Press Box

Red Scare

In Chicago, the Tribune Co.’s RedEye races Hollinger’s Red Streak to the bottom.

It seems that nothing short of mass arrests, gulag imprisonments, and deployment of Clockwork Orange-style lidlocks will reverse the long Spenglerian decline of daily newspaper readership among the young. In 1972, the National Opinion Research Center found that 47 percent of respondents between 18 and 29 said they read a newspaper every day. By 2000, the percentage had dropped to 18, and one researcher has predicted the number will drop to 9 percent by 2010.

Page 3 girls in bikinis won’t bring back young readers, nor will naked Page 3 girls—nor even photos of sub-teenage Page 3 girls tortured with electric batons, even if done tastefully by Rupert Murdoch. But in Chicago, two major media chains, the Tribune Co. and Hollinger International, think they’ve found the solution to reader attrition with two new “youth” tabloids, which they unleashed upon the innocent residents of Chicagoland yesterday.

The Tribune Co.’s entry is RedEye, much of which is condensed from the parent company’s Chicago Tribune. Hollinger’s title is Red Streak, which similarly “repurposes content”—to use the Web cliché—from the ChicagoSun-Times. Why two “red” newspapers? The Tribune Co. announced its RedEye tabloid first, and Hollinger, playing catch up, maneuvered into the Trib’s promotional back draft by pinching the more recognizable half of their competitor’s new title. Smart move: Surely every Trib dollar spent to build the RedEye brand will benefit Red Streak.

The less said about the two papers, the better. At 25 cents a copy, both are overpriced, slicing the news so thin the servings wouldn’t even make a meal for an anorexic. Page One of the Oct. 30 debut of Red Streak includes a rewritten press release from Starbucks about the coffee chain’s plans to sell breakfast. The slightly more ambitious RedEye abridges Tribune and wire copy to almost the vanishing point. (The best slam belongs to the Financial TimesPeter Spiegel, who observes that the “What’s up with those pumpkins?” headline on Red Streak’s cover could have run in the Onion.)In the race between bad and worse, who needs to declare a winner?

The red scare in Chicago is supposed to say something about readers—that young people won’t (or can’t?) read and that publishers are experimenting to reclaim them. But to me, it says a lot more about how newspaper editors—and not readers—have lost their way. Left to his own devices, no self-respecting editor would ever come back from the drawing boards with either of these papers, nor would any reader ever clutch them to his breast with devotion.

So if these papers aren’t editorially inspired or designed to fulfill readers’ dreams, who are they for? If, as the saying goes, a newspaper is an advertisement with a story printed on the other side, a press critic would be nuts to review the editorial content without considering the ads. The newspaper industry’s nightmare isn’t that readers will leave, but that advertisers—who contribute about 75 percent of a newspaper’s revenues—will. According to the Newspaper Association of America, newspaper circulation dropped 10.5 percent nationally from 1990 to 2000. Increasingly for publishers, newspapers are primarily a way to connect readers with advertisers instead of readers with news.

Of course, it has always been so. But in my lifetime, the most peculiar thing has happened to daily newspapers as most have become monopoly or duopoly products in their cities. They’ve tamed their wilder natures to produce blander and blander product. Not even a spark of the crazed spirit of former Tribune owner Col. Robert R. McCormick resides in today’s Tribune or its red spore. So as not to single out the Tribune, outside of Rupert Murdoch’s papers in Boston and New York, it’s almost impossible to detect any personality or pulse in most of today’s dailies. [Correction: Murdoch sold the Herald in 1994.] More and more, major city dailies read like soft suburban papers, with the passion and zeal edited out and the conflict-rich stories ignored lest they ruffle some interest group’s feathers.

One would think that a monopoly product would be less afraid to crusade on issues and would be more willing to offend readers, but the opposite seems to be true. Offend one reader and you lose a reader, is the way publishers see it, a vision they communicate to their editors. Offend one advertiser and you threaten your third-quarter earnings. It may be naughty to offend people, but as my old boss Bob Roth used say, “If you haven’t offended anybody, you probably haven’t excited anybody either.”

RedEye and Red Streak don’t excite, and they don’t offend, at least not in the traditional sense. As “remedial” newspapers, designed to lure young readers back into the newspaper habits and then graduate them to the flagship product, they’re a bust. The market is already saturated with journalism by people who can’t write for people who can’t read (Maxim, FHM, US, Cosmopolitan, et al.), leaving no compelling reason for anybody to spend two bits on the Redpapers. 

In their breakneck race for the bottom, neither RedEye nor Red Streak addresses the declining interest of young people in not just newspapers but in the news. According to a Pew Research Center survey, young adults are less interested in news than were their boomer predecessors at the same age stage, no matter how the news is served. Can the CBS Evening News Code Red be far behind?

Feeling blue or red today? I read my mail at