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The tabloids strike back
New populist publications offer alternative to elitist mainstream newspapers
Matt Welch
National Post
U.S. newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst made newspapers popular with working-class Americans.

LOS ANGELES - On Oct. 20, 2002, The New York Times Magazine published a cover story by Paul Krugman entitled: "The End of Middle Class America (and the Triumph of the Plutocrats): How the permissive capitalism of the boom destroyed American equality." The essay, which made the provocative and unlikely claim that "we are living in a new Gilded Age," was illustrated by a photograph of an unfinished McMansion with a three-car garage being erected in a field of mud.

This, to the Times editors, was a fitting symbol of the venal greed that Krugman worries is undermining the United States. But it also symbolized something else -- the yawning chasm between the rhetorical populism of top American journalists and the plutocratic reality of the news organizations that pay them six-figure salaries.

Take the physical context of Krugman's 8,000-word lament: Between the article's two jumps, the magazine ran a special 49-page section on "The Best of Luxury Homes & Estates." Inside were hundreds of listings and photographs that positively dwarfed the McMansion in style and/or class. "This private, serene home on 16 acres," one ad murmured, "enjoys breathtaking panoramas of the Pacific Ocean, the mountains and the city lights and features a four-hole golf course designed by Tom Weiskopf." Price: US$35-million. While Krugman was waxing nostalgic for the "middle class society" of the America he "grew up in," the real estate advertorial 52 pages later was announcing,"There's wonderful news for the handful of perfectionists who have been wondering where the values they grew up with have gone."

The values that American journalism grew up with are barely evident today. One hundred years ago, brawling urban dailies and the barons behind them understood their primary duty to be attracting and serving the maximum number of readers, period. Success was measured in circulation, not journalism awards or profit margins. Innovators such as William Randolph Hearst identified and created a market opportunity by appealing to workers and immigrants who aspired to join the middle class.

In 2003, publishers are far more concerned with making sure their readers are rich. The New York Times, for example, boasts to advertisers its readership "is almost three times as likely as the average U.S. adult to have a college or post-graduate degree, more than twice as likely to be professional/managerial and almost three times as likely to have a household income exceeding [US]$100,000." Those robust demographics are nurtured by a series of discriminating editorial choices -- special issues devoted to food, money, design, "The Sophisticated Traveller ... Lives Well Lived," and so on.

The skew is even more pronounced outside New York, where most daily newspapers are local monopolies that don't share the Times' journalistic aspirations. Sunday magazines, especially, are open-handed insults to the have-nots, with their landscape architecture spreads and write-ups of US$200 brunches. Internet sections come and go based on the tech-sector marketing climate of the moment (as opposed to the amount of online activity, which continues to boom). Murder victims in the ghetto are lucky to merit single paragraphs on B5, while affluent college kids struck by stray bullets are memorialized above the fold.

As the well-served rich readers age, the neglected shallow-pocketed young stay away in droves. This demographic parsing of captive markets explains how newspapers can still muster outrageous profit margins -- 20%, even in the miserable advertising year of 2002, according to newspaper analyst John Morton -- even though overall circulation figures continue their long, steady decline.

"Daily newspapers have effectively dropped the bottom quintile or perhaps a third of the population," wrote communications professor Robert McChesney of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in a chapter of the 2002 book Into the Buzzsaw.

In the 1890s, an immigration boom provided the raw material that fuelled the tabloid newspaper age. In the 1990s, a similar migration surge barely registered a blip on the modern broadsheet daily's circulation ledger (meanwhile, the word tabloid has become a pejorative in most newsrooms). I once asked a senior Los Angeles Times circulation executive why her paper didn't try to capitalize on Southern California's vast immigrant and working-class populations, and she shrugged: "We can't be all things to all people." The ideal reader, she explained, was a married young professional who had just bought his or her first home.

This dramatic shift from immigrant labourer to homeowner -- from populism to elitism -- in part reflects the way society has progressed radically since the Gilded Age (Krugman's alarmism notwithstanding). But somewhere in journalists' DNA, the concept of shunning the lower third of the population does violence to the genetic memory of "afflicting the comfortable," and has probably contributed to the profession's well-documented malaise.

Yet, rather than roll back this demographic upsizing, the craft's best-known defenders have actually sped it right along, through five decades of self-professionalization. Now, college degrees are nearly mandatory, graduates generally share a rigid set of assumptions about what constitutes acceptable work behavior, and the "tabloid values" of Old Man Hearst are openly condemned. The very notion of trying to attract a large circulation is now widely discredited.

To cite one of 10,000 examples: Scott Newhall was arguably the most successful San Francisco Chronicle editor of the 20th century. Between 1952, when he took over the then-moribund daily, and 1965, when the Chronicle became the commanding partner in a Joint Operating Agreement with the long-dominant San Francisco Examiner, Newhall more than doubled circulation, from 152,000 to 363,000. He packed the Chronicle with entertaining columnists (famously luring local columnist-legend Herb Caen from the Examiner), placed sports scores above the masthead and serviced his weird city with goofball feature stories and racy wire-service bits. So how did the media criticism establishment react to Newhall? Here's Ben Bagdikian, of the University of California (Berkeley), author of the seminal journalism-consolidation text Media Monopoly: "He had no faith in the readers' intelligence and did not take journalism seriously," Bagdikian wrote in a 1982 San Francisco magazine article. "Unfortunately, he had talent. He was the evil genius of fun and games."

