Black and White and Red All Over  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Drop Cap
From AJR,   December 2002

Black and White and Red All Over   

Chicago newspapers offer dueling tabloids for young readers

By Kelly Heyboer
Kelly Heyboer is a reporter at the Star-Ledger in Newark, New Jersey.      


It isn't quite the old-time Chicago newspaper war when publishers hired mob bosses to bust some heads. But Chicago's Sun-Times and Tribune were mixing it up this fall as they debuted dueling tabloids aimed at young people--a battle waged with Krispy Kreme giveaways, David Letterman-style Top 10s and, of course, some trash talking.

Sun-Times Vice President of Editorial John Cruickshank vows to keep his version on the stands until the Tribune's is beaten into submission. "We're going to be in the business until the day they're dead," Cruickshank taunts. "We're doing it to kill them. Believe me, that's the only reason."

The brawl began in early October when the Tribune announced a Monday-Friday tabloid aimed at the elusive 18-to-34-year-old reader. Selling for 25 cents, half the price of the mother paper, RedEye would be a shorter, hipper version of the Trib. "We're continuously looking for ways to bring new readers and new advertisers into the fold," says John O'Loughlin, RedEye's general manager. Named for the up-all-night culture of its target audience, the tabloid would be heavy on graphics, entertainment listings and things young readers want, according to focus groups.

Sensing the Tribune was elbowing in on its readership, the Sun-Times almost immediately had its own youth tab in the works. The paper put out an emergency call to sister papers in the Hollinger chain, assembling a small staff to start planning it. The Sun-Times' product, also a quarter, was christened Red Streak, an old newspaper term for "the final edition"--or a new newspaper term for "take that, Tribune."

The Tribune then started handing out free preview editions of RedEye sooner than originally planned. On October 30 RedEye met Red Streak on the street. Tribune workers, in RedEye gloves and hats, handed out copies along with free Krispy Kreme donuts. Sun-Times employees also passed out freebies and set up Red Streak newspaper boxes right next to RedEye ones.

The Reds look and feel similar: repackaged news from their parents, with short stories and lots of photos. The little original content focuses on fun. For instance, while Red Streak's first front page included a piece on the Washington, D.C., sniper, it ran alongside photos of Winona Ryder and Sarah Jessica Parker and a Halloween feature about inflatable pumpkins. RedEye's debut cover touted the Top 10 (nine actually, to "save you time") reasons readers should pick it up. No. 1: More elbow room on the train.

Media critics rolled their eyes. "At 25 cents a copy, both are overpriced, slicing the news so thin the servings wouldn't even make a meal for an anorexic," wrote Slate's Jack Shafer. Editor & Publisher Editor at Large Mark Fitzgerald declared both papers "pretty underwhelming." And media columnist Steve Rhodes predicted in Chicago Magazine that both Reds would be dead in a year, saying, "Neither paper can be construed as hip."

Readers approached tentatively. "The reaction from [traditional] readers is really mixed," says Red Streak's Cruickshank. "I think for some of the readers this is really exciting. And for some of the readers it was like, 'Ugh. There's nothing there. Give me a break.' " But RedEye Coeditor Joe Knowles says his tab is finding its voice and getting better every day. "They need to give us a chance," Knowles says of readers and critics. "I don't think you can judge a daily newspaper on its first issue."

Behind all the newspaper war bravado is a serious issue. Newspapers are losing free-spending 18-to-34-year-olds that advertisers covet to flashy 24-hour cable shows and the Internet. Daily newspapers might not regain a foothold in the market without a little reinvention.

If RedEye catches on, the Tribune Co. may roll out youth editions at its other papers. The Sun-Times does not have such goals; it aspires only to thwart RedEye, says Cruickshank.

Both papers are quiet about circulation goals. Both Reds initially printed more than 100,000 copies, though most were handed out for free. For now, Red Streak vows to keep publishing as long as RedEye is on the streets. And according to RedEye's O'Loughlin, his paper is in the game for the long haul.

###