The new ownership of the Princeton Packet is adding free circulation to its base, giving the town two competing weeklies – and another paper in your driveway.

If you are a follower of the media and have heard that sad refrain, “print is dead,” you might think that the recent downsizing of the Princeton Packet from its own building (and its own printing press) at 300 Witherspoon Street to a 700-square-foot office suite up the street at 145 Witherspoon is another sign of the times, one of the last dinosaurs dropping to its knees.

Or you might look more closely at the businesses of Richard Donnelly, purchaser of the Packet and its sister papers in Cranbury, East Windsor, Hopewell, and Hillsborough — with a combined circulation of about 40,000. His Pennsauken-based Donnelly Distribution packages advertising inserts for distribution to some 900,000 homes each week. His new company, Newspaper Media Group (NMG), now consists of 45 community papers, mostly free circulation weeklies with a combined circulation of about half a million. You might turn to another metaphor. Maybe that little office at 145 Witherspoon is not the tail end of a beaten-down dinosaur. Maybe it’s the tip of an iceberg.

If it is an iceberg, it could also represent — for the first time in decades — a substantial competitor for the Town Topics, the tabloid size weekly that has been the mainstay of Princeton community journalism for the past 50 years or so.

What makes the difference is the intention of the Packet’s new owner to move away from the out-dated paid circulation model of the paper, and adopt a hybrid model mixing paid and free circulation that will enable the Packet to reach some 24,000 households in Princeton and a few surrounding communities. No one would say definitively how many copies of the Packet were being distributed in the final days of the old ownership, but a publisher’s statement in 2011 set the number at 6,000 and most media observers believe it could only have gone down since then.

The substantial increase in circulation will mean that, for the time being, at least, there may be two papers of similar scale offering municipal and school coverage. In more practical terms it may be that there are now two papers getting thrown in your driveway every week, not just one.

Of course, in the hyper-volatile world of journalism today, this discussion also contains two wild cards — a virtual person, Joe SixPack, and a virtual place, Planet Princeton. And since this is a media story written by a member of the media community, there are also two disclosures to be made.

Such a head-to-head encounter between two papers seemed pretty unlikely just a few years ago, when there were four community papers all vying for the attention of Princeton’s 30,000 or so residents.

With the Echo refocused and the Sun closed down, Princeton is left with the two competing community weeklies.

The most recent to join the fray was the Princeton Sun, one of a half dozen free weekly papers launched in central New Jersey by Elauwit, a South Jersey-based company that had had success with community-based websites and accompanying newspapers. The move to Mercer County proved more challenging and the company eventually shed all of its weeklies here except for the Princeton Sun. It circulated its paper to selected parts of town (but not all parts) through the Postal Service and a handful of boxes in the downtown area. A resident might get it week after week for a period of time, and then miss it for a few weeks. Space for news was limited — the paper had just one reporter.

But early last year the Elauwit chain was sold to Donnelly’s group. When Donnelly bought the Packet he decided to close down the Sun.

Disclosure No. 1: The other relative newcomer is the paper you are reading now, the monthly Princeton Echo founded in 2010 by Community News Service (CNS). In the beginning the Echo emulated in presentation and content CNS’s seven other monthlies in Hamilton, Ewing, Lawrence, Hopewell, Robbinsville, Bordentown, and Trenton. As a monthly, the Echo did not attempt to match the weekly Sun, Topics, or Packet in coverage of town or school politics or high school sports, but it pursued feature stories in all those areas. The coverage included profiles of notable residents, reminiscences about community traditions, house-and-garden style service pieces, and lengthy lists of upcoming events.

Disclosure No. 2: At the time the Echo was launched I was the editor, publisher, and sole proprietor of U.S. 1 newspaper, the business and entertainment weekly that goes to more than 4,000 different business offices in Mercer, Somerset, and Middlesex counties. U.S. 1 doesn’t cover the municipal and school news and high school sports that are the staples of the community papers. But as a longtime Princeton resident, a freelance writer who sold pieces to the Town Topics in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I obviously have had a longtime interest in the Princeton media scene.

