Free paper's fresh take has locals almost willing to pay

For Donald Pope Sr., the attraction of the fledgling Portland Tribune isn't its price, but the fact that it's different.

"It's just something new to read," he says while perusing some of the free paper's offerings on a recent Friday morning. "If they charged 25 cents, I'd still pay 25 cents for it."

Since February, the twice-weekly paper has been bringing local news to the doorsteps and downtown street corners of Portland -a city with one dominant daily paper, The Oregonian - and is slowly catching the attention of readers like Mr. Pope.

At a time when national and international news are available 24/7 on cable TV and the Internet, the Portland Tribune is one of a growing number of papers trying to lure readers by sticking to local news.

Many of the papers are in smaller communities, like Hastings, Neb., or Dunn, N.C., but they are following the same concept as the Tribune: Focus on what people can't get elsewhere.

Trying anything new in the current newspaper market can be risky, with advertisers in retreat and pink slips as common as reporter's notebooks. But, like the magazine industry, newspapers are learning that if they want to survive, they have to target more narrowly.

Some small-town papers are simply concentrating on being very local. But in the case of the Tribune, it was funding from Robert Pamplin Jr., a wealthy minister and businessman, that got the paper off the ground.

His desire to promote better communication in society and expand his media portfolio has not been thwarted by austere times. "I do a lot of things on principle, and don't worry about the cost," he says.

The Tribune is a sister publication to a chain of suburban papers also owned by Mr. Pamplin, and it has taken that community-paper concept and tried to make it more sophisticated to cover Portland. It uses eye-catching graphics and photos to cover issues that have so far ranged from gardening to an investigation into why an immigrant was killed by police in a psychiatric hospital.

Some readers say they like its look and price, but editor Roger Anthony says they also like that they can read it cover to cover. "The larger, general-interest daily [paper] is of such a great size that people are getting 80 pages a day, reading 10, and putting everything else in the recycling. I think people find that off-putting," he explains in an interview in his downtown office.

Indeed, the paper weighs less than the hefty daily published a few blocks away. But Mr. Anthony, who worked at The Oregonian for 20 years, dismisses comparisons. "They're two different products," he says, reiterating that the Tribune is entirely local.

Some papers highlighting local coverage find it easy to beat competing dailies at local news because they can run columns with townsfolks' names in them, or pictures of their families and pets.

But the Tribune is covering the same beat as The Oregonian, one of several papers owned by the Newhouse family, which also owns magazines like The New Yorker and Vogue. It has more resources and a reputation that includes three Pulitzer Prizes in the past three years.

"People have, in general, a pretty high opinion of The Oregonian," says John Russial, a journalism professor at the University of Oregon in Eugene and a former editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer. "It's on the upswing, unlike some of the metros in this country."

Although the Tribune has done weightier projects, like the immigrant shooting and a profile of former governor Neil Goldschmidt, some readers are still trying to figure out its mission.

"It's fun to look at, but as far as news value goes, it's kind of slim," says Kevin Shilts, an independent contractor who used to work as a computer manager for a local business journal. "They're trying to cover the same bases The Oregonian does," he says after taking a break from reading the Tribune on a recent morning.

Others are still evaluating the newcomer. M.G. Boda starts her day, as many Portland residents do, by reading a paper in a coffee shop. She's gradually been adding the Tribune to her list.

"One motivator to pick up the Tribune is it's free," says the 30-something student and fitness instructor, who gives high marks to a recent Friday edition. "This issue is very informative regarding local news," she says, pointing out a business story about making movies in the area.

About 158,000 copies of the Tribune are distributed each Tuesday and Friday, with actual circulation figures for the free paper still being determined. That compares to The Oregonian's daily circulation of 350,000, which has been unaffected by the new paper's debut.

Unlike some papers with a local approach, the Tribune is not having as much success wooing advertisers. "One of the struggles we've had [is that] it's tough to sell a new product in a shrinking market," says Tribune editor Anthony.

But, like many of his colleagues, he remains enthusiastic about starting a new paper.

"You don't get to do this in this profession, ever," he says. "If you look at the pictures of people who founded newspapers, they're all guys in derbys and canes."

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