Newport Ensign Shut Down Abruptly : No Reasons for Weekly's Closure Are Given in Friday's Last Edition

Times Staff Writer

After 41 years as "Newport Beach's only home-based newspaper," the weekly Newport Ensign ceased publication Friday, several employees confirmed.

No mention was made of the paper's closure in its Friday edition, an indication of the haste with which the periodical shut down.

"That was our last issue," said one Ensign employee, who would not give her name. "But no one knew it was."

Publisher Seth Baker did not return telephone calls, and co-editors Melinda Keller and Cheryl Stehling could not be reached for comment. Employees would not cite reasons for the paper's swift demise; many are transferring to other Baker publications.

The Ensign, a 25,000-circulation paper, chronicled life in one of Orange County's trendiest beach towns. It was heavy on police news and packed with local sports, school and society news.

The Ensign was part of Baker Communications Inc., based in Los Angeles. Baker bought the Ensign, along with the Costa Mesa News and Irvine News Today, from Coast Media Group of Culver City in 1985.

The Irvine paper, which then had a circulation of only 2,000, folded in 1987. The Costa Mesa News shut down less than four months ago. Like the Ensign, it was a controlled-circulation paper, delivered free to area residents.

The three papers once were part of a thriving publishing group operated by Pennysaver publisher Herbert Sutton, who poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the weeklies--introducing color photography and a number of typographical innovations and winning several publishing-industry awards.

Coast Media bought the weeklies in 1981, and by mid-1982 the papers were caught in a recession that depressed advertising revenues. When Baker acquired the three papers in 1985, they had a combined staff of about 10--down from 50 when Sutton owned them.

But David C. Simonson, executive vice president of the National Newspaper Assn., said that community newspapers on the whole are healthy again and that closure of the Baker papers is bucking a national trend.

"I think the health of the community press is good in general," Simonson said.

About 97% of the nation's 9,000 newspapers have a circulation of 50,000 or less, like the three Baker weeklies that have closed in the past four years.

"When you're taking the pulse of newspapers, I just don't think 97% are sick . . . ," Simonson said. "Papers are being merged, sold, changed and so on to meet marketing conditions. Closing down is another animal. I don't know what he (Baker) is doing out there."

Neither did Peggy Darnell, the Newport Ensign's religion columnist who joined her now-jobless colleagues at a Newport Beach bar Friday evening to mourn the death of their paper.

"I found out today," Darnell said of the paper's closure. "It's been a great little weekly. A lot of people like it. It's colorful."

The best part of her three years writing the Ensign's "Insights" column--on religion,relationships and spirituality--was a discovery she made about Newport Beach, Darnellsaid.

"I was thrilled to have this column," she said. "It's helped me see that Newport isn't just glitzy. It's been a buried treasure to me to discover that."


Paper Circulation Brea Highlander 10,184 Buena Park News, 29,007 Buena Park/La Palma/Cypress News 29,929 Capistrano Valley News 9,126 Dana Point News 5,068 Fullerton News Tribune 41,220 Huntington Beach Independent 50,464 Huntington Beach News 20,139 Huntington Harbor Sun 8,700 The Irvine World News 49,124 Laguna Beach News-Post 14,156 Laguna Niguel News 9,499 Leisure World News 10,272 News Enterprise (Western O.C.) 27,000 Saddleback Valley News 110,000 San Juan Capistrano Coastline Dispatch 13,000 Seal Beach Journal 14,980 Seal Beach Post & Wave 3,000 The Tustin News 6,309 Westminster Herald 3,400 Yorba Linda Star 14,112

Source: Editor & Publisher International Yearbook, 1988

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