New US tabloids: more Ja Rule than Jack Straw

Confronting youthful readers indifferent to news, major US papers create hip spin-offs.

The newspaper industry has seen the future, and it looks - or, to be more precise, reads - just like high school junior Harley Hutchins.

Lingering over apple pie at a cafe in the Chicago suburb of Evanston, Harley says he likes RedEye, a breezy tabloid distributed weekdays at Chicago transit stations.

The newspaper isn't published by alternative journalists or a coterie of intellectuals, but the same company that publishes the nation's seventh-largest daily. "It reads a lot faster and is simpler than the [Chicago] Tribune," he says. "When you read the Tribune ... they start naming foreign ministers and you lose track of the story."

In RedEye, and a growing number of youth-oriented newspapers, readers like Harley are happy to find more references to Ja Rule than Jack Straw.

Frantic about losing two generations of readers indifferent to mainstream news, newspaper publishers across the country are launching one of the most aggressive periods of experimentation since the colorful pages of USA Today revolutionized the industry 20 years ago.

"There's no doubt that newspapers are in transition, and they're going to need to reach out to younger readers," says Margaret Buchanan, publisher of CiN Weekly, a new Gannett newspaper in Cincinnati. "We have to change."

RedEye first appeared in the fall of 2002 along with The Chicago Sun- Times' Red Streak. The Washington Post has created the Express, a free weekly with entertainment listing and condensced news stories aimed at young commuters.

Gannett, the nation's largest newspaper publisher, recently began producing more than a half dozen weeklies with the same editorial agenda. From North Carolina to Kansas, other publishers across the country are launching similar efforts.

RedEye et al. don't remind anyone of their grandfather's newspaper. They focus on quick-hit stories and emphasize entertainment. But they also demur from the lurid sex-advice columns and in-your-face tone of alternative weeklies.

Instead, these publications are a mélange of Entertainment Weekly and Reader's Digest, with some big photos and local event listings thrown in. Consider a Friday edition from last month. Big stories in that day's Tribune - a US helicopter crash in Iraq and the court appearance of an Enron official - garner only a handful of paragraphs in its sister publication. RedEye devotes almost its entire front page to a photo of a woman who lied about losing a winning lottery ticket. Inside, stories cover the NFL playoffs, Chicago's historic "firsts," and the joys of hot drinks.

Many competitors aren't impressed with a "Saddam, Schmaddam" approach that values the doings of Tyra Banks over Tony Blair.

"You've got a bunch of people in suits and they get together and have focus groups and decide what young people want," says Richard Karpel, executive director of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. "That doesn't create a very compelling product."

Focus groups do, in fact, shape coverage inside the new, free publications. The rationale: Younger readers simply aren't interested in regular newspaper coverage. Statistics suggest that nearly twice as many Americans over 45 subscribe to daily newspapers compared to those under 45. One survey estimates that fewer than a third of Americans younger than 35 read daily newspapers on a regular basis.

In 2002, the Gannett newspaper chain, the largest in the country and a leading force in the spin-off movement, began forming focus groups of peopled aged 18 to 35. The panel reported widespread boredom with "Dear Abby" advice columns, reruns of "Peanuts" cartoons, and other staples of US dailies.

In response, Gannett began churning out entertainment-focused weeklies in cities where it had already been publishing dailies. Among them: Boise, Id.; Lansing, Mich.; Louisville, Ky.; Indianapolis, and Phoenix, where the weekly is geared toward young women. More weeklies will debut over the next two months in Florida, New York, and Delaware.

Will the newspaper industry's push for relevance doom it to irrelevance? Not at all, says John Lavine, director of the Readership Institute at Northwestern Univer- sity, which studies young readers. According to Mr. Lavine, naysayers ignore the hundreds of thousands of readers who pick up RedEye.

"Any reasonable person would have to say that's a very big deal. It shows there's a market," says Lavine. "People who say, 'I reject these readers because the paper doesn't meet my standard as sophisticated journalism'... have no interest in long-term newspaper survival."

It's too early to know if the new papers will succeed, say experts, but some believe publishers will continue moving beyond the one-size-fits-all approach to the newspaper business. There has even been a move in several national newspapers, including The New York Times and Wall Street Journal, to hone coverage more for families interested in consumer products and weekend vacations.

Other metro newspapers are publishing additional sections about local entertainment and activities, on top of already established weekend sections.

By offering specialized products, newspapers will better meet the needs of advertisers who can't afford to reach readers of all genders and ages, says Frank Gristina, a media analyst with Avondale Partners.

To be of any value, say observers, ads need sticking power. That may be a challenge if there are many readers out there like Blake Gordon, a 28-year-old poet who briefly picked up RedEye and Red Streak on a recent commute to work. "I forgot anything I read in there as soon as I read it," says Mr. Gordon.

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