All the news stuff that's fit to print

Facing a slow death, newspapers are desperately trying to reach young readers with dumbed-down tabloids full of stories about Kobe, Britney and dental bling.


Farhad Manjoo
February 17, 2006 6:00PM (UTC)

Hilary Brown is a genial 20-year-old junior at Northwestern University. She's currently an intern at San Francisco magazine and her goal, she says, is to work as a magazine writer. But for all her interest in journalism, Brown has never warmed to reading a daily newspaper. And when she does read a paper, she's not reaching for the New York Times or for her big local daily, the Chicago Tribune, whose coverage she calls "repetitive." There's too much else to follow -- too much to do, she says -- for her to read the news in the detail in which the Tribune provides it. For instance, Brown points out, every day the Tribune features news on Iraq, but little of the news is compelling or new; it's all follow-ups, side details to one big-picture story, which is that things in Iraq aren't going well.

Brown gets her news from three main sources, and each gives her a general impression of what's happening in the world. She watches "The Daily Show," which she says provides "a good grasp of what's going on." She occasionally reads the Sun-Times, Chicago's smaller competitor to the Tribune, which she likes for its size. And she frequently picks up RedEye, the free, daily commuter paper published by the Tribune and aimed at young people in Chicago.

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Distributed for free around train stops in the city, RedEye is meant to be a condensed, more fun version of a traditional daily newspaper. It features copy from the Tribune as well as original reporting, and though it does briefly cover major national and international news stories, it is heavy on local news, entertainment, fashion and sports. Brown calls it "super-convenient" and praises it for providing a nice balance of news she needs and wants.

RedEye represents the newspaper industry's latest attempt to hook young readers. Newspaper executives have decided that if America's youth, with their short attention spans, flagging interest in the news, and obsession with celebrity and sports, won't come to newspapers, the papers will come to them.

"Every newspaper is seeing a need to do this, and advertisers are focused on young people pretty heavily," says Diane Hockenberry, the director of audience development at the Newspaper Association of America. Today, youth-oriented "niche" publications like RedEye, most printed in tabloid format and offered for free, are stacked up in train stations, bus stops, bars, bookstores and other hipster joints across the nation, whether in big cities (Boston, Dallas, Washington) or small (Boise, Idaho; Des Moines, Iowa; or Lansing, Mich.).

For the newspaper business, these spinoffs represent something of a Hail Mary pass. Newspaper circulation has been falling steadily for years; last year the graph began to look like the NASDAQ circa 2001. In the six-month period ending in September 2005, national newspaper circulation fell 3 percent, with many large papers faring worse. Layoffs, too, abound; seemingly every other day, editors' sad-sack pink-slip memos surface on the Web: 85 newsroom staffers let go at the Los Angeles Times; 45 at the New York Times; 35 at the Boston Globe; and more at the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Jose Mercury News, and on and on.

To try to save the newspaper industry, publishers are staking their businesses on what would seem to be an unlikely prospect -- the idea that young people, who for years have been ditching newsprint, will come back to the paper if they're given something that can compete with today's flashy media. That's the thinking behind these youth papers, which eschew news -- relegating all serious national and international coverage to a handful of small wire reports -- and instead focus on sensational local stories, pop culture, sports, and lifestyle features. Brevity is the soul of niche; these papers speed along with rat-a-tat prose and magazine-style photo spreads that would make a travel brochure for Guam look long-winded in comparison.

For all their apparent flaws, many publishers report that these niche publications have succeeded in attracting young readers and new advertisers. As a 27-year-old male, I'm squarely in these papers' line of sight, and I should take comfort in their attempts to attract people like me. But what hooked me on newspapers more than a decade ago wasn't the absence of news, it was the very fullness of it -- the daily chaos and complexity of human affairs neatly organized in ink on the page.

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Today, newspapers still have the power to seduce people who find a thrill in following current affairs, and at least one innovative publisher is finding ways to do that by transforming newspapers into multimedia presentations. But after spending time reading some of the new niche papers, I can only regard their impending ubiquity with something like sheer fright.

