Why Does the News Think It Can Sell a P.M. Newspaper?

Next month, the Daily News will give New York City an afternoon daily paper for the first time since the New York Post abandoned its afternoon edition in 1988 and the News itself closed down its Tonight edition in 1981. But don’t go looking at newsstands for anything like the News ‘ Night Owl edition-an early edition of the next day’s paper-or the legendary, doomed Tonight edition.

On September 12, however, you may look for the Daily News Express , which will be given away for free to commuters-that’s another word for ” New York Post buyers”-heading home to the suburbs.

The initial plans for the Daily News Express edition are modest. It will launch with a staff of 15 and a circulation of 75,000, distributed by street hawkers-street hawkers!-at 75 commuter hubs throughout Manhattan (starting with Grand Central Terminal and Penn Station) and downtown Brooklyn. The 40-page paper will have just 20 pages of editorial to fill; the rest is slotted for advertising.

At first glance, the concept of the Daily News’ Express edition seems to be a nostalgic look to the past. Evening papers were something your grandfather pored over in his armchair. And when exactly was the last time newspapers were hawked on Manhattan streets? WUXTRY! Probably not since, well, when the Daily News dominated the mindscape of the city.

But, of course, all that has passed. It looks like Mort Zuckerman is preparing to give New York a newspaper that wants to be a Web site.

“People want up-to-date fresh news, quickly as possible, because we’re competing with Web sites, we’re competing with TV, with radio, with everybody else, so we have to have the latest possible information,” said Les Goodstein, president and chief operating officer of the Daily News . “And if free is the name of the game, we’ll put it in their hands free.”

Mr. Goodstein’s pitch is that his Express will combine breaking news with a give-it-away-free approach could be taken from any one of a hundred dot-com promotional plans.

Of course, with the Express , the Daily News still aims to put physical copies of the paper in people’s hands rather than get them to log on; that’ll come later, Mr. Goodstein said. Meanwhile, he’s thinking of circulation in terms of newsboy-delivered hits.

And for that reason, the Daily News Express may not be the silliest idea that’s ever come out of 33rd Street. Reaching 75,000 readers that advertisers can actually look out and see will sell more ads than some new Internet site ever will. And if the News can get enough copies across the Hudson River from its New Jersey printing plant in midday traffic-or float them across by ferry-it’s not far-fetched to imagine thousands of people picking up a Daily News , if out of nothing more than sheer boredom, for the MetroNorth ride home.

Maybe.

The project was dreamed up by the publishing side of the Daily News and championed by Les Goodstein. In an interview, he appeared to have taken his cue from cable business-news channel CNBC.

“It’s almost like a sporting event,” he said. “You have the opening bell, you have the half time, the final scores. Twenty years ago, if I were say to you [that] you have a show like this , you would have said, ‘I don’t see that.’ Well, it’s the year 2000 and the world has changed a lot, and what people are really interested in is the world of business-and business is going to be a big part of this product.”

Though free, Daily News Express is meant to be profitable. “We view this as a way of filling a void in the marketplace,” said Mr. Goodstein. “You cannot get a newspaper with late-breaking news after 8 o’clock in the morning. We’ve come up with a concept,” which he described as free, with “late-breaking business news, late-breaking sports news, and above all, late-breaking business news … entirely supported by the advertising.”

Mr. Goodstein said the Daily News Express should make money at the 75,000 level. “The business model is profitable, but we’re anticipating that there will be a greater demand for the product and we have plans to roll out additional circulation in coming months,” he said. He said he does not expect the free afternoon paper to cut into the 730,000 circulation of the 50-cent morning newspaper.

“We wanted to make absolutely sure that we didn’t encroach on the morning product,” Mr. Goodstein said. “We decided to go p.m. because there is that void in the marketplace, and we decided that we had to make this as different from the regular Daily News as possible.”

The Daily News Express was a well-kept secret at the News , taking many in the newsroom by complete surprise. When Off the Record made calls about the new edition on August 21, reporters were not aware of it. One editor who had seen mock-ups was excited about the Daily News Express , however. “It’s really cool-looking,” the editor said. “It’s jazzy.” He added, “I was on the subway once and a guy came through selling newspapers that he had obviously stolen for a quarter. He had five New York Post s and five Daily News es, and everyone wanted a Daily News … If you could get those people, I think you could get a lot of readers.”