In 2012 I merged U.S. 1 with Community News Service and joined Jamie Griswold and Tom Valeri of CNS in overseeing the operations of the combined company. One of the areas of change was the Princeton Echo, which we believed had to carve out a niche separate from the three weeklies. The Echo eventually was transformed from a “community paper” into a “city paper,” covering the people, places, and events that are off the beaten path, taking a long view of ongoing controversies, and giving a voice to people in town who might be discounted as troublemakers by the established media. Case in point: It’s the kind of paper that would step back from the fray and cover the media competition in town.

With the Echo refocused and the Sun closed down, Princeton is left with the two competing community weeklies.

The Topics was founded in 1946 as an odd-sized free-circulation weekly with a quirky layout — parts of which can still be recognized today. One example: Classified ads that are not classified, but put into place randomly. After co-founder Don Stuart died in 1981, control of the paper passed to his son, Jeb Stuart. In 2001, when Jeb Stuart was battling cancer, he sold the paper to one of his advertising salespeople, Lynn Adams Smith, and a group of investors, including some Topics employees and Princeton architect Bob Hillier. As financial needs changed, Hillier’s participation grew. Today he is the principal owner.

Since the Topics torch passed to the Hillier-Smith regime, its operation has broadened to include Princeton Magazine, a glossy high-end lifestyle publication. According to the online media kit, the magazine is published seven times a year and delivered partly by mail to high income households in town and also in bulk to “targeted” businesses, restaurants, retailers, and hotels through central New Jersey and Bucks County. There’s also a “Princeton Magazine Store,” which offers Princeton-centric gift items that are promoted online and in print — in the Topics, of course. The Topics’ parent company also publishes another glossy lifestyle magazine, Urban Agenda, which is aimed at “top earners in northern New Jersey,” according to the website.

The oldest of all the publications, at least on paper, is the Princeton Packet.

The Packet dates back to 1786, underwent several name changes, and began its modern life in 1955, when Wall Street Journal editor Bernard P. “Barney” Kilgore decided to buy a newspaper in his hometown — a pleasant diversion after he commuted back home from the Journal’s offices in Manhattan. The elder Kilgore modernized the paper, added satellite publications in nearby towns, and turned the Packet into a paid circulation competitor to the free circulation Town Topics.

After the death of Barney Kilgore in 1967 management of the paper ended up in the hands of the Kilgore family. Jim Kilgore, a son who had a BA and MBA from Stanford, took over management of the paper in 1976 and bought out the other siblings in 1999.

Jim Kilgore wisely did not try compete with his legendary father’s editorial record. But he did streamline the Packet’s operation and added new papers to the Packet chain. Each of the Packet papers had municipal and school coverage tailored to their communities, and each shared in the Packet’s signature, free-standing arts section, called Time Off, and the lucrative classified ad section. Kilgore also added a Tuesday edition to the Packet’s schedule.

It’s easy to second-guess Kil­gore’s moves. But the things that needed changing were the same things that had given the Packet its competitive advantages in the 1970s through 1990s.

While Kilgore was expanding his empire in the 1980s, I was trying to carve out a niche with my U.S. 1. We were not direct competitors, but there were enough territorial border fights that Kilgore and I were not hanging out with each other in our off-hours. The few chances I had to take time off, I would drive about 150 miles northwest to a cottage on a small lake in rural Wayne County, Pennsylvania. Princeton was a world away.

One Saturday night in the late 1980s I went for a few drinks at a rundown bar that had a country and western and square dance band. I was drinking my 30-cent Buds at the bar when I did a double-take. A middle-aged guy and his wife had just taken seats at a table and were tapping their toes to the music. The guy was a dead ringer for Jim Kilgore.

It couldn’t be, I thought, but I went over and said hello anyhow, half expecting to discover a doppelganger for Kilgore in the middle of Nowhere, Pennsylvania. But it really was Kilgore. Not only had he purchased a summer home on a lake, but he also had acquired a stone quarry a few miles away. Years later, in 2003 when the Packet already owned 12 weeklies in central New Jersey, Kilgore made another move: The purchase of the Weekly Almanac of Honesdale, PA, a tabloid newspaper with a paid circulation of 3,800 readers in Wayne County, where it was also competing with a small daily paper. Some people in Princeton wondered if the Packet had over-extended its reach.

But the 2000s were a time of retrenching for all us in the community journalism business. In 2009 Kilgore’s stint with the Almanac in Honesdale was done. Advertising and subscriber support was “inadequate to operate a profitable newspaper,” Kilgore said in a letter to readers.

