January 05, 2005

Sulzberger: 'Bullshit' to 'Condescending' Quick News

After my post yesterday about the New York Times Company buying half of Metro Boston, the free, commuter-oriented tabloid aimed at younger, non-readers of the Boston Globe (which the Times owns), I got an email suggesting I look up comments Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger made about such quick-read papers last year.

Sulzberger, who also is chairman of the Times Company board of directors, told an audience at Northwestern University's journalism school in February 2004 that the youth and commuter papers like the competing Chicago Red Eye and Red Streak were not for the Times because they don't, as paraphrased in this Editor and Publisher story, don't "fit with its psychographically defined audience."

Sulzberger was blunt in his criticism of these papers, which like the chain of Metro papers, contain shorter stories, bigger graphics and photos and an emphasis on sports and "popular" news. He said:

"I think (youth papers) are condescending, I think they degrade the readership, I think they're talking down to the reader. "They're saying, 'You don't (understand) what we offer ... so we're going to give you this thing that you can get.' And you know something -- bullshit. We don't want to become less than we are to reach an audience whose needs we wouldn't do a good job of meeting."

Clearly, Sulzberger and the rest of the Times board has had a change of heart, at least for the Boston area.

A Win for the Globe

Alan Mutter, a former cross-alley competitor when he worked at the San Francisco Chronicle and I at the San Francisco Examiner who successfully transitioned to mogul-hood and blogs at Reflections of a Newsosaur, totes up the box scores of the Times-Metro deal and concludes that buying into Metro is a good move for the Globe. Here's his reasoning:

"Although the Globe considered starting its own free tab, its management evidently decided the Metro investment was a cheaper, lower-risk, surer-fire way to jab the Hub's paid tab, the Boston Herald. Assuming no federal officials think this alliance is anti-competitive (No hard feelings over the John Kerry endorsement, one hopes), then this is a pretty slick hedge. To the extent the Metro is successful in selling ads, it probably takes more business from the Herald than the Globe. If Metro fails, then the Globe's risk has been limited, it has more of the market to itself and the carcass of the failed venture will prove a powerful disincentive to future potential interlopers. If Metro makes money, then the Globe gets almost half of it." (Emphasis added.)

Mutter also makes a good argument that free-standing free newspapers like Metro, and apparently the new chain of Examiners being launched by Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz, face considerable hurdles on the ad sales side.

Traditional papers like the Globe and the Washington Post, which publishes Express, a free commuter paper, have the advantage of legacy sales operations, auditing circulations and - I think this is the most important - online operations that can complement and extend the paper advertising.

"Print-only publications," says Mutter, meaning operations like Metro, "are hard-pressed to do that, but Internet and other new media technologies can deliver the measurable response that publishers will need and advertisers will want."

UPDATE: The publisher of the Boston Herald, Patrick J. Purcell, agrees with Mutter's take that the Times-Metro deak is a threat to his paper. He says he will try to block the partnership.

Posted by Tim Porter at January 5, 2005 08:54 AM

Sulzberger is spot on. I think we'll see the vast majority of these "throwaway papers" go the same direction as many of the Spanish-language ones because they're missing what's really needed in a targeted publication--the right mentality and the proper sensibilities.

Plus, younger people can reasonably be expected to tote around a newspaper at school or at work. It's a bother.

Posted by: Matthew Sheffield on January 7, 2005 12:10 AM
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