October 30, 2003

Low Risk, Low Reward

I am all for efforts by newspapers to accumulate mass by going after class - that is, publishing papers like Chicago's Red Eye and New York's Hoy to attract those young or Spanish-speaking readers who aren't buying the core paper.

But it disturbs me to read a statement like this one, from a Dow Jones story about Gannett's newest youth-oriented, weekly newspaper, CiN Weekly:

"The newspapers aren't expected to have much impact on publishers' bottom lines. With their heavy use of wire copy and stories from sister newspapers, they're don't take much investment to get off the ground and therefore are low risk." (Emphasis added.)

Low risks produce low rewards. Repackaging the wires and adding faux sass to tired copy doesn't sound like a formula to, as one media analyst defined the goal, "get young people back to reading the paper."

Look at this: Both the staid Cincinnati Enquirer and the new CiN Weekly have a Halloween package. The Enquirer's package (all wording is taken from the papers' web sites) has this headline: "Lots of Scares." The hipper CiN Weekly has this: "Fright night / Where to get your scare on."

Both headlines go to the same set of stories - a listing of movies with this unenticing, uninspired lead-in: "If you just can't stay home this Halloween, movie theatres throughout the city are showing some pretty scary films. Here are a few:"; and a round-up listed under the label "Your Guideline to Halloween" that leads with pumpkin carving tips: "Here are some basic carving tips that will help you create a jack-o'-lantern that would make Martha Stewart proud."

Martha Stewart? The indicted Ms. Stewart as a hook to draw in 18- to 34-year-olds? This is the problem with trying to trick readers - it's no treat for them and they won't come knocking at your door next year. Why do the editors in Cincinnati believe that if younger people won't read a poorly-written Halloween guide in the Enquirer they will read the same piece of seasonal cliché in CiN Weekly? They are overestimating their own cleverness and underestimating the intelligence of the readers they are seeking.

To attract a new audience requires commitment, which means spending money on staff and original, targeted content like the Tribune Co. did with Red Eye and the Dallas Morning News did with Al Dia or the Miami Herald did with El Nuevo Herald. These are publications with ambition backed by resources and whose goal is to impact the bottom line. As Hoy publisher Louis Sito told me for a story I wrote for American Journalism Review, "In 2001 and 2002 we grew revenues at a 50 percent rate" while "general media was going down the tubes." Hoy posted a profit 18 months after it launched.

Special sections may indeed help revive readership and enhance bottom lines - a year ago the San Francisco Chronicle launched a freestanding, weekly wine section that the paper touts as a success - but readers won't be fooled by tired techniques such as rebundling retreaded stories. In today's world of competitive media, originality, authenticity and effort win. Low risk loses.

 Dow Jones Gannett, Others Launch New Papers to Woo Young Readers

Posted by Tim Porter at October 30, 2003 08:33 AM

I don't know. I haven't seen the new papers, but I would think that a small paper with brief, AP-style pieces might be just the thing to get caught up on the news during a 30 minute commute to work on public transportation.

Posted by: Bruce Rheinstein on November 2, 2003 07:15 PM
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