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From AJR,   August/September 2005  issue

The Pint-Size Patriot   

The Harrisburg paper debuts a “reader-friendly” version of itself.


By Amy Worden
Worden covers state politics in Harrisburg for the Philadelphia Inquirer.     

The billboards began popping up on highways around the Pennsylvania state capital in May. They featured one newspaper reader holding a broadsheet, another holding a tabloid. The slogan underneath: "Choose your Patriot news."

The ads promote a new "reader-friendly" version of the Patriot-News, the 102,710-circulation broadsheet daily in Harrisburg.

But unlike the tabloids launched in recent years by many major daily newspapers, it's not free and it's not expressly designed to appeal to young readers or commuters. Instead, the Patriot-News, part of the Newhouse chain, took a new tack with its "compact edition," the Patriot. By culling and trimming the top stories and dropping some comics, police blotters and stock tables, the newspaper has created an abbreviated version of the traditional broadsheet aimed at a more general market: busy people.

The Patriot-News is believed to be the first newspaper in North America to offer two different formats daily. "People wanted a quicker read and something easier to navigate," says the paper's executive editor, David Newhouse, part of the Newhouse family.

John Kirkpatrick, the newspaper's editor and publisher, calls it the end of the one-size-fits-all model. "Offering customers a choice is obvious in other industries. Why isn't it obvious to us?" he says. In his view, a separate edition appeals to a new, younger audience without alienating loyal, older subscribers.

Kirkpatrick says the newspaper decided to market the new product as a "compact edition" — not as a tabloid — to avoid any perceived connection with the supermarket scandal sheets. But in traditional tabloid fashion, there is a cover piece, usually the top local news story. The weather forecast anchors page two along with a color-coded section index. Inside are shortened versions of the day's major stories — without jumps — about 70 percent of the broadsheet's content.

Two features are unique to the tabloid. "Ideas and Conversation" offers notable quotes and occasionally a quiz. "Images in the News" displays a double-truck spread of the day's best photographs. The Patriot-News added one part-time and two full-time copy editors who split their duties between the tab and the broadsheet.

The compact edition costs 50 cents, the same as the broadsheet, and is published Monday through Friday, while the broadsheet publishes seven days a week. Currently the Patriot-News counts the circulation of both papers together, as papers that published AM and PM editions used to, because the core news product is published in both. (The tab had 200 subscribers in early July.) But the uniqueness of the alternative edition has caused some confusion at the Audit Bureau of Circulations. "They don't know what to do with it," Kirkpatrick says.

Newspaper analysts say it would be difficult and expensive to run two versions of the same paper indefinitely. "I question over the long term if they would produce both formats," newspaper economist Miles Groves says. "It seems they should go with one, depending on readers' response."

But Kirkpatrick says there's no timetable to decide the Patriot's future. "Our goal is to grow overall circulation," he says. "If at some point it's clear [the Patriot] is not taking off, we'll meet and discuss it."

Some local readers are skeptical about the new product. "I suppose it fits the [Attention Deficit Disorder] culture of today," says Andy Rash, 34. "But if the newspaper is trying to appeal to a time-starved population, why not focus on the Internet?"

But Damon Boughamer, 27, a public radio reporter, says he immediately switched his subscription to the tabloid because it's a quicker read. "It has all the hard news and one quarter of the logistical headache," he says. "I read it because it fits on my desk."