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Post-Gazette's Months-Long Strike Altered Pittsburgh's Reading Habits : Journalism: The closing of the dominant daily has brought suburban competition to the survivor. Metropolitan circulation is down.

July 04, 1993|CLAUDIA COATES | ASSOCIATED PRESS

PITTSBURGH — Every day, Cora Scott picked up a copy of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette--until last year, when a strike stopped the presses.

Then the paper resumed publishing in January, and she started buying it again. But not every day--perhaps half as often as before. She remains angry, she said, because of all the obituaries she missed over eight months.

"We were deprived because a lot of people would pass on and we wouldn't know," she said, handing a vendor 35 cents.

The Post-Gazette didn't earn her wrath--or that of other readers--but is stuck dealing with it, more than a year after the strike began.

It was the Pittsburgh Press, the afternoon paper and the larger of the city's two dailies, that prompted the strike by trying to force 605 delivery drivers into a new distribution system cutting 75% of their jobs.

The strike against the Press Co.--which printed and distributed both the Press and the smaller, separately owned Post-Gazette--began May 17, 1992, and lasted through the summer, fall and into the winter.

It ended with a surprise: David swallowed Goliath. Blade Communications Inc., owner of the Post-Gazette, bought the Press from E.W. Scripps Co. and shut down the paper.

Tom Herrmann, Post-Gazette circulation director, said the paper has no reliable way to tell how many people, like Scott, have fallen out of the habit of reading a paper every day.

But sales figures show readership is down. Before the strike, the Sunday circulation for the Press was about 554,000. The Post-Gazette is printing about 530,000 copies, although it hasn't determined yet how many newspapers are actually sold. The weekday run totals 290,000, far short of the papers' combined circulation of 365,000 before the strike.

The strike couldn't have come at a worse time. The recession already had cut advertising, surveys had shown a continuing decline in American newspaper readership, and the area's population had dropped to about 1.3 million in 1990 from about 1.5 million in 1980.

Some advertisers were lost during the strike. Giant Eagle supermarkets, for example, switched its ads from newspapers to direct mail and stayed there.

The strike also gave suburban papers a toehold in the city.

The Tribune-Review of Greensburg, 35 miles to the east, hired KDKA radio sports announcer Goose Goslin and other high-profile media figures and has been publishing a Pittsburgh edition, backing it up with ads and marketing.

On one recent morning, a vendor sold copies of the Post-Gazette, as usual, to commuters stopped at a traffic light. What was unusual this day was that he had to hustle to keep well ahead of a second man who was calling "free paper" and handing out copies of the Tribune-Review. More free copies are turning up on suburban front lawns.

The fight has extended beyond circulation. The Tribune-Review Publishing Co. is suing both Blade and Scripps, alleging the sale of the Press was rigged in the Post-Gazette's favor. The defendants have not commented on the lawsuit.

And about 15 miles to the north, the formerly biweekly North Hills News Record of Warrendale went to seven days a week at the start of the strike. Its vending machines dot the downtown area in places where North Hills people are known to work, lunch or travel.

In the last year, the News Record has almost doubled its circulation to 30,000. The Tribune-Review has increased its daily circulation by more than 30% to 71,000 while almost doubling the weekend run to 140,000.

The Post-Gazette, founded in 1786, has name recognition on its side. And it isn't sitting still, either. It has grown from two sections to four: front page, local and business news, sports and features. It, too, has hired some big local personalities as columnists and has handed out free papers.

In buying the Press, it inherited advertising dollars, a Sunday edition, syndicated columnists such as Mike Royko and two Press sports columnists to add to the two already there.

"It's a different newspaper than it was a year ago," editor John G. Craig Jr. said. "It's got twice the advertising."

More advertising means more revenue, more pages, and more room for news.

To produce the new paper, the Post-Gazette also hired dozens of newsroom employees from the defunct Press. David Teece and Bill Modoono were not among them.

Teece had been a reporter with the Press for two years. Rather than settle for a lower-paying job with less prestige, he is applying to law school.

"A comparable size paper would have been OK--a Baltimore, a Boston. But I didn't want to go back to a Jacksonville," Teece said, referring to the Florida city where he worked before Pittsburgh.

When Modoono worked for the Press, he wrote a column on TV sports coverage. Now he splits his time between free-lance work and a part-time job in public relations.

"This town is destined to have one paper," Modoono said. "I thought it was going to be the other one."

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