AJR  Features
From AJR,   April/May 2005

Hip--and Happening    

You thought all those free mini-dailies for the way-too-busy and way-too-young-and-cool were dreck, didnít you? Well, many have captured significant shares of their markets and are heading toward profitability faster than imagined. And more are on the way.

By Sharyn Vane
Sharyn Vane has written and edited at papers in Colorado, Florida and Texas.     

Related reading:
   » The Skinny on the Minis

They're short (and not necessarily sweet). They've been much maligned. And they've failed in some markets.

But could those all-the-news-you-need-in-20-minutes tabloids turn out be the Mighty Mouse of the newspaper industry?

In the five years since the Luxembourg-based Metro conglomerate arrived in Philadelphia with its quick-read format, a proliferation of mostly free "mini-dailies" has sprung up throughout the country aimed at nontraditional readers--code for the much-coveted younger set. Gone are the days when the assumption was that nonreaders would automatically start subscribing to a broadsheet around the time they started taking property taxes and schools more seriously than Billboard's Top 100. Instead, an increasing number of papers are spinning versions of the news into bright, tight little packages doled out at subway stations and convenience stores, where thousands pick them up and consume them by commute's end.

Metro has added editions in Boston and New York since its 2000 launch in Philadelphia. Chicago witnessed the unveiling of the Tribune's RedEye and the Sun-Times' Red Streak in 2002; the Washington Post spawned Express in 2003, and Dallas saw a dual-product debut later that year with the A.M. Journal Express and the Dallas Morning News' Quick.

The market hasn't been all rah-rah: Red Streak, for one, has slimmed down considerably since its start, and A.M. Journal Express, launched by American Consolidated Media, shuttered after a little less than six months. Yet in February, Express found itself with a brand-new tabloid rival: the Examiner, generally aimed at high income households and backed by Denver businessman Philip Anschutz, who has trademarked the Examiner name in 63 U.S. markets. He may add yet another New York tab to the mix of Metro and the Tribune Co.'s amNew York. Knight Ridder CEO P. Anthony Ridder told analysts earlier this year that the chain planned to test free tabloids in select markets; in mid-February the company took a first step by buying five small California daily tabs. Even the venerable New York Times Co.--whose chairman, Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., once decried Chicago's dueling Reds as "condescending" to readers--plans to buy a significant share of Metro Boston.

Most of these papers originally were aimed at capturing younger readers, who make up a steadily dwindling audience for traditional broadsheets. But as more are launched, the veterans of the market are finding that while they are indeed snaring the 18-to-34 set, many of their readers are also squarely outside that demographic. It seems the formula is attracting the time-starved--regardless of age. In fact, RedEye Coeditor Joe Knowles says if he had to do it all over again, the Tribune's slick and sassy tabloid might not be marketed solely to the young 'uns.

"The reason these things are cropping up is they seem to be working," says Mary Glick, associate director of the American Press Institute, who in April will moderate an API seminar on young readership. "I find the ones that I've been reading are well-written. They're boiled down to the essential point--which is really what I want anyway."

John K. Hartman, a journalism professor at Central Michigan University who has studied younger readers and authored a paper on the topic for Harvard University's Nieman Foundation for Journalism, ventures further. "I consider the rise of the mini-daily the biggest story in the newspaper industry since USA Today," says Hartman, who has written two books on the influence of the national Gannett paper. "Having to compete with USA Today brought forth color and graphics to the rest of the papers. I think USA Today was the newspaper phenomenon of the late 20th century. I think the mini-dailies are the newspaper phenomenon of the 21st century."

Fair enough. But when these diminutive dailies first arrived, proponents and critics alike wondered if they could ever successfully serve as a bridge to the mainline broadsheets. Now the bigger question seems to be: Do they need to?

Just like the news their papers deliver, most everyone who works for a mini-daily has a brief, punchy explanation of what their publication is trying to do.

"Think of us as the MTV of newspapers," says Henry E. Scott, group publisher of Metro U.S., part of the international chain of Metro newspapers for "young and ambitious readers." He continues: "We believe that the typical 25-year-old in New York has more in common with a 25-year-old in Paris or in Stockholm than with a 55-year-old in New York."

"My vision for this publication is to be the only thing you'll need if you're going to a dinner party tonight," says Trish Hooper, deputy managing editor of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, who oversees its afternoon tabloid, TRIBp.m.