Looking back with 20/20 hindsight, it’s easy for some of us to second-guess Kil­gore’s moves. But at the time the things that needed changing were the same things that had given the Packet its competitive advantages in the 1970s through 1990s.

Paid circulation had always been a selling point for the Packet against the Town Topics and other free papers. Packet salespeople were known to have carried water-soaked free papers into meetings with prospects to show them what would not happen to their ad if they advertised in a paid circulation newspaper that came into their mailbox as opposed being thrown in their driveway. Back in 2000, when U.S. 1 started the West Windsor-Plainsboro News and delivered it free to all the households in town, I was at a business networking meeting and explained how the new publication worked. A Packet ad salesperson was in the conversation. “Oh, another driveway paper,” she said. Other times the term was “throwaway.”

The fact that the Packet owned its own printing press was a huge advantage in the ’70s through ’90s. In the pre-Internet era the rest of us drove mock-ups of our pages to printers an hour or more away. We were never sure if another, bigger job would suddenly go on the press before us. We were never sure if the pressmen would pay as much attention to our job as they should. If we had to make a last-minute change, the costs could be exorbitant.
By the time the Packet expanded into Honesdale, that competitive landscape was quickly changing.

The Packet’s paid circulation model had become a brutal battle of maintaining the subscriber base — a challenge the free circulation papers were spared. At one point in the early 2000s, a friend of mine was working part time in the Packet’s circulation sales department. He and his team were cold calling non-subscribers and also calling current subscribers who needed to renew. A good day, he reported, was when the department had a net gain of zero. On a bad day more current subscribers would decline to renew than new ones would be added.

The Packet tried to bolster its distribution by creating free papers that would be mailed (or even thrown into driveways) of selected neighborhoods in towns outside Princeton. Hamilton residents recall the Hamilton Observer having more recycled Princeton news than Hamilton news.

Another albatross for the Packet was its printing press. By the early 2000s most community papers had conceded that printing was an entirely different business and contracted their work to centralized plants that were able to keep pace with the fast-changing technology in the world of web presses. U.S. 1 shopped its printing from location to location in search of the best price. Distance was no longer a major issue since the digital files for the paper could be transmitted electronically.

At the Packet, sales reps sometimes discouraged customers from putting color in their ads because they were afraid they would have to issue a credit for a bad outcome. Printing salespeople visiting me at U.S. 1 often were on their way to try to pitch the Packet account. “Jimmy’s going to have to get rid of that printing press sooner or later,” they would say.

To people inside and outside the operation, the Tuesday edition seemed another drain on the Packet. As online news media began to flourish, the Packet’s mid-week edition was seen as unneeded clutter. Others at the Packet urged Kilgore to drop it, but he stuck by his plan.
Then in 2011, in an announcement on the front page of his flagship paper, Kilgore — 63 years old at the time — announced that the Packet Media Group, which then included 11 subscription newspapers, seven free papers, and the monthly Packet Magazine, was for sale. An article in U.S. 1, written by then-business editor Scott Morgan (a former Packet editor), described layoffs that “whittled the company from more than 250 employees down to about 110 and dropped its twice-monthly publication, the Princeton Business Journal. In 2008 the company consolidated its satellite offices into its Witherspoon Street headquarters.”

According to the 2011 U.S. 1 article, the Packet’s most recent publisher’s statement listed paid subscriptions to the Packet at about 6,000, a fraction of Town Topics’ free circulation of about 15,000.

One of Kilgore’s employees talked about putting together a group of investors to buy the media group, and at least one other investor in town seriously contemplated making an offer, but nothing came of the opportunity. Kilgore downsized again, resuming the hands-on role of general manager in 2014 and shutting down several more of the smaller papers. The South Brunswick Post was closed in 2015. That same year Kilgore finally dropped the Packet’s Tuesday edition.

Then last year Kilgore seemed to have found an end game. He announced the merger of the Packet with Broad Street Media, based in Bensalem, PA, a publishing company formed in 2010 to purchase the Northeast Times and several other weeklies in the Philadelphia suburbs. The company had a combined circulation of more than half a million papers. Kilgore would remain as publisher of the new company, but day-to-day operations and long-term planning would be directed by the CEO of Broad Street Media, Darwin Oordt. The Packet printing press finally ground to a permanent halt. Oordt contracted the printing out to a Gannett plant in Delaware.