In trying to reach young people, says David Mindich, chairman of the journalism department at Saint Michael's College in Colchester, Vt., newspapers face a daunting challenge. Mindich was teaching a class of undergraduates early in 2001 when he first realized that young people are completely turned off to the news. During the Senate confirmation hearings for John Ashcroft as attorney general, Mindich gave his class of 23 students a pop quiz to determine their familiarity with American law. Eighteen of his students couldn't name a single Supreme Court justice; only one knew Ashcroft was the attorney general nominee, and several believed it was Colin Powell.

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The experience prompted Mindich to dig deeper into what young people knew -- or, rather, didn't know -- about the world around them. He found mountains of evidence and gathered it into a 2005 book, "Tuned Out: Why Americans Under 40 Don't Follow the News." At a time of greater access to media than ever before, Mindich says that the typical American young person isn't reading a newspaper, watching news on television, listening to it on the radio, or reading it online in any significant depth.

And of all the news media that young people aren't following, newspapers are the source they're not following most. Even the newspaper industry's own readership statistics -- which are optimistic compared to other organizations' estimates -- bear this out. In 1970, on average, 72 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds read a weekday newspaper, not much lower than the percentage of older people who did so. Today, the industry says, only 40 percent of young people typically read a weekday newspaper, compared to 66 percent of those over 55 who do.

Surveys by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press (PDF) paint a grimmer picture. In 1996, when Pew asked people whether they'd "read a newspaper yesterday," just 29 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds said they had. And when the organization asked the same question in 2004, the number had fallen to 23 percent. Compared to older people surveyed and to young people of previous generations, people my age today appear abysmally unaware of what's in print.

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The primary social symptom of these news habits, Mindich says, is the growing "knowledge gap" between the young and old. Polling data show that in the 1950s and 1960s people under 40 were almost as well informed about the world as their parents. But today, Americans under 40 generally know a lot less than their elders.

Mindich cites a 2000 poll in which only 4 percent of people aged 18 to 24 picked John McCain as the Republican presidential candidate who advocated campaign-finance reform. Twenty-eight percent of those over 65 got it right. Mindich asked dozens of young people similar questions -- about local and national leaders, about the countries in the president's "axis of evil" and the locations of the plane crashes in the 9/11 attacks -- and found similar results. If space aliens were to land tomorrow and interrogate our 20-year-olds, they'd have to conclude we are a backward civilization; meanwhile, the 20-year-olds, to judge from Mindich's data, would likely mistake the aliens for members of Congress.

Mindich says it's plain why young people aren't interested in the news. All of us, young and old, are swimming against a powerful tide. We may have more access to news today than we ever did in the past, but the amount of non-news media we face drowns out everything else. As Mindich sees it, kids are bingeing on non-news media: entertainment, sports, video games, the Web, and basically everything on TV, even what's on the news stations. (See Grace, Nancy.)

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For a long while, folks in the newspaper industry didn't think much of these factors; one common mantra was that despite youthful inattention, young people would start reading newspapers once they grew up. "I think there was a kind of denial," says Merrill Brown, the former editor of MSNBC.com who now works as a consultant to newspapers. "The thing you heard all the time is that they'll all come back when they become homeowners and parents. That has no credibility anymore. Nobody's buying it. People are not coming back."

Now many who study the news business think of news-reading as a habit that, like smoking cigarettes, is best picked up young, and that it's difficult to warm to later in life. If you choose to keep up with "American Idol" rather than American diplomatic policy toward Iran when you're 25, you won't likely be doing much different when you're 55.

To that end, says Janet Robinson, CEO of the New York Times Co., the Times has built an extensive program to get its daily on college campuses. "This has been a purposeful effort on our part to make sure they know what the Times can bring to them," Robinson says of the paper's college-age audience. And, she adds, the program is working; in surveys, young people say they read the paper often, a statistic she regards with some optimism. "If young people are introduced to the habit of reading the Times, it becomes a very trusted source for them in the years to come," she says.

The niche papers have turned to a new way to get young readers -- give them a dollop of non-news as a tasty come-on and sprinkle some news inside, an editorial trick akin to feeding your dog a pill by covering it in applesauce. Newspaper analysts call this necessary. Unless a story on the Hamas victory in the Palestinian territories is penned by James Frey himself, they say, it will never be as exciting to a 20-year-old as a piece on Angelina and Brad. Given all they're bombarded with, most readers will always choose the easier option.