Most minis share similar characteristics: short stories and lots of briefs; a distinctively edgy writing style, apparent in rewritten wire stories and staff-produced pieces, as well as headlines and other display type; and significant attention to packaging and design. The theory is that's what intrigues younger readers, who numerous studies show have been choosing the Web, cable, word-of-mouth--in short, pretty much everything but traditional newspapers--to get their news. And what constitutes "young" is inching upward: A 2002 Pew Research Center for the People & the Press study, for example, found that only about a quarter of those under 30 had read a newspaper in the past day, and only 30 percent of those between 31 and 40 had.

The simplest reason is that time is in increasingly short supply, researchers have concluded. So extracting the essence of key stories (and skipping the others) is a widely accepted road to capturing youth's wandering eye.

Open up a mini-daily, then, and you'll find bits like RedEye's "EyePass Lane: Quick scan of the news for the extremely time-pressed reader"--a "Headline News"-style distillation of the tab's already-short stories. Under the "Nation" header, for example, is "Report: Abu Ghraib prison was like 'Animal House'" and "Wisconsin man sought in 2 killings." Leaf through TRIBp.m. and there's a page of "America in brief" spotlights reminiscent of USA Today's state-by-state breakdown of news.

But many of these papers aren't just about short. There's also a singular character in some of their news packaging--a snarky voice designed to echo the lingo of these younger readers and the writing in hipper alternative media such as zines and blogs. Consider the Dallas Morning News' Quick, which offers TV picks with a 'tude: "On '20/20' John Stossel examines popular beliefs and bothersome behavior. He's an expert on the latter."

"We certainly didn't model anything after 'The Daily Show,'" says Quick Editor Rob Clark. "But it's the perfect example of the sort of thing that gets people talking. I believe that this is a generation of people that craves satire. That's why 'The Daily Show' is so strong, and that's why 'The Simpsons' is so strong. That sort of entertainment really resonates with our audience."

That's not to say that there's a cookie-cutter model: Some papers take a magazine-like approach, with a snazzy cover dominated by a single image. (Think extreme close-up on Howard Stern's face, with the grabber head "FCC-Ya?") Others hew closer to their broadsheet brethren, with a panoply of shrunken news items throughout (Metro aims for as many as a dozen of these per page). And there are even variations within the mold: The usually entertainment-heavy RedEye devoted one recent cover to a photo of a Chicago soldier overlaid with the headline: "What We've Lost: See the faces of the 54 Illinoisans who have died in Iraq."

Serious turns notwithstanding, the mini-dailies' approach to delivering the news has met with a significant flood of objection, with writers in publications from Slate to, yes, AJR lamenting the format. It's a debate that still rears its head: Plans for a launch later this year of a youth tab in Denver raised the hackles of local media critics, who decried its sample-issue feature about a drinking game based on a "murder tour" of the Mile High City. And former CNN assignment editor David T.Z. Mindich argues that these publications pander to the pocketbooks of young readers, instead of arming them with the information they need to be responsible citizens.

In his recent book, "Tuned Out: Why Americans Under 40 Don't Follow the News," he examines the differences between RedEye and its parent paper, the Tribune. "What they've done is they've taken out the political content and they've really added a lot of consumer content," Mindich, chair of the journalism department at Saint Michael's College in Vermont, said in an interview. "So a thoughtful story about the airline industry becomes 'How do you get low-priced tickets?'.. Papers like that do a poor job of holding leaders accountable. They don't promote a deep knowledge of politics."

While critics worry about dumbing down the news, some of these publications are capturing significant shares of the market.

Metro has reprised its success in Europe with sizable circulation in the three cities in which it publishes. Metro New York, for example, has been distributing 330,000 of its 350,000 copies and has upped its ad rates by 10 percent since its launch at 250,000 copies. More than 500,000 people see an average issue, according to a survey done in January by Scarborough Research. Fifty-one percent of those are in the golden demographic of 18 to 34 years of age, Metro's target market. By comparison, only 28 percent of the New York Times' readership falls in that age bracket, and 18 percent of the New York Post's, Scarborough found.

No doubt that's part of the reason the Times Co., which owns the Boston Globe, plans to pay $16.5 million for a 49 percent share of Metro Boston. Why the turnaround from Sulzberger's swipe at the Chicago freebies? "With regard to Arthur's statement, not all commuter publications were created equal," says Times Co. spokeswoman Catherine Mathis. "At the time of the announcement, Richard Gilman, publisher of the Boston Globe, said, 'We believe Metro Boston is a natural complement to the Globe's strong readership base and advertising position.'" (Even the publication of racist comments made by Metro executives, which led to the resignation of two company leaders, didn't derail the Times Co.'s purchase.)

