August 05, 2003

Express Yourself

I haven't read the Washington Post's new free tabloid, Express, which debuted Monday, but I have read the sneering from some media critics and traditional journalists (Here's Jack Shafer at Slate: "When the blueprint demands mediocrity, why bother mucking it up with excellence?") and find it predictably reactionary.

In an age when younger people view the daily newspaper as, at best, medicinally informative and, at worst, as irrelevant, attempts to develop new formats like the Express (or the Chicago Tribune's 25-cent tabloid, Red Eye) should be applauded, even for their flaws.

Let's reward innovation. Let's be critical, yes, but constructively so. As a newspaper industry analyst told me the other day for a story I'm working on:

"Newspaper readers tend to come out of families that historically have read newspapers. And that population is declining. Every effort that the industry has made to try to break that cycle has failed. That's why I am so approving of the Tribune's Red Eye. What they're trying to do is develop a newspaper habit and hoping it will transfer. It's the freshest idea a newspaper company has had to try to combat this endemic circulation decline."

The Express intends to attract readers with a mix of short stories, briefs, sports and features that are more US Weekly than Prevention. It doesn't use original Post content, relying instead on the wires and material heavily digested from other papers.

Express editor Dan Caccavaro explained the difference in an online chat on Washingtonpost.com:

"The Post and Express serve very different purposes. Express is meant to offer a quick recap to get people up to speed in the morning and hopefully entertain them a bit.

"We're not trying to be an abbreviated version of the Post. In fact, trying to boil down the Post's investigative work, editorials and features would undercut what makes the Post so valuable."

Nonetheless, media critics seem intent on comparing the Express to something it isn't - a traditional newspaper.

The Post's own Howard Kurtz calls it "something of a disappointment." He adds:

"I'm all for attracting younger readers, and maybe an easy read will prove popular for straphangers. But I'd rather persuade folks that reading the likes of David Broder, Bob Woodward, Tony Kornheiser and a real sports section and Style section, not to mention Doonesbury, is worth an investment of 35 cents."

Kurtz is missing the point. We'd all like "folks" to invest in quality journalism every day, or even just a few more days a week. But they're not doing it - especially those younger "folks." - and newspaper circulation (by extension relevancy and influence) continues to circle the drain.

So what if, as Shafer snickers, the Express "wants to be paged" instead of read? Readership is not a zero-sum game. Any "folks" who page Express are a plus not a minus. I say get them in the tent, give them a free peek and maybe someday some of them will invest 35 cents in Broder, Woodward, Kornheiser and Kurtz.

And if the Express fails, discarded repeatedly by would-be readers to die ignominiously of content rot on the floor of the D.C. Metro? Again, so what? At least the newspapers industry is learning to fail by initiative rather than by inaction.

Links
 Jack Shafer The Washington Post Lite
 Howard Kurtz Media Notes

Posted by Tim Porter at August 5, 2003 08:26 AM