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Amid the recent attempts to cultivate young readers, the Chicago Tribune's RedEye, first published in 2002, has been the most criticized, praised and, perhaps, successful. Every article in RedEye is short. The whole paper, says Jane Hirt, RedEye's editor, is designed to be read in 20 minutes or less. RedEye prints about 100,000 copies every day. A 2004 survey by Gallup shows the paper reaches about 600,000 city residents every week; its readership has grown at a time when both the Tribune and the Sun-Times have faced circulation declines.

According to Brad Moore, RedEye's general manager, more than half of the paper's readers are between the ages of 18 and 34, substantially younger than readers of other papers in the city. To Hirt, this proves that young people do indeed want to be informed. "A lot of people said it would never work, because young people don't want to read the news," she says. "But they do want to read the news. They do want to know what's going on." It's just that they also want some fun with their news, she says.

RedEye features local stories as well as national news, mostly from wire services. It even includes original reporting. Last year, RedEye was the only Chicago paper to note every rape reported to police in the city, and at the end of the year it used that data to show that sexual assaults were not limited to lower-class areas but occurred in every city neighborhood during the year.

RedEye, however, is unlikely to provide anyone with a working knowledge of current events. "Too Sexy for Work? Don't Let Wardrobe Malfunction Hurt Your Chance for Success," read the paper's cover headline of Jan. 24. The day before, the cover feature focused on the increasing popularity of cosmetic dental jewelry among hip-hop wannabe youths. The headline: "Grills Gone Wild." Both the how-to-dress story and the dental-bling story ran for two pages, as much space as the paper devotes to all national and international news combined.

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"If you can pull out some of the news, throw in a little entertainment, and get more people interested in the newspaper, that might be OK," Mindich says of papers like RedEye. But "some of these papers are pulling out so much news content they are no longer serving as a vehicle to hold leaders accountable." In other words, they're no longer newspapers; they're brochures with factoids.

Hirt, who worked on the foreign news desk at the Tribune before coming to RedEye, defends her paper. RedEye isn't dumbing down the news for young people, she insists; rather, it's giving them a slice that they can consume while they've got nothing better to do, like riding the train. And if they want more than what's in RedEye, they certainly know where they can find it. Plus, she points out: "It's better than nothing." The paper's research shows that it has attracted many people who would not otherwise have read any daily newspaper.

But the problem with taking solace in RedEye's success is that it feels like settling for ignorance. Niche publications may have begun as starter papers, publications to get young people associated with the brand of a newspaper, but many papers are coming to realize that for some readers, the niche may be the entire ballgame.

People who read RedEye aren't necessarily graduating to the Tribune. (Brad Moore, RedEye's general manager, says he doesn't believe RedEye has cannibalized regular Tribune readers; although with the Tribune's circulation steady or declining, that would seem plausible.) But the Tribune is OK with the notion of people sticking to RedEye and not moving on to the big paper. RedEye, says Moore, has become a success on its own, and the company wins even if young people don't pick up the weightier paper. "We target a coveted demographic," Moore says, "and we're able to deliver a product whose audience is significantly younger. We've been able to attract advertisers that didn't feel it was affordable to be in the Chicago Tribune. We've picked up a significant amount from advertisers that had never run in the Tribune."

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Mary Stier, who publishes the Des Moines Register, echoes this idea about her paper's spinoff, Juice. The Register, Iowa's venerable daily, is owned by the Gannett Corp., the newspaper giant that publishes 91 U.S. papers, including USA Today, by far the nation's most popular newspaper. Juice inclines toward breezy featurettes and Q-and-A-style interviews. A recent Juice cover shows a smiling white woman dropping a coin into a ceramic piggy bank under the headline, "Pinching Pennies: How to Save $3,600 in the Next Year." Inside readers can get the lowdown on consignment shopping or the fun of visiting the State Historical Society. But Stier isn't selling Juice as compelling journalism. It is what it is -- an attempt to get young people to read something in an ultimate effort to make money on advertisements.

"Now that there are other media options available to them, we can't expect when this marketplace turns 35 they're going to subscribe to the Des Moines Register," Stier says. "But we can continue to slice out other publications and Web sites that meet their needs. They may not read the newspaper every day, but say they read it three times a week and pick up Juice and go on the Web site seven days a week. Then, I'm happy."

