media go head to head in a campaign to attract younger readers,
Oliver Burkeman wonders whether it's time for editors to take
a reality check
read newspapers. They don't watch the network news shows. They
didn't vote in last week's mid-term elections.
trouble the upper echelons of America's journalistic establishment,
like their persistent failure to attract the elusive 18 to 34-year-old
demographic, otherwise known as "young people".
A few weeks
ago, in Chicago, the battle for their minds and money erupted
into open warfare. Echoing the days when rival newspaper proprietors
hired gangsters to fight their bitter circulation battles on
the city's streets, Chicago's two main newspapers, the Tribune
and the Sun-Times, chose the same day at the end of last month
to launch rival brash tabloids aimed explicitly at a young audience
- and at the advertisers so desperate to reach them.
of preparation, the Tribune launched RedEye, available in red
boxes on street-corners throughout the city. It was intended
to "turn on the 18 to 34-year-olds to the benefits of being
well-informed," the paper explained, groovily.
caught unawares and intent on taking its share of the ad revenue
- or, at least, scuppering the Tribune's plans - speedily wheeled
out its rival version, craftily entitled Red Streak. (It did
it in three weeks, which probably explains why its own street-corner
boxes - drafted into service at the 11th hour - were, unfortunately,
blue.) Both papers, which base their coverage on stories from
their parent publications, have charged a 25c cover price here
and there, but most have been handed out for free - the model
followed in Boston, Philadelphia, London and elsewhere by Metro,
the tabloid distributed on subway trains and in buses.
columnist John Kass caught something of the your-dad-at-a-rave
atmosphere surrounding the Chicago launches. At least Red Streak,
he noted, had the foresight to dedicate its front page to the
best in highbrow photojournalism - a shot of Christina Aguilera
modelling her behind covered in green spray paint. "Several
old men in their 40s ... grabbed my copy of the Sun-Times tabloid
and were ogling it, mumbling 'she's the cat's meow!' and 'hoola
boolah!' and 'right on!', and other with-it, busta sayings,"
problem, say the publications' critics, is the same one as ever:
the writers and editors, who are not part of their target demographic,
seem to suffer the urge to patronise their audience and embarrass
themselves in the process. "There's never been a publication
that had such obvious contempt for its target audience as RedEye,"
Bob Cook wrote in the online magazine Flak.
weren't helped this week when Don Hewitt, the celebrated veteran
of the CBS current affairs show 60 Minutes, gave a speech to
students at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. It started
well. "You have to make a choice," Hewitt said. "Are you going
to cater to the best, or to the advertisers?" It was when he
was asked about ideas for the future that things started to
go wrong. "I think I would love to put together a staff to make
a show for college-age kids," Hewitt said. "I'd put stuff in
there that would help them learn about the world they're about
to enter. I'd call it '60 Minutes Lite'." It sounded suspiciously
like diet news, with none of the fattening facts.
of the matter, of course, is that America's coveted 18-34s aren't
living in sealed rooms, deprived of information from the world
outside. For example, a large number are getting their news
from the astonishingly well-crafted Daily Show, a half-hour
blend of satire and celebrity interviews that airs nightly on
the Comedy Central cable channel.
11 2001, the show's guests have increasingly included heavyweight
journalists, academics and politicians - expertly steered between
the twin hazards of being boring and humiliating themselves
in trying to be humorous with Jon Stewart, the show's host,
who is a stand-up comedian by training. "More 18 to 49-year-olds
get their news from the Daily Show than any other cable news
programme," Comedy Central noted in a Wall Street Journal advertisement
earlier this year. "Heaven help us," the ad concluded.
the Daily Show's coverage of recent events - up to and including
the complexities of the Iraq crisis and the mid-term elections
- has been far from puerile. Set alongside the squabble in Chicago,
or the prospect of a 60 Minutes Lite, it's by no means clear
that it's Comedy Central that needs the help.