Kyle Pope to reboot Manhattan weeklies

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Jeanne Straus, President of Straus News (left) on her company's acquisition of the newspapers. (Aaron Adler/Manhattan Media)
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A stable of weekly New York newspapers is about to get a makeover under the direction of a new boss.

Kyle Pope, a former New York Observer editor and Wall Street Journal veteran, has been named editor-in-chief of Straus Media-Manhattan and will relaunch its community news titles next month, Capital has learned.

The papers—Our Town, Our Town Downtown, West Side Spirit, The Chelsea-Clinton News and The Westsider—were acquired by the Orange County, N.Y.-based publisher Straus News a little over a year ago from Manhattan Media, which is run by erstwhile mayoral contender Tom Allon and private equity player Richard Burns of Isis Venture Partners. The deal, the price of which has not been made public, also included the website nypress.com, which is all that remains of the storied New York alt-weekly from which the URL is derived. (We're told there are no plans to resurrect the print edition.)

By rebooting the papers, which cover the Upper West and East Sides, Chelsea and Downtown Manhattan, Straus News hopes to capitalize on the relative stability of the local media market, where there's a reliable pool of small-business advertisers and a craving for the type of deep local coverage that has become an increasingly precious commodity at bigger publications.

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Pope, who had most recently been contract-editing at places like Newsweek and Vanity Fair, was approached last fall to consult for Straus News, a longtime family business that owns 14 papers in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. He recently went full-time at the company. (Disclosure: During my final months working for The Observer several years ago, I was Pope's managing editor.)

Reached by phone, Pope said the overhaul would concentrate primarily on the biggest three titles in the bunch: the two Our Towns and the Spirit, which are being "completely reconceived." The goal, he said, is to drill down on the ultra-hyperlocal appeal of community newspapers—remaining true to their weekly print roots with thoughtful, lean-back content while delivering daily quick hits on the web.

"There's a kind of homemade, artisan feel to it," Pope, a 49-year-old Cobble Hill resident, told Capital. "We're really bringing it back down not just to the neighborhood level, but the block-by-block level."

If that last sentence sounds familiar, it should, especially to the newsroom of DNAinfo, an online neighborhood news venture bankrolled by billionaire Joe Ricketts that's put boots on the ground in just about every nook and cranny of the five boroughs over the past several years.

Pope said his competitor's high-volume, breakneck approach was a different strategy altogether.

"That's not the orientation of these papers or this kind of journalism," he said. "We're really focussing on taking a step back and making sense of what's going on in these neighborhoods."

To be fair, DNAinfo does its share of enterprise. But perhaps the nuance Pope is getting at is that his journalists will take their cues more from the writerly ethos of papers like The Observer and The Journal than the hyperefficient, hard-charging spirit of the tabloids.

Michelle Rea, executive director of the New York Press Association, said there's plenty of room for both in the community news space.

"It's a huge marketplace, and neither is taking a big enough chunk to elbow the other out of the way," she said.

To that effect, Rea said circulation and advertising at the Association's more than 700 local newspapers has remained solid over the past 10 years, even as revenues have plummeted at many metropolitan dailies saddled with large legacy costs. The papers of Straus Media-Manhattan (formerly Manhattan Newspaper Group), "were always very strong," she said.

Jeanne Straus, the president of Straus News (who has family ties to The New York Times Company's Sulzberger clan), declined to discuss the papers' finances, telling Capital in an email that she wasn't ready just yet to talk about the relaunch plans. But sources familiar with the books both before and after the Manhattan Media sale claimed they were profitable.

It's a small scale, to be sure: Pope said the newsroom headcount was about a dozen. Circulation at the three core titles was hovering around 20,000 each as of the end of 2012, just before the sale, according to the Alliance for Audited Media. (NYPress.com is their portal website.) The Chelsea-Clinton news, though it is the oldest continuously published weekly in the city, has a circulation of around 3,000 copies distributed mostly in upscale apartment buildings, according to its publisher.

But what the papers lack in size they make up for in legacy. Over the years, stars like Richard Johnson, Cindy Adams, Mark Boal, Jennifer Steinhauer, Andrew Jacobs and Jim Rutenberg have cut their teeth at these titles.

Rutenberg, a New York Times Magazine staff writer who was once upon a time the editor of West Side Spirit, feels good about their prospects.

"There are so many stories in every 10-block radius that can be completely blown out," he said.