- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 21, 2004


The suburban Journal Newspapers have sold an unspecified share of the company to an investment group led by the former publisher of a free daily newspaper in Philadelphia, the paper announced yesterday.

James McDonald, an executive with Metro International, a Luxembourg company that publishes free daily papers in Philadelphia and Boston, will take over as the Journal’s publisher beginning Feb. 2. Ryan Phillips, the papers’ current president and publisher, will remain on the company’s board of directors.

Neither Mr. McDonald nor Mr. Phillips would discuss specifics of the deal, but Mr. Phillips said yesterday that the new investment “is not enough to constitute a sale.”

Mr. McDonald will leave his job with Metro International to take the job as publisher. Metro International is not involved in the Journal investment.

The daily Journal papers already have made a significant shift toward the free-newspaper model. Last year, the paper switched its flagship Northern Virginia edition from paid circulation to free distribution. It is home-delivered in some places and is also distributed at Metro stations, where it competes with the Express, a free daily paper published by The Washington Post Co.

Mr. McDonald said the industry was skeptical about the viability of free daily newspapers in major metropolitan regions when he started in Philadelphia in 2000. Since then, the concept has expanded, with major publishers like Tribune Co., Belo Corp. in Dallas and The Post starting free editions.

“Free is the future of newspapers,” he said yesterday.

The paper’s two Maryland editions are still paid circulation. Mr. McDonald said he wants to learn more about the operation before making any decision about switching those editions to free circulation.

Mr. McDonald said it was too early to discuss or make any decisions about the jobs of the papers’ 60 or so editorial employees. The daily Mr. McDonald ran in Philadelphia consisted primarily of wire copy, but he said he wants to keep the Journals focused on local news in the suburbs and the affluent readership that goes with them.

“My decisions are going to be based on growing the readership,” he said. He also plans to redesign the papers.

The Journal papers experienced significant upheaval under Mr. Phillips. Most of the Maryland editorial staff was fired in December 2002, and workers filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, which agreed with workers that the firings were an improper attempt to prevent formation of a union. The complaint ended with a monetary settlement in which the Journal admitted no guilt.

Mr. McDonald will serve as president of the Sun Gazette Newspapers, a group of free weeklies in Northern Virginia, and of the Central Virginia Gazette and Mechanicsville Local, weeklies covering suburban Richmond. He also will be publisher of a monthly paper, Middleburg Life.

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