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MEDIA MATTERS / DAVID SHAW

Chicago newspapers have young readers seeing red

November 17, 2002|DAVID SHAW

It's called "Hot Spot" and it introduces the news item at the top of the F.Y.I. World and F.Y.I. Nation pages in RedEye, the new tabloid the Chicago Tribune is publishing in an attempt to capture the heretofore newspaper-averse 18-to-34 age group.

In its second week of publication, RedEye's "Hot Spots" included London (where a study found that women were "almost twice as likely as men to have a collision while parking"); Norway's Skaalvik fiord (where "Keiko the killer whale and 'Free Willy' star is ready to be moved to another bay"), and Missouri (where RedEye editors made a startling discovery: There are cities named Whoop-Up, Lickskillet and Pucky-Huddle).

If this is RedEye's idea of news that will send 18-to-34-year-olds scurrying to their corner newsstand, I think they can find another use for their obsession with red. The paper already has RedEye, Red Hot and Red Zone. How about Red Ink?

Editors have always complained that young people don't read newspapers. Hence, RedEye (the brainchild of Tribune Co., which owns The Times) -- and Red Streak, published by the rival Sun-Times.

Both Reds are 40-page tabloids. Both sell for 25 cents -- or they will once their owners stop giving so many of them away as get-acquainted free samples. Both have a lot of sports, entertainment listings, eye-catching graphics and celebrities, celebrities, celebrities. Both recycle material from their parent publications. In both, most stories are short -- designed for someone with the attention of a gnat.

RedEye made its philosophy clear on the cover of its first issue, which consisted mostly of a large-type list of the "Top 10 reasons to read this newspaper" -- and then gave only nine reasons (not, presumably, because the editors could think of only nine, but because, as No. 9 put it -- in what passes for humor in RedEye -- "Even our Top 10 lists are made to save you time").

RedEye's back-page Red Hot feature in that issue told eager readers where they could buy a fried Twinkie -- "impaled on a stick and frozen until firm, then dipped in a batter similar to that used to fry fish." (Yum, yum.)

The next day's RedEye featured a column by a young man bemoaning the excruciating "pressure" he felt on a subway when he suddenly realized, "I am, without a doubt, the best-looking person on this train."

The column ends -- mercifully -- when a woman "undeniably better looking than me" gets on five stops later, and he offers to give her "a few tips on keeping cool when everyone starts to gawk."

Maybe, I thought, RedEye is trying for some of the irony that has made the Onion such a hit with younger readers.

Nope. There, in Issue 4, was an interview with Onion editor Robert Siegel, who "recently sat down with RedEye editors for a burger and some probing questions," the paper said.

"When did you realize how big the Onion was?" read one of the probing questions.

"Do you get a lot of resumes?" was another.

And Red Streak?

The first issue had a story on the Washington-area sniper on Page 1 ... right above a Halloween story on inflatable pumpkins ... adjacent to the earth-shattering news that Starbucks "wants you to buy breakfast" ... surrounded by teaser photos on Sarah Jessica Parker's new baby, Christina Aguilera's new album and Winona Ryder's new shoplifting testimony.

Red Streak does put news stories on Page 1, including those that appeal to young readers -- one on the decline in online music sales, for example, and another on the increase in cell-phone text messaging.

The RedEye front page usually has one big photo and several smaller graphic devices, all referring to stories inside the paper. (To be fair, early front pages did direct readers to stories on the publication of Kurt Cobain's journals and the murder of rapper Jam Master Jay.)

Defining a demographic

The Tribune struck first in what's being billed as the latest skirmish in Chicago's long tradition of newspaper wars; the Sun-Times leaped into combat only after word of RedEye leaked out.

The Tribune is by far the more successful of the parent papers, but the Sun-Times does better with younger readers in Chicago, and it started Red Streak "to preserve the readership and deepen the attachment" with those readers, as John Cruickshank, co-editor of Red Streak, told me.

"We'll stop giving the paper away and start charging for it when RedEye does," he said. "If they branch out and start selling a lot of papers beyond the downtown area, we'll do it too."

Cruickshank concedes that "the notion that there is a demographic 18 to 34 is completely nuts. You go from someone just entering college to someone with two kids, who may be on a second marriage and a third job."

Thus, Red Streak is, in Cruickshank's words, "just another edition of the Sun-Times," which is also a tabloid. But Joe Knowles, co-editor of RedEye, says his paper is trying to be as different as possible from the non-tabloid Tribune -- "fully separated from them," he says.

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