That was in March. By July news came of a shift in plans. Broad Street Media had been acquired by Richard Donnelly’s Newspaper Media Group with operations in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Earlier in the year Donnelly had purchased the Elauwit chain of newspapers, which had published the Princeton Sun.

Announcement of the new ownership arrangement made no mention of Darwin Oordt. In fact some insiders say that Kilgore ran into difficulties with Oordt soon after their short-lived merger was announced. Oordt extended his reach in 2015, when he purchased the Philadelphia Weekly and then its head-to-head competitor, the Philadelphia City Paper, which was promptly closed down. That move was not appreciated by the laid off City Paper employees, who found out about the move in stories printed in other newspapers. Donnelly had been an investor in Broad Street Media. Immediately after buying it he filed for bankruptcy — Broad Street had owed more than $2 million, much of it in printing bills from Gannett.

In a time of turmoil for all the media, our story includes a virtual person (Joe Sixpack) and a virtual place (Planet Princeton).

(Oordt had also had some testy business relationships outside of newspapers. In 2002 race car driver Wally Dallenbach won an $11.3 million judgment against Oordt and his company Galaxy Motorsports. Dallenbach charged that he had signed a three-year contract to race, but that Oordt shut down the team after failing to find a sponsor. Dallenbach said he could have signed with another team, but Oordt convinced him that he was on the verge of finding a sponsor. According to a report in Savannah Morning News Oordt’s attorney commented that “not a penny will be paid.”)

With Oordt’s departure, the new management of the Packet papers included only Kilgore from the short-lived Broad Street Media days. But by September Kilgore’s title of publisher was re-assigned to Joe Eisele, whose career has included ad sales jobs at the Packet in the late 1990s and more recently with Elauwit and the Sun newspapers.

So Princeton is now a rare community with two weekly newspapers. How will the competition play out?

The Topics has long been the dominant force in this market. As the paper that “everyone reads,” many local advertisers made it their mandatory buy, with the Packet becoming an after-thought. The Topics nurtured long-term relationships with its editors and writers, who usually lived in the town as well as covered it. The Topics, with its old-fashioned, black and white layout, was like the threadbare sweater or old Dodge sedan you might see around Palmer Square. The wearer or the driver could be one of the richest people in town.
The current editor-in-chief, Lynn Adams Smith, maintains that the threadbare sweater is still in style. “It will be very difficult for the Princeton Packet to compete with our devoted readership and loyal advertisers,” says Smith. “The community has taken ownership of the paper.” She cites the paper’s recent coverage of the charter school expansion controversy: “We have become a forum for both sides of the debate.”

But like most community papers, the Topics — holding to that comfortable design — is smaller these days than in the past. Reporters could be stretched thin reporting for the weekly paper as well as contributing features to the glossy magazines. The institutional memory is not as sharp as it once was. A year ago, when the Topics ran an obituary for former resident Colin Carpi, no mention was made of Carpi’s notorious time in town in the 1970s, when he was accused of murdering his wife and was acquitted after a sensational trial in Trenton. Of course the Topics editors may never have read the glowing obituary — death notices are now paid for in the Topics ($190 flat fee, according to the website).

To be fair, the Packet also missed the Colin Carpi story. And its editors may have never read it, either (the Packet also charges for death notices ($207 for the first 100 words, 58 cents a word for additional copy, plus $60 for a photo).

But, as one of the few community papers still printed in the larger broadsheet format, the Packet has always enjoyed a design advantage over the tabloid-sized Topics. It’s also one of the few community papers that has added — that’s right, increased — its reporting staff in recent times. When the Newspaper Media Group shut down the Princeton Sun it transferred the Sun’s one reporter to the six or seven already employed by the Packet.

By my informal measure the Packet has matched the Topics in coverage of all important issues and has beat it on several occasions. And it has been first to report on several subjects, thanks to its aggressive posting to its website, www.centraljersey.com.

“Two competing papers is a great thing,” says Don Russell, editor-in-chief of the Packet’s parent company, the Newspaper Media Group. “They feed off each other.”

