Worth a Try  | American Journalism Review
From AJR,   January/February 2003

Worth a Try   

Can customized tabloids attract those elusive 18- to-34-year-olds?

By John Morton
John Morton (mortoninc@msn.com), a former newspaper reporter, is president of a consulting firm that analyzes newspapers and other media properties.     

Newspapers for decades have tried various strategies to entice young people to become regular readers.

There's the Newspapers in Education program, which encourages schoolteachers to use newspapers in the classroom. There are special pages and sometimes whole sections devoted to topics presumed interesting to young people. Greater emphasis has been placed on entertainment news, celebrity folderol and school sports.

None of this has worked. The General Social Survey, for example, has reported that the percentage of those aged 21 to 25 who read a newspaper every day has dropped by more than half since 1972, to just below 20 percent. This is the key reason national newspaper circulation has been in decline for 13 years.

And as I have related in a previous column, studies have shown that newspaper-reading families tend to spawn newspaper-reading children (January/February 2002). Since a growing number of young people don't read newspapers, it is unlikely that their children will do so. This is a classic geometric progression, leading to a classic downward spiral.

The Chicago Tribune last fall came up with a strategy to try to break this gloomy cycle: Create an entire tabloid newspaper--RedEye--oriented specifically to the 18-to-34 age group so coveted by advertisers (see Free Press). The Chicago Sun-Times immediately responded with its own version, Red Streak (see Free Press, December).

Now, these are not your father's newspapers. Stories are short and never jump to an inside page. The layout is splashy and content is heavily (well, maybe lightly is a better word) oriented toward, you guessed it, entertainment, celebrities, sports and the blood-and-gore stuff that dominates local television coverage.

Paragons of journalism these tabloids are not, but they are not intended to be. Rather, they are designed to entice young people into a newspaper-reading habit in the hope that eventually they will shift their allegiances, as they grow older and, one hopes, more serious, to the regular editions of the Tribune and the Sun-Times.

The Tribune deserves credit for conceiving this novel, and I'm sure expensive, attempt to break the downward circulation spiral. And I'm sure that other newspapers will closely monitor the results with possible emulation in mind. The Tribune Co., parent of the newspaper, has said if the concept works other company newspapers may take it up.

At the heart of all this is the fact that the newspaper industry, when it comes to appealing to advertisers, is caught in a conundrum. Advertisers worship the 18-to-34 age group, so much so that, according to one analysis, they are willing when buying television time to pay two-and-a-half times more to reach 1,000 viewers in this age group than they'll pay to reach older viewers.

Never mind that people 50 and older, a rapidly growing segment of the population, are responsible for half of all spending on goods and services, according to data gathered by Jonathan Dee for a recent insightful article in the New York Times Magazine titled "The Myth of '18 to 34.' " Dee goes on to say older folks "watch more television, go to more movies and buy more CDs than young people do. Yet Americans over 50 are the focus of less than 10 percent of the advertising."

Newspapers are in a difficult position because their troubles in appealing to younger people are well known to advertisers. Newspapers tend to be viewed as old media--not where advertisers want to go to reach youth.

Fortunately, newspapers still deliver huge numbers of readers in the older, and more prosperous, age groups, and remain the dominant choice for the detailed price-and-item advertising that is not well suited to television and radio.

This strength underlies newspapers' continued high profitability. Even in 2002, not a stellar year for newspaper advertising, the newspaper segments of public companies accounting for nearly half of national circulation averaged a profit before taxes of 20 cents on every dollar taken in. Industry at large averages less than half that.

But the trend of the last 30 years is ominous and getting more so. When I first got into the business of analyzing newspapers in the early 1970s, it was not unusual to find dailies that sold newspapers to 80 percent or more of local homes. The industry as a whole back then, because many homes bought more than one newspaper, had circulation equal to 97 percent of the nation's total homes. That figure is down to 52 percent, and falling.

Clearly, this is an industry in decline, and the loss of young readers is the major cause. If it takes fluffy tabloids like RedEye and Red Streak to break the trend, more power to them.



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