J-Prof: Chicago 'Red' Papers Succeeding

By: Mark Fitzgerald The first academic study of the free Chicago dailies RedEye and Red Streak suggests they may be succeeding in their goal of building newspaper readership among young adults.

Nearly half of the Chicago college students surveyed rated the papers as having a "high" or "medium" value as sources of news and advertising. Recognition of the papers was high, and about a quarter of the students read the papers daily.

"The papers did better than I expected," said the study's author, John K. Hartman, professor of journalism in Central Michigan University's College of Communications and Fine Arts.

"Students were aware of the papers, a decent minority of them read the papers, and by half or better than half, they said the papers were valuable, helpful, in news content and they found the advertising helpful," Hartman told E&P.

Chicago's "Red paper" competition began in October 2002, when the broadsheet Chicago Tribune launched its carefully planned tabloid RedEye and the tabloid Chicago Sun-Times quickly responded with a youth-oriented tab of its own, called Red Streak. Both papers carry cover prices of a quarter, but they are widely available for free. The Tribune says it distributes 80,000 copies of RedEye every weekday. Of those, about 14,000 to 15,000 are paid for, the paper says. Red Streak has not released its distribution figures, and its parent Sun-Times is under censure from the Audit Bureau of Circulations for circulation fraud under its previous publisher.

Hartman, who was an early, and somewhat rare, booster of USA Today among journalism academics, says the free or virtually free tabloids chains are producing to attract young people or commuters may represent a similar "turning point" in the industry.

"I think these mini-dailies or mini-weeklies are the newspaper phenomenon of the early 21st century, analogous to the influence of USA Today in the late 20th century," he said. "I think these mini-dailies and mini-weeklies are a major turning point for the industry. They're a recognition that the flagship mainstream broadsheets cannot be remade into papers that will appeal to young people."

Hartman presented the results of his study in a paper delivered at last month's Southeast Colloquium of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications. He cautions that this preliminary research, conducted in the fall of 2003, is not the last word on the subject, and says he plans to do a larger random sample survey of "Red" readers later this year.

Hartman's "convenience sample" consisted of 112 students in journalism or mass communications at two downtown Chicago colleges, Roosevelt University and Columbia College-Chicago. About half were the traditional college age of 17 to 24, while about 30% were aged 25-29 and a little more than 10% were 30 to 34. The students were 70% women, but the sample otherwise roughly reflected Chicago ethnic and racial demographics.

Both papers had high recognition among respondents, though the much more heavily promoted RedEye scored higher than Red Streak, which Sun-Times officials acknowledge is published only to annoy the Tribune and confuse the market.

RedEye was read more frequently among respondents, with 26% of the students saying they had read it within the last 24 hours and another 37% saying they had read it within the last week. The comparable figures for Red Streak were 16% and 26%.

Respondents rated the "value and helpfulness" of both their editorial and advertising content. RedEye's news value was rated "high" or "medium" by 64%, while 48% had the same judgment of Red Streak. The advertising value of the papers was seen as roughly equal by respondents, with 56% rating RedEye as "high" or "medium," and 50% giving that rating to Red Streak.

"This is somewhat mildly encouraging to me, and for the newspaper industry that maybe they're on to something in Chicago," Hartman said.


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