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Media : The European Looks for a European Audience : It may be the butt of endless jokes about advertising and readership, but Robert Maxwell's weekly is defying the experts. And it is still rolling off the presses.


LONDON — A story is wending its way through journalistic circles here about a prominent newspaper editor who, after arriving at the airport in Luxembourg on his way to a conference, spotted a man reading media baron Robert Maxwell's fledgling weekly paper, the European.

When the editor remarked to a colleague that it was the first time he'd actually seen anyone reading that paper, his associate replied that holding up a copy of the European at the airport was becoming a popular way of linking up with an unfamiliar arriving passenger. "You can always be sure no one else will be reading it," he cracked.

Nine months after its launch, Europe's pan-Continental paper is still the butt of endless jokes, still painfully lacking in advertising lineage and still seeking editorial direction in its effort to attract readers from the English Channel to the Urals.

But it's also still rolling off the presses every week, defying the predictions of some media observers who expected it to close soon after its May debut.

One of the biggest problems facing the European is the glut of papers already fighting for readers. Britain's newspaper industry is considered overcrowded and a wide range of English-language daily papers and weekly newsmagazines are available in Europe.

Maxwell, whose media holdings include the highly successful British tabloid the Daily Mirror, has nevertheless insisted that he is carving out a new market that has not been served properly until now.

Whether there is, in fact, a market for the European remains to be seen. The paper is believed to be losing fantastic sums of money and it is unclear how many people are buying it.

Executives of the paper are awaiting the results of their first Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) audit, but say they are confident that the have more readers than the 225,000 they have guaranteed to advertisers. They believe the audit--which is mostly based on sales figures supplied by the paper itself--will reflect that half its readership is in Britain and half on the Continent.

John Vinocur, executive editor of the International Herald Tribune, which sells about 200,000 papers worldwide, said the entry of the European into the newspaper marketplace has had no effect on the IHT.

"The European is a middle market newspaper," he said, "and as such has absolutely in no way affected our sales, which were extremely strong in Europe in 1990 and grew at a very rapid pace."

USA Today International, which sells 45,000 papers daily in Europe and the Middle East, also has not been affected by the European, says David Mazzarella, president of the newspaper. "We do things differently," he said. The European is a weekly, not a daily, Mazzarella pointed out. "And we present news about the U.S."

Maxwell devised plans for his new paper after deciding that the imminent arrival of a single European market in 1992 had made the time right for a newspaper that would speak with a Continent-wide voice. The fact that this voice would only be in English was not seen as a problem by the Czechoslovak-born publisher, who felt that a growing cadre of English-speaking "elites" across the Continent would flock to buy a paper that shared the vision of a borderless Europe.

After downsizing his initial plans for a daily paper, he created a London-based weekly that is published on Fridays. It closely resembles USA Today in both its splashy use of color photos and graphics--the weather map in the European is a near clone of the American paper's--and its attempt to find stories that bridge a diverse readership. One recent issue of The European contained a story about the growing number of elderly people across Europe.

The paper consists of three parts--news, business and a tabloid-sized culture section that features arts and entertainment listings for all of Europe.

With all the bluster and hubris for which he is well-known, Maxwell launched his paper with the claim that he would keep the European going for as long as he lived, no matter what it took. He said he would spend 25 million pounds ($48.75 million) initially and when that ran out he would inject another 25 million.

Maxwell followers recall that he had made similarly brazen claims when he launched the afternoon London Daily News in February, 1987. It folded the following July.

Ian Watson, editor of the European, is hopeful about the paper's future but seems a bit more pragmatic. "It's tough," he says, about getting the weekly up and running. "We've got a lot to do yet. It's a new paper and a new concept." He also admits that, in light of the poor advertising climate, "perhaps it's not the best time to launch a newspaper."

Watson also notes that trying to offer a Continental perspective from Britain--an island nation traditionally distrustful of its neighbors across the English Channel--is not easy.

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