God forbid that a newspaper might be fun. As time has passed, the Bagdikians of the world have won out over the Newhalls, and as a result newspapers are technically better ... and as exciting as watching the lawn grow. "Too much of media has become boring," said Jeff Jarvis, president and creative director of Advance.net, founding editor of Entertainment Weekly, and proprietor of the popular weblog buzzmachine.com. "What we've done is we've made it dull. We've made it damned dull."

Journalism's self-improvement drive, which began just after the Second World War and gathered steam in the 1960s, took place at the exact same time as the newspaper industry's historic wave of consolidation. Even while journalism reviews, ombudsmen and watchdogging alternative weeklies were sprouting up around the country, the number of real two-newspaper towns dwindled to a handful. The very concept of objectivity, later treasured as a J-school goal, actually originated from pre-war publishers and advertisers who didn't want to offend potential customers.

Professionalism, while undoubtedly improving the overall standards of basic newsgathering, has had the unintended effect of putting lipstick on monopolist pigs. "The genius of professionalism in journalism is that it tends to make journalists oblivious to the compromises with authority they routinely make," McChesney wrote. "Even at its best ... professionalism was biased toward the status quo." Fortunately, for fans of newspapers, that status quo may be on the verge of radical change.

In the last three decades of the 20th century, the number of new dailies launched in the United States could probably be counted on one hand. But in the first three years of the 21st, you'd need at least two, and possibly a foot. In Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Nashville and elsewhere, public transit riders and others are witnessing the next generation of tabloid newspaper, which is generally 40-64 pages, full of short stories, and handed out free Monday through Friday. Total staff sizes average around 40 or 50 (compared to, say, the 1,000 editorial employees alone at the L.A. Times), and annual budgets run in the minuscule US$10-million range.

The Philadelphia Metro, which like its Boston namesake is owned by the Swedish Metro chain, now distributes 158,000 newspapers each weekday. "We are the number-one paper in Philadelphia, by circulation certainly, and I believe by readership," said Jim McDonald, the publisher.

In Chicago, two new youth-oriented tabloids were launched late last October, the RedEye and the Red Streak, with circulations of 100,000 and 70,000, respectively. Nashville's City Paper clocks in at 30,000, while other micro-dailies are handing out fractions of that all over the West Coast.

In newspaperville, all eyes are on Chicago. Last June, the Chicago Tribune decided its double-digit profit margins and 300,000 circulation lead over the Sun-Times was no longer enough. "In newspapers, our future success will depend on younger readers," Dennis FitzSimons, Tribune Co. president and CEO, told a Media Week conference last December. "Our success will also be determined by whether we take the risks to be innovative."

The Tribune soon announced it was launching the Red Eye, a splashy tabloid aimed explicitly at the elusive 18-to-34 demographic. "An awful lot of people in the industry are watching what's going on in Chicago with deep interest," said newspaper analyst Morton, who has been telling his clients for years that long-term circulation decline could be their biggest threat. "All of the studies show that, over the last 30 or so years, the readership in basically the 20- to 25-year group ... has dropped by about half. ... Which means that fewer people are developing a newspaper-reading habit. ... It's sort of a classic geometric progression."

Is it working? A full 75% of the Philly Metro's readership is under 44, McDonald reports. The median age of a New York Times reader, by comparison, is now over 50.

If the RedEye youth-movement experiment works, Tribune Co. has said it will consider launching similar papers in its other markets. First, though, it has to face down competition from Red Streak, launched by the Sun-Times to protect its own lower-brow turf. Since both Chicago tabloids are distributed for free and aimed directly at the young (the RedEye includes expansive entertainment listings), they might actually take a bite out of Chicago's two free weeklies, who share some of the same advertisers. "It looks like an old-fashioned newspaper war," FitzSimons said. "Which is ultimately a great thing for bringing focus and new energy to the business."

Elsewhere, the new weekday tabs chase the same advertisers as their large competitors -- retail chains, supermarkets, video stores, even philharmonic concerts. The idea is to deliver a competitive number of readers at a tiny fraction of the ad buy, thereby nibbling a chunk (say, 5%) out of the dominant daily's advertising take. So far, the strategy seems to be paying off -- publishers in the Metro chain and at the City Paper have said they expect to be profitable by their third or fourth years of operation, and are currently sniffing around for new markets. "I actually believe," McDonald told me, "that within 10 years most of the newspapers in the United States will be free. I think they don't have a choice."

Their secret? Technology, outside-the-box innovation and a customer-first attitude. "We don't write these things for the journalism schools ... or to win awards," said City Paper publisher Brian Brown. "What we do is we write for the reader."

In another word, populism. While Paul Krugman writes ivory-tower laments for the common man, a batch of new publishers are actually practising what the liberal media elites have been preaching, less convincingly with each passing year.

"It's funny for me to watch," said McDonald. "I would bet a lot of money that you're still not listening to eight-tracks. But, what's changed in newspapers since the time that eight-tracks have turned into cassette recordings and CDs? Nothing."

Matt Welch is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles. His work is archived at www.mattwelch.com

© Copyright  2003 National Post



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