Reporters, though, were worried that the Express edition would simply mean more work. “It means when the mayor announces he’s quitting at noon, we have to write a story and we don’t get paid extra,” said one. “Clearly there’s some questions about whether more staff is going to be hired or the same staff is going to be on it,” said News columnist Juan Gonzalez, who was the last Newspaper Guild representative elected for the Daily News .

Brian Moss will edit the Express edition. He said that the staff would primarily work independently to produce the paper. “We’re looking at about 15 people working together to put this paper out,” Mr. Moss said. “That includes reporting staff and editing staff.”

Bob Kappstatter, who will edit news for the Express edition, said that the staff of the two editions would be discrete and the Express stories would be fresh. “We will be as non-competitive with the morning paper as we possibly can,” he said. “We will be a fresh rock ‘n’ roll read for the homeward-bound commuter.” However, the number of editors and reporters, Mr. Kappstatter said, is “top secret.” And, with a noon deadline, it’s unclear how many fresh “rock ‘n’ roll” stories the Express staff will have to cover during the morning. Mr. Kappstatter pointed to overnight crime news, foreign news and advancing yesterday’s news as his editorial staples. “You can move the previous day’s story great lengths with a 9 a.m. phone call to the commissioner as soon as he gets into the office,” he said. “We’re talking about a news cycle that starts at about 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning and ends at about noon or 1 o’clock in the afternoon. So you have a smaller news cycle, you don’t need as many people.”

Not that Mr. Goodstein seemed worried about a dearth of news breaking before noon. He said that the Concorde crash in France, the appointment of Senator Joseph Lieberman as Al Gore’s running mate, the small-plane collision over New Jersey and former President Ford’s stroke all had happened before noon. “So you’ve had some very big news stories,” he said, “coupled with all the big business-news breaks in the morning.”

To begin production, the Daily News will have to work out an agreement with its unions. At least one union seemed pleased at the prospect of more work in the News ‘ Liberty View plant in New Jersey, where printing the edition will result in a new day shift. “It’s one of the more positive things to happen at the Daily News in a long time,” said Wayne Mitchell, president of the New York Mailers’ Union. The Daily News and its unions will have to come up with an agreement on producing the Express edition, Mr. Mitchell said, adding that he is optimistic. “It’s not a ton of work,” he said of the run, which will only take one press, “but it’s more than we had last week.”

The News is pinning its hopes on the notion that giving the paper away for free will let it survive. The free daily newspaper is an idea borrowed from Europe. With a business plan that seems drawn out of the dot-com world, the Modern Times Group, a newspaper publisher based in Stockholm, has been shaking up newspaper markets throughout Europe with daily morning papers it distributes for free to commuters in mass transit systems. Earlier this year, the company began its first paper in the United States, in Philadelphia.

Under a deal the Stockholm company signed with the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, Metro Philadelphia is displayed in racks in stations and on board buses and trains. In exchange, Metro pays SEPTA at least $45,000 a month and provides a free page of advertising in each day’s paper. The paper began with a circulation of 160,000.

Designed to be read in 25 minutes, Metro ‘s thin editions consist principally of the top few paragraphs of stories taken off of wire services, compiled each day by an editorial staff of just 16. The Modern Times Group had previously approached the M.T.A. with a similar deal to distribute a similar paper to the 7 million people who use the mass-transit system everyday, but the agency turned the Swedes down.

The Modern Times Group’s other venture in North America has been into the Toronto market, which already has three papers competing for readers. Brad Henderson, a spokesman for the Toronto Star, said that it had already been considering a free daily aimed at commuters before Metro showed up. But, once Metro had made a deal with the local transit authority, the Star , the Toronto Sun and Metro introduced their free morning dailies all in the same week. And two months into the Toronto free-daily war, the Star says it’s happy with the free-daily format. So does the Sun , a tabloid more akin to the Daily News .

So based on the Canadian trial, it’s possible that the Daily News Express experiment is one of the less wacky attempts of the year. Who knows? The combination of the new media and the economy will probably bring back the bulldog edition next.