But will this performance continue under the new ownership? “We have great backing from the owner,” says Russell. “My goal is to expand the journalism.” As a kid Russell was motivated to go into journalism in part because of the Watergate reporting of Woodward and Bernstein. With roughly 40 years’ experience as a Philadelphia writer and editor, Russell has broken stories that “led to the federal government’s first-ever environmental racketeering prosecution, the closure of a county jail, the reform of the Philadelphia taxicab industry, and numerous criminal indictments,” according to his website.

When Donnelly formed the Newspaper Media Group he named Russell the editor-in-chief, overseeing the operations of the 45-plus papers in the firm. He says that Donnelly just keeps adding new titles to the portfolio. “We’re clearly going counter to the rest of the market,” he says.

Russell and the rest of NMG are still wrestling with how best to integrate the Packet papers into its operation. He says the exact balance of the circulation is still a work in progress, though he notes that “the model for our papers is free at-home delivery,” Russell says. “We’re in a transition period in Princeton. I’m not sure what the distribution will look like. We’ve been experimenting with home delivery.”

The size of the Packet page was another item under consideration — as a broadsheet it is out of step with all the other papers in the group. “We’re going to leave it the way it is,” says Russell. While most of the other NMG papers come out mid-week, the Packet is a Friday publication. “We’ve discussed possibly changing, but it’s still Friday” for the time being, he says.

But one thing Russell is adamant about is that good stories need to be the backbone of the Packet’s operation. He would like to “amp up” the arts reporting. “Time Off is a big part of our plans — I’m a fan of it,” Russell says, noting that from a practical standpoint some of the arts coverage can be shared with other papers in the group. He also hopes to increase the number of features, and possibly sponsor more “fun events,” such as the JazzFeast in September that the Packet started in the Jim Kilgore era, and possibly panels with newsmakers. The parent company has brought in a “special events person,” Russell says, to help engage readers.

Then there’s the lesson of Joe Sixpack, the name of a beloved newspaper column in Philadelphia, which began in 1996 and attracted the attention of enough beer aficionados to lead to the annual Philly Beer Week, an event launched in 2008 that since has led to similar festivals in dozens of other cities. Don Russell is Joe Sixpack and his beer column now appears on Wednesdays in Philadelphia Weekly (www.joesixpack.net).

Good story telling, Russell says, is what has made the Joe Sixpack column so successful. “I could have applied the same idea to cars or politicians,” he says in a phone interview from his home in Philadelphia. “It’s the same idea for running a newspaper. Great stories are what carry the day.” Russell says he has seen “countless” gimmicks and packaging schemes over the years aimed at building readership. “But they usually miss the point,” he says. “If I see a story that bores me, then the readers are probably bored, too.”

Will timely local news and good stories be enough to bring the Packet back into a prominent role in Princeton’s community journalism?

Time will tell. Meanwhile there are other players on the horizon — the online news media, most prominent among them at the moment being Planet Princeton. Launched in 2011 by Krystal Knapp, a former Trenton Times reporter, Planet Princeton has outperformed the community weeklies on numerous stories.

During Hurricane Irene, for example, Planet Princeton became the go-to site for people seeking up-to-the-minute news about road closings and power outages. Weeks after Irene, drawing on logs of police dispatchers and emergency responders, Knapp put together the tragic timeline of how a young EMT lost his life attempting to reach a car stuck in treacherous waters.

Planet Princeton followed that scoop with others: Dr. Nancy Snyderman, NBC television’s chief medical correspondent, breaking her self-quarantine during the Ebola crisis; Princeton professor Imani Perry’s disputed claims after being arrested following a traffic stop.

While Knapp has enjoyed much more journalistic success than any of her online compatriots, making her enterprise sustainable in the long term has been elusive. Knapp held a fundraiser to raise $35,000. She got about two-thirds to her goal — a major accomplishment in the online world. But what discouraged Knapp was that most of that money came from a relatively small number of donors. Trying to get a large number of people to spend a relatively small amount of money — something equivalent to an annual subscription charge for a newspaper — is difficult.

The lesson: People hate to pay for their news. It’s a rule that the Town Topics has lived by. It’s a lesson learned the hard way by the Princeton Packet, which is now scrambling to recover from its resistance to change. This story may not about a dinosaur or an iceberg. Maybe it’s about to become a duel in the driveway.