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With fewer reading, paper folds

The 102-year-old Pasco County News in Dade City shuts down after failing to update its marketing and circulation techniques, among other reasons, officials say.

By CHUIN-WEI YAP
Published December 3, 2006


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DADE CITY - It was a quote from The Fugitive that sprang to Joe Potter's mind as he readied himself for his last days as editor of Dade City's Pasco County News.

In the 1993 movie, as U.S. marshal Sam Gerard Tommy Lee Jones finally closes in on unjustly accused Dr. Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford), Gerard says:

"It's over now. You know, I'm glad. I need the rest."

Potter's not retiring. At 53, he is still energetic and eager to find work, though he is taking a much-needed one-month breather, he said.

He's leaving because he does not have a choice.

After 102 years, the last edition of the weekly Pasco County News was published Thursday, laying to rest Dade City's only local newspaper and one of the community's longest-lasting institutions.

As a business venture, the paper fell to dwindling readership and a failure to reinvent its marketing and circulation techniques, those inside and outside the newspaper said.

But, as a small part of a sprawling media empire, the Pasco County News also might have fallen victim to a reshuffling of corporate assets.

* * *

The shutdown comes three years after the Pasco County News and its publisher, Bradenton's Sun Publications of Florida, were purchased by Independent Publications, a 111-year-old, privately held media conglomerate in Bryn Mawr, Pa.

At the time, the Pasco County News was called the Pasco News. During the years, it's had other monikers, including the Dade City Banner.

Independent Publications has assets stretching from New Hampshire to Florida, in niche publications, commercial printing plants, subscription order services and Muzak franchises (yes, elevator music).

When the company acquired the Pasco News, Independent officials said they planned to continue the paper's brand of community journalism.

Time proved otherwise.

"The readership had dwindled away over a long period of time," said David Ernest, the Pasco County News' local publisher. "The previous owner (Bill Matthew Co.) made a conscious decision not to reinvest in the development of the newspaper. It didn't keep up with competitive influences."

As the Pasco County News shrank, other newspapers, like the St. Petersburg Times and the Tampa Tribune, stepped up their coverage of east and central Pasco. As a weekly, the Pasco County News could not compete on breaking news, its writers said. A scan of the pages also showed that the paper did not land any big advertising contracts.

Ernest said the paper was running 3,000 copies a week toward the end but did not disclose what its peak circulation was. The paper was not a member of the Audit Bureau of Circulations, which tracks circulation numbers for most dailies and some weeklies.

"There's so much growth in the Florida market that it can support multiple papers," Ernest said. "But little newspapers like this, it's a little tougher."

But it's not a cut-and-dried case that small papers must always succumb.

Pricing was part of the problem.

The Pasco News charged 50 cents a copy, for roughly 30 pages. Its broadsheet competitors charge half that price for a much larger paper.

Compare it also with the Laker, a Lutz tabloid that is free and averages 80 pages. As a community paper, the Laker grew swiftly in Dade City and Zephyrhills from a circulation of zero to 14,000 in 31/2 years, nearly a third of its 50,000 circulation countywide.

"Pasco News is the historic newspaper, and it reported some of the great stories of our century here," said Mark Mathes, the Laker's publisher. "But the marketplace changed around Pasco News. Its audience continued to decline. Its advertisers changed."

Mathes bought the 25-year-old Laker in 2002, which then had a circulation of 9,000 and was only beginning to make inroads in Dade City and Zephyrhills.

"When big-box stores came to Dade City, whether it's Kmart or Lowe's, they had different needs and tried to reach a different type of consumer," Mathes said. "Pricing is one thing, but content, advertising, graphics, the way it's delivered also have something to do with it. ... (The Pasco County News) simply did not grow as the marketplace needed it to grow."

* * *

Sun Publications of Florida, Independent's subsidiary, still publishes in nine counties.

The talk is that the company might be consolidating its operations in a new printing center in Lakeland, Mathes said.

Paul Stephen and other Sun officials did not return calls for comment Friday.

But Potter, the Pasco County News' editor, said he had also caught wind of Sun's possible consolidation in Lakeland.

In Dade City, the Pasco Shopper, a 48,000-circulation advertising publication also under Sun's umbrella, will continue.

"It's going to remain as it is, and we hope it's going to grow," Ernest said. "The Pasco Shopper is doing well."

Sun will soon launch two direct-mail products in central Pasco: the Wesley Chapel News Leader and the East Pasco Hometown magazine.

* * *

Whether the Pasco County News could have been successfully reinvented is a matter of speculation.

What remains is a welter of nostalgia.

The newspaper prided itself on community fare.

Its last edition, for example, led with a story headlined "Tree of Angels Gala X sparkles."

But it also allowed writers to take chances.

Bill Dennis, a former city commissioner who has penned more than 700 columns for the Pasco County News since 1993, said he opposed the Iraq war in the pages of that paper, back when it wasn't popular to do so.

"When Bush first started talking about it (in late 2002), I said we shouldn't go in there and that there was no connection between the (attack on) the World Trade Center and Iraq," he said.

Dade City stalwarts said they will miss it.

"It's certainly the passing of a long-standing tradition," said Harold Sample, Dade City's city manager. "We have enjoyed reading over the years (a paper) that was reflective and retrospective. ... Much of the community's history was contained within those pages."

But modernity beckons.

Even Dennis is reinventing his column.

He has renamed it "A Chat With Homer Jones." (The name was invented to evoke folksiness, Dennis said.)

He has moved it online, where it can be read at http://360.yahoo.com/homerjones1224.

Something the Pasco County News never did.

Chuin-Wei Yap covers growth and development. He can be reached at (813) 909-4613 or cyap@sptimes.com.

[Last modified December 2, 2006, 22:19:45]


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