Worrying about dumbed-down newspapers may seem old-fashioned in the age of the Web. If RedEye overruns Chicago, and Juice takes down Des Moines, everyone in those cities, even wide-eyed, 16-year-old would-be news junkies, will have access to the Web and to the depth of knowledge contained in the Times, the Washington Post, or countless blogs and other sources of news.

And there's evidence that online versions of newspapers can attract a sizable audience, even one slightly younger than that of the print paper. According to Nielsen//Netratings, a firm that measures traffic online, many of the top 10 most popular newspaper Web sites receive significant traffic from people aged 25 to 34; at some sites, this audience accounts for more than a quarter of monthly visitors. Moreover, a Pew survey conducted last June showed that though young people were leaving print newspapers, they were still going to newspapers' Web sites. Carroll Doherty, editor of the Pew Center, says that the poll seemed to show that an equal share of young people and older people think of newspapers as a "main source" of news; it's just that the younger group preferred to get the paper online.

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Yet at the same time, as Mindich points out, while the Web gives us greater access to news, it also gives us more non-news, too. "If you wanted to know everything about what Jack Abramoff did, you can learn it online," he says. "Or you could not, and look at something else."

I came to the Web when it was still in its infancy, when some of the most compelling content online was from newspapers that I didn't have access to in print format. Things are different today; there's so much more besides newspapers. Today, with its lightning-fast downloads and online multimedia, it's easy to see why the Internet, as Mindich says, "is also the best place for avoiding the news completely."

Rob Curley disagrees. Curley, the gregarious 35-year-old new media director of the Naples Daily News in Naples, Fla., says he knows why people have been turning away from newspapers and knows exactly how to bring them back in order to both entertain and educate them.

The Curley method is to convert small regional newspapers into powerhouses on the Web and make them indispensable to their communities -- as indispensable as print newspapers once were, or should have been, to the regions they served. He counsels newsrooms to focus their resources on gathering local news. With the Web, national news has been "commoditized"; you can get national news anywhere, and local newspapers aren't going to beat out bigger papers -- or other news sites, such as Yahoo -- that provide national coverage. Indeed, Curley's very definition of a newspaper involves local news.

Curley calls himself "platform-agnostic," by which he means that he feels no particular sentimental attachment to a printed daily in broadsheet format. A newspaper isn't a physical object, he says, but is instead an expert organization built to "chronicle the local history" of a community.

When papers embrace their mission to provide local news thoroughly, efficiently and in any manner people choose -- in print, online or whatever other device people may want to start using tomorrow -- audiences will flock to them, Curley says. He points to his efforts in Lawrence, Kan., where the three Web sites he created for the Lawrence Journal-World became the center of that college town's daily life. (His sites have also been weighted down with many awards.)

Beginning in late January, the Naples Daily News published an extensive multipart report on the problem of human trafficking and slavery among immigrant populations in Southwest Florida. The series, which documented the plight of South American families and girls who were smuggled over the border and kept in indentured servitude on farm fields and as prostitutes, would have made for compelling journalism in any format. But Curley's Web operation greatly enhanced the paper's reporting. First, as with every story the Daily News publishes, the series was made available on multiple platforms -- you can read the story on your cellphone or on your iPod in addition to reading it on the Web. Online, every story can be discussed in a forum, much like you can do on blogs (or Salon).

But Curley's team added even more. On the paper's Web site, they created an enormous photo gallery from the series, and there are audio clips from the victims, and from reporters who worked on the stories. Such extras accompany many stories on the Daily News' site. For one recent feature on the annual Naples charity wine festival, Curley's team produced more than a dozen video clips from the event; Naples has no local TV news station, so the video -- which you could play on your iPod if you liked -- was the only place to get a picture of the festival.

Multimedia features like these are routine for papers 10 times the size of the Naples Daily News -- the New York Times and Washington Post, for instance, include online videos and chats with reporters and editors on their Web sites. But you don't see this kind of thing at a small paper dealing with news of a small region.

