On Tuesday media company Knight Ridder (NYSE:KRI) published a bit of news that, while relatively small given the massive organization's scale, is nevertheless interesting because it's a reminder of the growing trend among newspaper publishers that are increasingly getting into "alternative" publishing businesses as they look for new ways to reach readers and serve advertisers.

Knight Ridder has purchased five free San Francisco-area daily publications, totaling upwards of 55,000 in daily circulation, for an undisclosed sum. "Our media strategy is to give customers what they want," said Knight Ridder Chairman and CEO Tony Ridder. "In today's world, customers want many kinds of publications, as evidenced by the great proliferation of free-distribution newspapers, shoppers, lifestyle magazines, and publications specializing in autos, real estate, and employment. Increasingly, Knight Ridder is in all of those businesses -- and will become more so in the near future."

When Ridder says "proliferation," he ain't kidding. Long popular in Europe, free dailies are popping up all over the place. Here in Washington, D.C., we now have two -- the Washington Post's (NYSE:WPO) Express and the new Washington Examiner, backed by Philip Anschutz -- fighting for attention and paper hawkers. This is hardly a new phenomenon, particularly in metropolitan areas.

There are at least two ways to interpret moves like these. One the one hand, it's good to see publishers looking for new ways to go after ad dollars and eyeballs. They face increased competition from each other, TV, radio, and the Internet, and by going into "alternatives" -- alternatives to the traditional daily newspaper, anyway -- such as free publishing and the foreign-language press, they're showing a willingness to get into new sales channels.

On the other hand, free print publications, auto sales magazines, and foreign-language editions aren't exactly new businesses. Folks have been making money on them for years, and so it's difficult to read the newspapers' move toward those sectors as much more than a response to circulation pressures in their traditional businesses. They've long since lost the opportunity to lead the development of those industries.

What sector investors have to hope is that what the larger media companies do bring to the table -- including advanced distribution and printing practices, experience sourcing content, sales teams with widening product portfolios, well-developed databases of advertisers, and target markets both geo- and demographic -- can manage their ever-widening businesses to good effect. Managers in the business will tell you it's more difficult than it might look.

Fool contributor Dave Marino-Nachison doesn't own any of the companies mentioned.