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Consumer Republic

  • October 14, 2002, 12:00 AM EDT
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They used to call it the generation gap. These days it's more like a generation chasm. So large has the divide grown between the tastes of frumpy middle-aged advertising undesirables and much-coveted young adults that news paper publishers have finally thrown in the towel.

The same kind of demographic apartheid that spawned Teen Vogue and the WB now brings us RedEye, a new weekday tabloid announced last week by the publishers of the Chicago Tribune. Officially an edition of the mother ship—the better to boost the Tribune's circulation figures—RedEye promises to be a "savvy, quick, enjoyable read" for the busy, subliterate 18-34-year-olds on the go who have virtually abandoned their fathers' newspaper.

That fewer and fewer young people are reading newspapers is not news. The trend goes back at least 30 years—to the time when, not coincidentally, the medium's total circulation began to drop. But the decline has accelerated in the past 10 years. Round up the usual suspects: media proliferation; the rise of the Web, where information can be customized and (thus far) is mostly free; increasing alliteracy, that is, more young people who can read but don't like to; and the kind of knee-jerk skepticism about traditional news sources that has turned Comedy Central's Jon Stewart into the Walter Cronkite of a new generation.

With newspapers, we are not talking about a need for the kind of face-lift that brands from Dewars to Elvis regularly undergo or the kind of effort that coaxes someone under 40 into a Buick showroom. It is not just about making newspapers cool. The dilemma is more fundamental: how to win over people who hate to read, are not very curious about the world at large and are short on time. In other words, how to create a newspaper for people who have no use whatsoever for newspapers. This is no small challenge, and the future of the medium may hinge on it. No wonder the Tribune figures it has to start from scratch.

What is the plan? First, RedEye will speak in the language of the young. Says John O'Loughlin, its new general manager, "For a daily read to capture the attention of more young adults, it has to understand their interests and feel like something written specifically for them." Second, it is expected to cover more Ben and J. Lo and less Gerhard Schroeder, more Fear Factor (NBC) and less fear factor (war in Iraq). As RedEye co-editor Jane Hirt promises, "We'll plug [young adults] in each day on everything from the top news stories to the hottest celebrity gossip, and not always in that order."

And it's a good thing, too, since lord knows 18-34-year-old Chicago ans have nowhere else to turn for hot celebrity gossip. Please. The quest for younger demos is so ubiquitous in the media, and the hooks employed so predictable, that marketers can come up with them in their sleep. (I suspect some of them do.) To get a gander at these same tactics for making news more "relevant" to young adults, just tune into CNN Headline News. These days the channel's graphics spout yesterday's hip urban patois, while more airtime is devoted to—you guessed it—celebrity coverage. Much to the distaste of cringing staffers, the combination has boosted ratings with desirable 18-49-year-olds.

But again, for a newspaper, simply getting down with the bling bling may not be enough. Unlike CNN, the Trib must deal with the sad reality that newspapers have to be read. The trick, apparently, is to convince the target that, as painful an experience as reading a newspaper is, at least with RedEye it won't last very long. As the press release puts it, "You've got 20 minutes of down time a day—riding the train to work, idling away the moments between classes, standing in line for coffee. Option A: Stare mindlessly into space. Option B: Get informed, be entertained, move on." The advertising slogan could be, "RedEye. It's better than doing nothing." Now there's a minimalist USP for you.

As a print journalist I am prejudiced, but I have always thought of newspapers as the most aspirational form of media. When I first arrived in New York from the Midwest, I used to sit in a director's chair in my other wise unfurnished apartment and practice the "subway fold" of The New York Times so I could read it on my way to work like a "real" Manhattanite. So it makes me sad to see a newspaper whose main virtue is how little time elapses between picking it up and wrapping fish with it. If the choice really is between reading RedEye and staring into space, as a reader I suspect that staring into space will be the better option.