Newspapers collect and distribute information, Curley points out; that's their primary function. In addition to news, newspapers have access to detailed local weather reports, they've got experts who know the ins and outs of restaurants in an area, they know sports scores and upcoming events and the worst place in the city to live if you're afraid of getting mugged. People who read newspapers understand this; for folks reared on newsprint, reaching for the local daily or alt-weekly may seem like a clearly obvious way to learn about what's happening in town.

That's not the case, though, for people who don't read newspapers; those unaccustomed to print may not understand that the paper's where you go to learn about restaurants in town, and they may not know, further, the idiosyncrasies of the town's particular paper -- that, say, Wednesday's edition covers dining, and Friday's the day for reviews of local music. As Curley sees it, newspapers will gain young readers only when they put this information online in a format that's a pleasure to use.

Curley's far from the only person in the newspaper business with this idea; newspapers big and small, including Juice, have retooled their sites to provide readers greater access to useful civic information. But few if any newspaper sites provide this information in as useful and easy a format as Curley does. He takes advantage of the simple fact that the Web, with its nearly infinite storage space, can present a whole lot more information than a newspaper ever can.

Note Curley's vision of the ideal way a newspaper should provide information on local restaurants on its Web site. "I wanted a huge in-depth restaurant database," he says. "You do a local restaurant search in most towns and it's terrible. I want to know everything about a restaurant. Are they vegetarian friendly? Are they locally owned? I want a guide that'll allow me to search on who's serving sushi right now and it's 10:30 at night. Or I want somewhere to look when I'm driving around and listening to music and I've got a hankering for some ribs. If I could get something that told me that, dude, I'm all about that."

At Lawrence.com, one of the sites he built for the Lawrence Journal-World, that's just the kind of restaurant guide Curley and his team created, and now he's got a similar thing running at BonitaNews.com, one of the sites he's running for the Naples Daily News. He's got scores of such ideas for making newspaper Web sites more appealing. "We have it set up so that for your local high school football games our site will call your phone to tell you the score," he says. Or you can have the newspaper send a wakeup message to your phone every morning and tell you the weather forecast.

You might wonder what the difference is between what Curley's doing and what the niche weeklies are doing; if Curley is just giving young people more efficient arts coverage, isn't he also pandering? Isn't it possible that some people might just go to his pages for the pop cultural coverage and ignore the stories on slave trafficking?

Yet there's a fundamental difference in tone between what Curley's doing online and what other papers are doing with niche tabloids. Papers like RedEye and Juice seem to picture young people as essentially vacuous and hyperactive, incapable of any sustained attention. This explains their brevity; they take it as a given that people my age want to know less, not more -- so they give us only tiny nibs of info.

Curley, on the other hand, gives you more. Where other media pander, he attempts to attract young people with comprehensive features -- like video, audio, discussion forums, and databases -- rather than taking them away. "I'm trying to build a Web site that you can't imagine not being there," he says. "I think newspapers should be trying to build Web sites that are so good and so powerful that when real estate agents are talking to people who want to move there, they'll talk about the newspaper just like they'd talk about good schools or a nice park." And once people are spending as much time at these newspaper sites as Curley hopes, the thinking is they'll inevitably be roped into the paper's other features, including its news reporting.

So far, nobody's come up with a business model to support such vibrant Web journalism. Newspapers make their money through the print newspaper, and there's no sign that if print circulation declines, ad rates on the Web could make up for lost ads in the paper, even if those Web sites become substantially more robust than they are today. According to Nielsen//Netratings, the New York Times' Web site is the most popular newspaper site in the country. But when I asked Robinson, the Times CEO, if she could envision the paper producing costly, in-depth, investigative journalism on the strength of its Web revenue, she said, "It isn't fair to put the burden of our wonderful newsroom on the shoulder of our newly formed online operation." The online operation, she explained, is just 10 years old; in time, perhaps, a business model will come.

Curley, too, didn't have all the answers on the business questions. But he did point out that compared to the costs of producing a print newspaper, the costs of building a news Web site are small. So even if revenues from a Web-only operation are lower than from a print model, profit margins may actually turn out to be higher.

His approach seems plausibly lucrative. If his sites do become indispensable, attracting both old people and young, advertisers may follow. It's a thin reed on which to hang the future of the newspaper industry. But a reed nonetheless.


Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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