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Another Roadside Attraction

The Washington Post’s new free newspaper Express is targeted to illiterate youngsters with wallets. A report on the difficulties of selling young and hip.

Express, the Washington Post’s free commuter daily, debuted this week—to a surprisingly ho-hum reception. It was no small task, Washington being an intensely media-savvy city. But those who did notice its appearance, like Slate.com’s Jack Schafer, had more than their fair share of derision. ‘If you find news radio too intellectually taxing or wish CNN would slow down its news ticker,’ he wrote, ‘the Washington Post has just the thing for you—Express.’ And the City Paper, Washington’s free weekly, distributed a mock version of Express called Expresso, which ran with the headline ‘For Those Who Will Not Read, We Salute You!’ Both criticized Express for its bite-size wire-copy-derived content—a sign, they argued, that it has little more than disdain for its target audience, the late-teen to early-30s market. In trying to reach out to younger readers, the Post is proving just how anachronistic it has become.

Perhaps. But then, the Post may be savvier than Shafer or the City Paper gives it credit. Granted, in terms of quality journalism, there’s not much to be said for Express: It’s all wire copy, 20 pages of half news, half short lifestyle pieces. But Shafer and the City Paper are thinking like journalists. Impressing readers isn’t the point of Express: For a Fortune 500 corporation like the Washington Post Co. it’s ultimately all about advertisers.

That, in and of itself, is hardly a shocking statement in the publishing world. But Express, even more so than Chicago’s Redeye and Red Streak—similarly fluffy, twenty-something-oriented tabloids put out by the city’s dailies—is advertising strategy taken to its radical extreme: Not advertising first and foremost, but advertising first and last. Express doesn’t disdain young readers; Express disdains the very idea of readers. Whether or not people read Express is completely irrelevant.

What’s important, rather, is that the Post can bolster flagging ad revenues (which have tumbled from $875.1 million in 1999 to $555.7 million in 2002) by trotting out something apparently new and hip. It’s likely the Post is thinking less ‘young people are a big market, let’s get them to read us,’ and more ‘advertisers like young people, let’s give them the impression that young people like us.’ After all, advertisers don’t necessarily know any better than the Post’s marketing department what young people want—which means the Post merely has to seem like it’s reaching young people to bring in ads, or at least mollify advertisers wary of being read exclusively by the denture set, until the economy picks up.

True, at some point, the paper will have to do a reader survey, and if the kids aren’t picking it up then advertisers could bolt. But for now, there’s some evidence that this approach works: Reporting to investors in July, Chicago Tribune CEO Dennis FitzSimons noted that in its nine months on the market, the Trib’s own youth-oriented daily, Redeye, had brought in 170 new (i.e., non-Tribune) advertisers. That’s on top of current Trib advertisers who also buy space in Redeye.

Granted, this can’t go on forever. As Shafer notes, ‘Before it can work as a vehicle for ads, it has to have some marginal editorial success.’ And Express may not be long for this world; don’t forget that the Daily News tried the free daily format a few years ago and closed it soon after (it was also, ironically, called Express). On the other hand, no one said it was meant to last forever. The Trib’s Redeye (and its competitor, the Sun-Times’s Red Streak) have been around for a year, and there’s no reason Express can’t last at least as long. And by then, who knows—the economy may rebound, advertising may perk up, and the Post can quietly eulogize Express as the fill-the-gap solution it so obviously is.
 

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TMN Contributing Writer Clay Risen’s first attempt to build a website fell apart after he learned that risen.com had been bought by a hardcore Christian rock band. Clay is a senior staff editor at the New York Times and the author, most recently, of The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act. He lives in Brooklyn. More by Clay Risen