots, but consumers will have to pay for home delivery and store sales, Mr. Phillips said.

Giving the papers to commuters could be a first step toward the Journal becoming a free publication, he said, adding that he believes all newspapers will be free within 10 years.

The Post article suggested that its company is introducing the Express to avoid competition from Metro International SA, a London publisher that has shown interest in the Washington area.

Metro publishes 25 papers in 16 countries, including commuter papers in Boston and Philadelphia. A spokesman in Metro’s corporate office in London could not be reached, but a manager at Metro’s Boston office said he was not aware of plans to expand into Washington.

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