Battle of the Tabloids

Belo Backs The Met. Their Target Is the Observer.

THE FORTUNES OF THE MET, a fledgling 15-month-old arts-and-entertainment tabloid, received a boost last month from an unexpected source, the A.H, Belo Corporation, owner of The Dallas Morning News.

Owned principally by Ray Washburne, the 35-year-old entrepreneur who has also relaunched Texas Business and who owns Mi Cocina, among other properties, The Met has struggled to keep its head above water. Rumors abounded in media circles through the summer that Washburne had cut off funding, and many expected an announcement that the weekly would close.

Instead the tabloid has been thrown a giant life preserver in the form of an operating agreement with Belo. The agreement gives The Met access to the News’ marketing and distribution resources, which could double the free distribution of the paper overnight from its present level of approximately 50,000 to the 100,000 level currently enjoyed by its established rival, The Dallas Observer.

Why would Belo deign to enter the tabloid wars on behalf of the weaker combatant? Accordingto sources at The Met, News advertising executives were enticed by the Observer’s success in personals and romance classifieds, which bring in the bulk of its $6 million annual revenues. While these ads are considered inappropriate for the News, advertising executives are loath to overlook a booming market, and The Met has demonstrated an ability to attract such advertising at the Observers expense. It didn’t hurt that The Met’s personals are relatively innocuous compared to the often R-rated come-ons that have appeared over the years in the Observer. (Ironically, The Met’s personals may be the tamest part of the paper.) With Belo’s technical and marketing support, the hope is that The Mel can increase its ad lineage dramatically.

But why an operating agreement and not an outright purchase? While The Met could probably have been bought for a song, Belo executives were apparently concerned about the appearance of gaining an advertising stranglehold over the print market in Dallas. Already the News is a daily monopoly, and Belo feared a protracted lawsuit from the Observer, owned by Phoenix’s New Times, which operates alternative weeklies in six major markets. In the place of equity ownership, Belo will receive an undisclosed percentage of the profits generated by the new arrangement.

Media watchers believe Belo had an incentive other than money in mind in making the deal, The Observer’s long-running “BeloWatch” column has been a thorn in the News’ side, and recently it has gone beyond standard media criticism to reveal personal problems of well-known News columnists and executives.

Observer editor Peter Elkind clearly sees the alliance as an act of vengeance by Belo. “It’s a bizarre marriage,” says Elkind. “It’s ridiculous.” And Elkind doesn’t believe the new couple’s claim that the marriage won’t extend to editorial coverage. “I suggest that it’s the tip of the camel’s nose in the tent. I think it’s motivated by a desire to stamp out independent voices in the city.”

If Belo’s intent was to cause consternation in the Observer camp, its announcement was a good opening move. Although rumors of the impending deal had circulated for weeks prior to the official announcement, the Observer– with its own small army of reporters and stringers-was clearly caught off guard. Elkind had not heard of the deal until D Magazine called him for comment.

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