Truck down Interstate 95 to D.C., meanwhile, where the Washington Post's Express has steadily grown in circulation since its August 2003 launch at 125,000 copies, pitching upward to 150,000 and then to 180,000. Ad sales have been strong enough to expand Express from a typical 20 to 24 pages in its infancy to twice that by early February 2005, notes Editor Dan Caccavaro.

In Dallas at Quick, circulation has stayed fairly static after its launch, with surveys in March and September 2004 showing a distribution of 136,000 and 138,000, respectively. A survey conducted by i.think inc. found just about half of Quick's audience to be 18- to 34-year-olds, a figure Quick aims to increase to 60 percent this year, says General Manager Dave Schmall.

And in Chicago, the Tribune's RedEye has made significant inroads in penetrating the market, notes John Lavine, a professor and director of the Media Management Center and the Readership Institute at Northwestern University.

"It used to be that the top ways to reach the 18-to-34 market in Chicago were five radio stations," says Lavine, who directed an influential study last year on young readers. "Here we are two-plus years [after RedEye's launch], and the top way is still a radio station, but the No. 2 way is RedEye. Every day a quarter of a million people in this market read RedEye; about 800,000 cumulatively over the five-day week. I don't know about you, but it's really simple to me. This is reaching a market."

A market that advertisers are noticing, apparently: RedEye Editor Joe Knowles says that the publication has over its lifespan attracted about 300 advertisers who had not previously bought space in the Tribune, including nightclubs, restaurants and boutiques. As a result, managers are predicting profits to come sooner rather than later for these market newcomers.

"The revenues for Quick have grown impressively in each successive quarter since it was introduced in late 2003," Schmall says. "Revenues in the fourth quarter of 2004 exceeded $1 million and were 35 percent greater than the revenues in the previous quarter." He says Quick is expected to turn a profit in the second half of 2006.

Metro Philadelphia and Boston both posted profits in 2004, its parent company says, following advertising sales increases of 16 percent and 18 percent respectively over the previous year. Metro New York, which launched in May, is still in the red.

"We didn't budget a profit for several years, but we will probably, based on the current trend, get there a lot sooner than we anticipated," predicts Arnie Applebaum, general manager of the Post's Express, which does not release specific budget figures. "I'm not going to say that that means this year, but it will likely be a lot sooner than we thought. Revenues are significantly higher than budgeted as well, and we've brought in many hundreds of new advertisers that had not been previously with the Washington Post or washingtonpost.com."

Of course, the financial efficacy of such publications isn't guaranteed. Money woes sunk the Miami Herald's Street Weekly in January. Budget issues also bedeviled A.M. Journal Express, which launched in Dallas the same week as Quick in November 2003 and spent just under six months in competition before closing its doors.

"We pretty much ran through all the capital we had designated," says Jeremy L. Halbreich, president and CEO of American Consolidated Media, which had hoped to add A.M. Journal Express to its stable of now 34 media properties in Texas and Oklahoma. Rather than throw more money at the project, Halbreich says, ACM decided to abandon the paper, particularly in light of the possibility of buying three other local community papers. The Morning News debuted Quick just days before the launch of A.M. Journal Express.

RedEye competitor Red Streak, published by the Chicago Sun-Times, meanwhile, has seen its staff dwindle from about 20 to five and its page count shrink as well, says Deputy Features Editor Deborah Douglas, who helmed Red Streak at its launch.

"There's only five to seven pages of news and one page of sports, and little by little we've cut the Controversy page," she says. The paper now typically numbers 32 pages instead of the 40 it once had.

The result, according to Lavine, is that "Red Streak fundamentally doesn't exist. It's around, but it's so tiny, it's not active in the market."

It's not clear whether the cuts are a result of being bested by RedEye (Red Streak is considered a part of the main Sun-Times, so the tabloid's specific circulation isn't available, Douglas says) or simply a decision by higher-ups to focus elsewhere. Douglas says her supervisors have told her: "'You've done your job; you've confused the marketplace.'" (Indeed, confusing Chicago's readers into picking up "a red" was initially the point of Red Streak, Douglas told reporters shortly after its launch, but, she added later, the paper quickly evolved into a serious competitor.)

Chicago Sun-Times Editor in Chief John Barron wrote in an e-mail that Red Streak's future is "status quo" and declined a request for a phone interview.

For the papers that do seem to be succeeding, there's still a thornier question to tackle as the tabs--and their readers--age: Will the readers who are fans of Quick and RedEye eventually "graduate" to the broadsheets that gave birth to them?

