New 20-Year Plan: Firm up Your ‘Boomer’ Base

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By: Mark Fitzgerald And Jennifer Saba

For a growing number of newspapers, a “hip, young reader” is that baby boomer with the gray ponytail who draws snickers from all the kids as he walks into Diesel to shop for clothes. And that’s just the way these papers want it. “My young reader is 45 years old,” declares Roland S. Martin, executive editor of the Chicago Defender.

As a group, black-oriented newspapers like the daily Defender have long skewed older demographically. But a growing number of general-market dailies are also deciding, like Martin, that rather than try to entice a fickle young audience to their “core product,” they’re better off targeting older and more loyal readers like the boomers.

While other papers might shy away from the subject, The Bakersfield Californian is blunt: We’ll reach young people and deliver them to advertisers ? but not with the Californian. Says President and CEO Richard Beene: “Like a lot of papers we went to great lengths to reach new readers, but it became clear to us that the audience we really had the potential to grow was the baby boomers, the young families with houses, assimilated Hispanics who have been in the region for a long time ? our core audience.”

It also happens to be a great audience for newspapers, Beene and others note. This is a big audience, 80 million in all. In the U.S., someone turns 50 every seven seconds, says the American Association of Retired Persons. Boomers spend a collective $2 trillion every year, and have average household incomes north of $68,000, labor statistics reveal.

The beauty of it: Boomers don’t see themselves as geezers. Says Matt Thornhill, president of the Boomer Project,”They don’t think of themselves old at 60. They don’t think they are going to be old until 80. You’ve got 20 years to continue to market your core product to the boomer segment who already reads you. It’s your largest audience segment among light readers, occasional readers, and heavy readers. While you are doing that, you have to think about where do [newspapers] want to be 20 years from now? It’s probably not putting ink on dead wood.”

In Bakersfield, the Californian believes it can grow by going after the boomers and other targeted audiences that do not yet pick up the paper.

Boomers are a demographic wave that inevitably will crash, but, as Beene says, “it’s not a bad wave, if you’ve got to ride a wave.”

And he thinks newspapers do. Trying to sell young people on the core newspaper, Beene says, is like trying to get his daughter to drive a Toyota Camry ? it’s not gonna happen. “It’s a great car, you can get 200,000 miles on it, but she simply is not going to drive it,” he says.

So when the Californian launched its radical redesign earlier this year, it also re-engineered its content to appeal to that core market of boomers, rooted Hispanic residents, and that cohort of younger people with a spouse and kids and a house. “We think younger people in their 30s with families match up well with this core audience,” Beene says, “because for us, the demographics of age are not as important as behavior.”

Pursuing youth no longer

The last place you would expect to hear that strategy is a college town, but Wisconsin State Journal Editor Ellen Foley is not spending time wooing readers under 30. In fact, the paper tried its hand at a youth publication aimed at college students, with a spinoff product called Coreweekly.

It flunked. There was just a glut in the market with three student newspapers, The Onion, and an alternative weekly. Students weren’t picking it up, and it was tough to compete with national ad dollars devoted to other student-aimed papers. “We understand they are reading their student publications,” Foley says. “We are more focused on the people post-college who are the backbone of the community.”

That would be anyone over 30, people trying to get jobs, raise families, and be part of the community. The paper doesn’t have the resources to reach anyone under 30 and even if it did, it wouldn’t matter. Foley, who came to Madison from Philadelphia, recalls that it took her a while to figure that out. “When I first came here I thought maybe it was an option,” she says about targeting young adults. “The people who want our paper seem to be people pushing strollers trying to find activities for their children and trying to figure out a way to support their [families].”

In Chicago, the Defender, too, believes that there is huge growth potential in an older audience. In that paper’s case, one big reason is that for years under its previous Sengstacke family and estate ownership, the paper was simply dreadful, with marketing and circulation practices as poor as the editorial product. But Martin also says this nascent phenomenon of newspapers acting their age is long overdue: “I’ve always felt the industry spent too much energy chasing after the ‘young reader.’ I can’t stay up all night worrying about how do I reach the elusive 20-year-old.”

Newsrooms, of course, hate to hear this kind of thing, the Californian’s Beene concedes. With the redesign, many beats were realigned, and the coverage shifted to ensure that topics the core audience values get valuable positions in the paper. Those issues, he’s quick to add, are covered with the same objective and fair journalistic standards as before; it’s just that now they are certain to be covered.

One irony is that newspapers that explicitly appeal to a graying audience are also now publishing some of the splashiest-looking papers. The Californian is an eye-popping riot of color, and the Defender has a front page intended to catch the attention of passersby from 50 feet ? and perhaps the most audacious motto in the newspaper business today: “Honest. Balanced. Truthful. Unapologetically Black.”

Vive la ‘Revolution’

Boomers are also the target of a paper that generates a great deal of industry buzz in North America these days, The Hamilton Spectator in Ontario. For many newspaper readership and design experts, this Torstar paper is a rock star. They love its often-stunning front pages, its risk-taking approach to story choice and narrative, and story promotions that look more like movie posters than newspaper house ads.

“It’s a newspaper that really is recognizing we can’t just stand still as an industry,” says Anne Kothawala, president and CEO of the Canadian Newspaper Association.

But the paper launched its self-titled “Spectator Revolution” three years ago precisely because of worrying circulation losses in the boomer and working women categories. It tore up the rule book for dailies, killing off entire sections, including such stalwarts as business, metro, food ? and every single features section.

Instead, the Spectator produces essentially two papers, says Michael P. Smith, executive director of the Media Management Center at Northwestern University. One is a kind of extended A Section of hard news, except that business, local, national, and international stories all must earn their way in. Sports was converted to a tab, and classified became the only traditional standalone broadsheet section.

The other paper, Smith says, “is a really sophisticated daily magazine called “Go.” And while many papers would make a theme-a-day product, “Go” mixes everything from fashion to food and parenting to pop music.

It’s a hook for females, Kothawala says: “Their research showed that women and men are looking for different things in terms of how they read the newspaper.” The magazine answers a little of Freud’s famous question: What women want are stories that tell not just what happened, which is plenty for men, but how it happened and how it impacts their lives. To this balance of soft and hard news, the Spectator has added “The Poverty Project,” a three-year commitment to report on the often-discomfiting subject of the poor in Ontario.

But appealing to boomers doesn’t mean giving up on 18-34s, or even younger kids in the market. The Californian’s Bakotopia Web site, for instance, is a certified hit that beat Craigslist to the market, and appears to be community site of choice among Bakersfield’s youth. “It has absolutely been taken over by the young people,” says Beene. The newspaper company doesn’t create any Bakotopia content at all, yet now reaches an audience it never really had before. The Californian also plans to spin out a Bakotopia print product.

The boomer initiative at the core daily has not had the same kind of payoff. Single-copy sales spiked and home delivery stops plunged in the weeks after the redesign hit the streets. But then circulation settled back to a level that scared the Californian into the redesign in the first place.

Months later nothing’s changed, he says: “I wish I could tell you it turned things around, but, no, it’s flatlined. But we’ve stopped the decline.”

The Spectator has fared better. Readership, the principal newspaper metric in Canada, jumped 6.3% in the first year of the “Revolution.” Weekly readership in the 2005 NADbank stood at 344,200 with a 61% reach in its market. That’s the sort of result Beene says Bakersfield can achieve by aiming the core product at the hard-core audience: “I think it’s a good strategy, and I’d do it again.”

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