New Youth-Oriented Papers Lack Vision, AAN Says

Youth-Oriented Papers Based on Marketing Studies Fall Far Short of Greatness

This article was originally published in the December 2003 issue of International Newspaper Marketing Association’s Ideas Magazine and is reprinted with the permission of INMA.

In markets the world over, media companies are experimenting with various ways of reaching out to disenfranchised audiences. Niche publications targeting young readers are cropping up as fast as Viagra ads in e-mail inboxes. Some of these products take the shape of free commuter dailies while others are lifestyle-and-celebrity focused weekly tabloids that bear a vague resemblance to alternative newsweeklies.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with experimentation in the name of reaching young readers who have not adopted the daily newspaper habit. But will any of these new newspapers meet with long-term success? The jury is still out on that one.

These new newspapers have turned the newspaper publishing equation on its head. Great newspapers are created by passionate people with a compelling vision — not focus groups and marketing studies. Creating a successful newspaper is not the same as selling bleach. You can not just ask the chemist to add lilac fragrance to your newspaper because lilac is fashionable this year. The connection that great newspapers make with their readers runs deeper than the rinse cycle.

Apparently, the market research says that young people today do not read much anymore, and that when they do read, they do not want to deal with anything too complex or serious. All of the newfangled “youth” newspapers proceed from these premises. But the ones I have seen suffer from the following problems:

  • For the most part, they are just dumbed-down versions of a daily newspaper. They cover the same “news” that young adults have already consumed in real time on TV or the Internet and, if anything, present them with even less depth.
  • At a time when Americans, both young and old, crave narrative more than ever before — just ask Hollywood — these new newspapers have completely abandoned the virtue of storytelling.
  • The commuter dailies are written in dry Associated Press-style copy while the faux alternatives — whose middle-aged editors have apparently watched some MTV and listened to some Eminem — are “hip” like a bald guy with a pony tail.
  • They steer clear of real controversy at all costs — as opposed to manufactured Britney-Madonna controversy — tiptoeing around on eggshells to avoid offending any readers or advertisers. (As Dan Savage, sex columnist and editor of The Stranger, recently said, “If you don’t have anything in your paper that’s going to upset a 5-year-old then 35-year-olds are going to look elsewhere for the kind of writing that appeals to them and speaks to them.”)

In Washington, D.C., the Post is experimenting with Express, which follows the commuter daily template of warmed-over news chunklets. I take the metro to work every day and can confirm that there are young people who read it. But I also see many, many young people reading books. So is it really accurate to say that they will only read stories that are six inches long?

While I fear and respect the financial resources that the large media companies behind these new newspapers bring to the table, the profit motive is a poor substitute for the kind of creative energy that is likely to produce the next great wave in newspaper publishing.

A 16-page regurgitation of 12-hour-old headlines, shoved into passive hands, and read only if a commuter has forgotten their IPOD is little more than a rim shot after a 10-minute subway ride. Will consumers cross the street to pick up a copy when the hawkers go away?

I doubt it.

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