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In case you were wondering, the answer is yes, those Trib billboards do irk Pittsburgh Post-Gazette execs. And now they can't find refuge even in the neighborhood Starbucks.

The Trib's newly aggressive approach to its longtime rival goes beyond billboards. In February, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review President Ralph Martin sent his staffers an e-mail promising that 2010 would be "the year of Trib Total media. We have planned a series of what we consider monumental events," which include "new marketing initiatives" and "new long-term relationships."

Indeed, the Trib recently established at least one critical beachhead: It has supplanted the P-G at area Starbucks locations. 

The Seattle-based chain has been making other such changes recently: Nationwide, it has also begun carrying USA Today along with The New York Times. But the reasons for replacing the P-G -- a move which affects only Starbucks outlets owned directly by the company -- are murky. Starbucks has engaged in exclusive distribution deals with newspapers before; the Times had national exclusivity until recently. But Paul Morack, Starbucks' Pittsburgh district manager, would say only that, "We could not maintain our working relationship" with the P-G

Post-Gazette President Chris Chamberlain too was wary of discussing the move, saying only, "We were given virtually zero notice of the change. We weren't given any opportunity to find out why it was happening." He notes that the P-G has reached its own exclusive coffeehouse deal, with locally owned coffee chain Crazy Mocha. "They're local, and we're the local paper," Chamberlain boasts. Still, he admits, "We'd still like to be in there" at Starbucks.

As for the Trib's billboard campaign, "I think it's very negative, and something I would never recommend," says Chamberlain, sounding like a man trying not to voice what he really thinks.

As those billboards are only too happy to point out, the Trib's circulation has been growing. In the six months ending March 31, its weekday circulation increased by 3 percent, to more than 170,000. Circulation of the ad-heavy Sunday edition increased nearly as much, to 197,951. During the same period, P-G weekday circulation fell 8 percent to 192,179. Sunday circ for the P-G declined by 6 percent, to nearly 300,727. 

The Trib numbers, however, include six other newspapers owned by the company, and Chamberlain notes that the P-G is still the region's overall circulation leader. The P-G also has a strong presence online -- where readers have been migrating. The Audit Bureau of Circulations, which compiles circ totals for the papers, counts more than 3.3 million unique online readers a month -- more than twice what the Trib claims. "That's pretty good traffic for a website," says ABC spokesman Neal Lulofs.

In any case, not all of the Trib's moves have been as "monumental" as the Starbucks swap. In March, the Trib announced "a broad-reaching, 24-hour news partnership" with WPXI-TV, ending a previous allegiance with WTAE-TV. But in Nielsen ratings issued earlier this year, WPXI trailed the three-station field -- as it has generally done in previous ratings periods.

The Trib also recently announced a naming-rights deal. Station Square's outdoor performance venue -- known for summer concerts marked by the occasional intrusion of nearby freight trains -- is now "Trib Total Media Amphitheatre." 

But the Trib's smartest play may be the waiting game. 

The Post-Gazette is currently in the midst of labor talks with 10 unions representing newsroom employees, pressmen, drivers and others. Neither side is speaking publicly about the talks, but by all accounts, both sides are settled in for the long haul. Talks are moving "at a snail's pace," in the words of one source with knowledge of the proceedings. 

That suits workers well enough: While the P-G's previous labor agreement expired in March, employees are still working under the terms of that contract. And since a new contract will almost certainly require wage and other concessions, employees aren't in a big hurry to give up the old one.

In the meantime, union leaders can't escape the Trib billboard campaign either. A Trib billboard crowing about circulation trends was installed next door to the United Steelworkers building ... where the Newspaper Guild has its offices.

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