Philip F. Anschutz, Denver billionaire and D.C. United investor, yesterday announced the purchase of Journal Newspapers Inc., the Alexandria publisher of three Washington area suburban daily newspapers, through a newly created investment arm called Clarity Media Group.
Clarity Media of Denver is headed by former Denver Post president and publisher Ryan McKibben and former Denver Post chief financial officer Frederick "Fritz" Anderson.
The new owners said they plan to make a significant investment in the editorial and business side of the Journal Newspapers. The purchase could revive a newspaper group that over the past decade has gone through several owners, shrunk from broadsheet to tabloid format and laid off much of its reporting staff.
The acquisition also increases the local profile of Anschutz, a founder of Qwest Communications International Inc. turned entertainment-media mogul. In addition to D.C. United, Anschutz owns four Major League Soccer teams, a majority stake in Regal Entertainment Group Inc., which owns Regal Cinemas, and several newspapers, including the San Francisco Examiner.
Officials with privately held Clarity would not disclose any financial details of the transaction. Journal Newspapers publisher James McDonald did not return calls seeking comment.
McKibben said McDonald will retain his position. John Wilpers will remain editor in chief. None of the staff will be laid off.
The Journal Newspapers had been on sale for some time, McKibben said. "We liked the suburban Washington market. We thought there is a lot of upside to these newspapers." McKibben said Clarity will be adding reporters and expanding the newspapers' coverage to include "regional, national, and world news."
"We're making it a more complete newspaper," he said.
However, Clarity will keep the tabloid format and the free distribution, McKibben said.
The Journal Newspapers publishes the Northern Virginia Journal, Prince George's Journal and the Montgomery Journal. The papers have a combined daily circulation of 115,000.
In January, publisher Ryan E. Phillips sold a stake of the Journal Newspapers to McDonald, a former executive with Metro International, a publisher of free daily papers in Philadelphia and Boston. In September, the company began giving away free copies of its Northern Virginia edition to compete with Express, a free daily paper published by The Washington Post Co.
Anschutz's investment isn't likely to return the company to the success it saw in its heyday during the '80s, said newspaper analyst John Morton of Morton Research in Silver Spring.
"It's a risky investment. By every indication, the [Journal Newspapers] have been having problems financially," Morton said, referring to past layoffs and bureau closures. "And they operate in a market with one of the most dominant metropolitan newspapers in the country -- The Washington Post."
"Improving the local coverage and supplementing it with national and international coverage is an admirable goal, but it probably won't be a profitable one," Morton said.
When asked about entering such a competitive market, McKibben replied, "I'm not going to say the Washington Times or The Washington Post is our competition. In the information age, everybody is competing for people's attention."