Industry Watches Chicago Youth Papers Closely

By: Joe Strupp

As the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune pin their hopes for grabbing more young readers on a pair of new daily tabloids, industry leaders remain skeptical that such an approach is the way to woo Generation X, Y, and Z, who remain annoyingly allergic to newspapers.

Although a few of the editors and publishers surveyed by E&P applaud the Chicago papers’ effort to try a fresh approach — with many saying they are watching the new tabs closely — the majority said giving the younger audience a flip version of the regular paper is not the way to grab them.

The better idea, they claim, is to offer material that younger readers want in the main paper, utilize the Internet more fully, and provide targeted daily sections or weekly publications for teens and twentysomethings.

Among those saying they were not even thinking about following the Chicago line were The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Sun of Baltimore, and The Plain Dealer in Cleveland.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea,” James E. Shelledy, editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, said when asked about the Chicago Tribune‘s Red Eye and the Chicago Sun-Times’ Red Streak, which launched last month. Promoting high school sports and other news relevant to youth in the main paper, as well as getting the newspaper into youngsters’ homes, is the better approach. “The best way to get kids to read the newspaper is to get the parents to read it,” he added.

Howard Schneider, vice president for content development at the Tribune‘s sister paper, Newsday of Melville, N.Y., also pushed for using the main paper to draw readers, along with weekly publications geared for youth. His paper has run a weekly high school sports tab for two years and is preparing a second weekly youth publication. “You also need to get more newspapers in the classroom,” he advised.

At the Times-Union in Albany, N.Y., Editor Rex Smith also favors the Web and more classroom-heavy promotion. “You have to instill the newspaper habit,” said Smith, who knocked Red Eye for its lack of hard news. “I think they go a little heavy on the ice cream in their news diet and not enough on the spinach and greens.”

But Bridget Lux, editor of Thrive, a new weekly tab for youth from The Idaho Statesman in Boise, said giving younger readers different news is the key to getting them. “A lot of what a newspaper supplies is news they are not interested in,” said Lux.

Others, such as editor Robert Rivard of the San Antonio (Texas) Express-News, said the Chicago papers should take their approach to the Web, not rely on more dead trees. “We use high school sports coverage to drive them to our Web site and that gets them into the print product,” Rivard said.

Not everyone was ready to dismiss the better-Red-than-dead effort before it’s hardly begun. Publishers Heath Meriwether of the Detroit Free Press and Alberto Ibarguen of The Miami Herald said the daily idea might work. “If someone is thinking outside the box, it’s worthwhile,” Meriwether said.

Anders Gyllenhaal, editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, also applauded the attempts. “I think it’s a terrific idea. It looks like a sensible, smart, and well thought-out approach. It’s obviously the result of a lot of research and planning.”

But Martha Goldstein, vice president of communications for the Los Angeles Times, said that even if the Reds were successful in Chicago, that didn’t necessarily mean they would work everywhere. Chicago, she said, is “a city with a very vibrant, urban scene. [Los Angeles] is a very different geography to work with in getting the attention of younger readers.”

“We’re always talking about ways that we can better serve young readers,” said Jeff Cohen, editor of the Houston Chronicle. “Any time that someone in the industry tries to reach a disenfranchised segment, we will watch it closely and react. Hopefully the Chicago papers are on to something. My hat’s off to giving it a whirl.”

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