There have been a few cases of crossover appeal, editors say.

At Quick, an ad for a special deal on Sunday home delivery of the Morning News generated more than 100 new subscriptions, General Manager Schmall says. A third of those who subscribe to RedEye instead of picking it up at their local Starbucks have added the Sunday Chicago Tribune to their subscriptions, reports Tribune spokeswoman Patty Wetli. What's more, she adds, "research we conducted a year ago suggested as many as one in three [of all RedEye readers] picked up a copy of Chicago Tribune or visited chicagotribune.com because of something they saw in RedEye," she says. And even Scott of the Metro chain, a European company, not a broadsheet hoping for higher circulation figures, maintains that "we really look at our readers as tomorrow's readers of the New York Times."

But beyond these relatively small inroads and best wishes, there's little evidence yet that readers will make the jump. Some, like Douglas, say it won't happen with the kinds of tabs on the market now.

"You're not going to give people products like these and then make them want to read the 'big people's' paper... We haven't committed any journalism with these products. Most of them have been packaging exercises," she says, echoing the barbs of many media critics. "Young people need journalism just as much as older people do. We need to illuminate their lives and give them greater understanding. Lifestyle stories and pretty presentation can't fulfill that particular goal."

Other editors and analysts say it doesn't necessarily matter whether readers move on to more traditional news outlets. If they're simply reading, that's good enough. "I have no idea how many people will be driven to our main sheet by this, and we haven't undertaken any sort of marketing surveys to figure it out," says Hooper of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's TRIBp.m. "We do look at it as another brand, a stand-alone product. It's a lot like newspapers using their Web sites--it's another way to get into the hands of new readers."

"It's hard to say that reading Quick is going to make people read the Morning News," Editor Rob Clark says. "I think this is a way to reach the younger readers with something."

RedEye's Knowles echoes the sentiment that crossover readership isn't the issue. "I don't think we're going to know how effective it is as the gateway drug for a while," he says. "If someday they'll want something more substantial they can go to the Tribune. If they become RedEye readers for life, it's more palatable than being a nonreader."

Lavine agrees. "I think no one knows the answer to that question; I'm sure there isn't an answer," he says about daily crossover, noting that there has been some crossover to the Sunday paper. "I'm old enough to be the grandfather of some RedEye readers; I have children from 17 to 38, and I enjoy reading RedEye... The real question is who's out there who needs what newspaper and who's going to meet that need in a way that's meaningful to the audience."

Indeed, Knowles says, if it were his call, in retrospect RedEye might have been billed as a commuter's paper, or a starved-for-time paper, or something, anything, other than a "young" paper.

"We do try to remain relevant to a younger audience," he says. But "a good half of our readers are not in the 18-to-34 demographic. Maybe some of the media critics busy talking to each other wouldn't have cared so much if we had touted it as an alternative or a compact edition."

What if these "youth" papers are, like Hooper notes, simply an extension of a brand, the journalistic equivalent of Martha Stewart adding a reality show to her post-prison empire? Calls from readers as well as more involved studies have found that RedEye isn't the only one with a considerable number of readers who are at least in their mid-30s. When Express' Caccavaro edited the Boston edition of Metro, he'd hear from fans in nursing homes. "The sensibility of the paper, the pop cultural references, weren't really their thing, but they really liked the convenience of it," he says.

Halbreich notes that even though many younger Dallas residents did read A.M. Journal Express, it wasn't promoted as solely a youth paper. "We saw young professionals age 21 all the way to early 50s, all the way to 65, who were expressing that this was a great product," he says, based on market research as well as studies from the Gallup organization. "I have no doubts that [similar publications] are coming to Dallas... It's a form of daily newspaper that I think generally across the U.S. we will see more and more of. It is a way to get groups of people reading the papers again."

That's really the point, proponents of the mini-dailies say. And the question needn't be framed as an either-or proposition, they argue. There's little concern that devoted mainsheet readers will leap to the tabs since market research is showing that it's primarily nonreaders who are attracted to the new publications. The Tribune's Wetli, for one, says RedEye is "very unlikely to create attrition" among the Tribune's subscriber base.

And Caccavaro notes he's hearing from readers who eschew making a choice in favor of reading both Post publications, using Express as a quick hit for the morning and then delving into the longer, more substantive Post stories in the evenings. "If there's any risk that a free commuter paper is going to put the Post out of business, that would be a problem," Caccavaro says of the mini-dailies' rise. "These papers have found a place within the news industry where they can fit comfortably."