Gannett Develops “Alternative” Prototype

Task force aims to increase Gen-X readership.

A Gannett task force that was formed to explore ways to attract younger readers presented an alternative newsweekly prototype during the company’s annual management conference last month.

As first reported in Editor & Publisher, the 22-member task force created two newspaper models for Gannett executives to review — an “alternative weekly” and a spiced-up version of a daily paper. While both prototypes were forwarded to Gannett’s newsroom editors, the company has not announced if it plans to implement either version, said task-force leader Mary Stier, publisher of the Rockford (Ill.) Register Star.

According to Stier, the task force — dubbed Rx Prescription for Readership Growth — was created in February and populated by Gannett employees between the ages of 25 and 34, the demographic the company was targeting. In developing the prototypes, task force members were encouraged to draw ideas from other mediums, like magazines and movies.

Although they are separate products, the prototypes share certain characteristics that the task force agreed were necessary to attract a young audience, Stier said. The common elements include visual snap; densely-layered information (e.g., frequent use of reefers, drop heads, pull quotes, etc.); interactivity (e.g., references to web sites and tips about how readers can get involved in their communities); relevance; and diversity of content.

“The biggest difference [between the two prototypes] is the alternative weekly was a tab, it was free … it was designed as a weekly product and it had more edge to it,” Stier said.

When the prototypes were completed, Gannett hired a market-research firm to test both concepts on four sets of focus groups in Nashville. Although the groups responded favorably to both products, Stier said, they indicated the changes would not lead to an increase in their frequency of purchasing a daily paper.

“Gen-X is a generation that was raised on free media and now they expect their information to be free,” Stier said.

This is not Gannett’s first strategic initiative aimed at attracting younger readers. For instance, in Honolulu; Asheville, NC; Rochester, NY; Reno, Nev.; and Marin County, Calif., Gannett-owned dailies have distributed their weekly entertainment tabs as a stand-alone, free product, often right next to an AAN paper. According to the AAN publishers in all of those areas except Honolulu and Reno, Gannett has since discontinued the practice.

Honolulu Weekly Publisher Laurie Carlson said Gannett has no qualms about competing with alternative papers. “They see a market and they want it and they feel they deserve it,” Carlson said. “They can do what they do because they have a huge [amount of resources], but the fact of the matter is most of the stuff [they produce] is bland.”

Gannett has acquired at least two papers that would qualify as alternative weeklies, although neither purchase was strategic. In 1998, they bought the Brandywine (Pa.) Valley Weekly as part of a package that included a shopper and an auto guide. Gannett officials made it clear from the start that the two advertising vehicles were of more interest to them than the alternative paper. According to the Philadelphia City Paper, Gannett shut down the one-year-old paper within weeks of the purchase. Gannett also recently purchased former AAN member Times of Acadiana, although the acquisition of the Lafayette, La.-based alternative weekly was clearly an incidental byproduct of the Thomson deal in which Gannett acquired 19 daily papers.

Gannett, headquartered in Arlington, Va., is an international news and information company that publishes 93 daily newspapers in the U.S., including USA TODAY. Gannett is the largest newspaper group in the country.