Press Box

Free Press

The Washington Post’s grand plans to give it away.

The Washington Post prides itself on being one of the most successful newspapers in the country, reaching a greater percentage of households in its market than does any other major U.S. daily. And yet readers are steadily abandoning the Post. In the past 10 years, about 100,000 paying customers stopped getting the Sunday Post, reducing its circulation to 1.05 million. Likewise, daily circulation has fallen by about 70,000 to 757,000.

Where did all these Post readers go? Did they die? Move to Keokuk? Lose their eyesight to macular degeneration? None of the above: The region added about 700,000 souls in those years of decline. The Post’s readership losses—especially among the 18-to-34 demographic—are by no means unique, as circulation continues to seep from most U.S. dailies. But the shocking thing about the Post’s decline is that it’s happening to a quality publication in the most affluent and educated market in the country, where the newspaper readership habit is deep-rooted.

Last week, the PostCo. announced its latest strategy to reclaim young AWOL readers: A 125,000-circulation, 20-page tabloid called the Express, published Monday through Friday. The Post Co. plans an early August launch and intends to distribute the paper by hand at subway stops. The Post Co. venture follows similar moves in Chicago by the Tribune and Sun-Times, which launched Red Eye and Red Streak, respectively,in late 2002. These papers carry a 25 cent cover price but are often distributed free.

Judging from Express Publisher Christopher Ma’s comments to Post reporter Frank Ahrens, the Express seeks the same teen to early 30s readers RedEye and Red Streak are chasing. It doesn’t sound like an indispensable read. Ma began with an expectation-lowering announcement of what won’t be in it—no night baseball scores, because of its early press time, and nothing from the Washington Post. What will be in it? A mix of copy lifted from the wires, a smattering of content, and, one assumes, a dollop of original material.

Finicky press critics—me included—suppress the gag reflex at any mention of the current free dailies—especially the 25 free newspapers produced by Metro International in Boston, Philadelphia, Toronto, and 14 countries outside of North America. To paraphrase Frank Zappa, these dumbed-down publications are journalism by people who can’t write for people who won’t read. But obsessing over the free dailies’ editorial deficiencies misses the point that they’re an advertising solution to the problem of declining circulation, having more to do with business than journalism.

As the adage goes, a newspaper is an advertisement with a news story on its back side. No matter how good the newspaper, if it doesn’t attract advertisers—which account for 80 percent of a big daily’s revenue—it won’t survive. Daily newspapers have been dying by a “thousand cuts” in the advertising market since the early ‘60s, e-mails Jim Larkin, CEO of the New Times Inc. alternative weekly chain. Newspapers’ near monopoly over advertisers and consumers eroded, and billions in revenues they considered their birthright were sluiced away by such new media as TV, radio, cable, alternative and entertainment weeklies, total market coverage mailings, classifieds weeklies, rental weeklies, real estate weeklies, truck and car shoppers, and the Internet. (Disclosure: I once worked for Larkin.)

The advent of the minidailies also suggests that the big dailies may have priced themselves out of local markets with their steep advertising rates, says Howie Rosen, longtime operations director of the San Diego Reader alt-weekly. As local advertising markets continue to segment, Rosen says the newspaper giants may find themselves carving out thinner and thinner advertising and editorial slices to cover the losses of revenue from their declining dailies. This is precisely what happened to the three broadcast networks, which have lost enormous market shares, a sliver at a time, to their cable rivals.

Launching a free daily like the Express is both an offensive and defensive move. If in hyping Post stories the Express convinces enough non-Post readers on the bubble to buy the daily paper and become regular Post readers, the Express would be a terrific circulation builder. On the defensive side of the equation, the Express may deter the overextended Metro International, whose expansion plans have always included Washington, from starting a D.C. paper. It may also stymie the suburban Journal Newspapers group, which also plans a free commuter newspaper.

For a thriving Fortune 500 enterprise like the Washington Post Co., adding a free weekly is not much of a gamble. Many of the costs associated with running the Express are fixed: The company has hundreds of millions of dollars tied up in unused press capacity and idle delivery fleets. An experienced ad sales organization is already in place, ready to cross-sell the two papers. So why not experiment? In fact, giving the product away isn’t that novel an experiment for the Post Co. Through its Greater Washington Publishing Inc. subsidiary, it already produces free pubs directed at specific advertising niches: Apartment Showcase, New Homes Guide, Guide to Retirement Living, and AutoBuyers Guide, all of which nibble from the Post’s market. One can anticipate the Post Co. launching other new free—that is, advertiser-supported—publications and cross-selling them into existing parts of the daily paper. Washington Travel and Vacations Weekly, anyone?

Before the Express can work as an advertising vehicle, it must first achieve marginal editorial success. Free newspaper bins already teem in Washington. There’s the alt-weekly Washington City Paper, weeklies for gays, weeklies for neighborhoods, and monthly publications organized around special interests and localities. However varying their quality, these publications persuade their readers to pick them up again and again because they speak to them in vernaculars one can’t imagine the Post Co. using.

“Daily newspaper people don’t seem to understand that young people are well-educated, actually read books, and can carry on a conversation on a number of diverse topics,” e-mails David Schneiderman, CEO of Village Voice Media, another alt-weekly chain. “Just because they are into pop culture doesn’t make them illiterate or lacking in the ability to concentrate on something for more than 60 seconds. They patronize them, and then wonder why they don’t read their newspapers.”

The Post Co. may also be underestimating the degree to which the Internet has reduced Post readership. Many of the educated 18- to 34-year-old Washingtonians I meet who I’d mark as natural Washington Post subscribers say they get what they want out of the Post by reading it for free on the Web, either at home or at work. And a free newspaper passed out for subway consumption isn’t just competing with other newspapers—there are iPods, Walkmans, GameBoys, and cell phones in profusion. On my daily subway trip, I read stories from the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Washington Post, breaking news, and late sports scores, on my Pocket PC for free via Avant Go, and a Pocket PC is much easier to handle on D.C.’s increasingly packed subways than a tabloid.

This leaves the Post Co. with a Catch-22 to untangle. If the Express is too good, it might cannibalize paid Post readership. If it’s not good enough—and the promised 9 p.m. press time suggests that it won’t have much fresh news—people will ignore it for something better. Can the Post Co. hit the crease in that zone?


Send your free e-mail to