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The Invasion of the Tiny Tabs

Despite evidence that up-market content also pays, it's daily transit freebies that are sweeping North America.

By Shannon Rupp 11 Mar 2005 | TheTyee.ca
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If the three "commuter dailies" due in Vancouver in the next few weeks are true to trends elsewhere, they will boon to advertisers looking for cheaper rates but have little to offer readers. And in the long run that means advertisers in Metro, Dose, and 24 Hours may get less than they're paying for.

Apparently North American publishers have yet to get the memo about a related trend in European papers — the quality tabloid. Subscription dailies are adopting "compact" formats but maintaining the quality of their editorial. In 2003 London's Independent offered a tabloid version of its newspaper as well as the broadsheet. Although the move was viewed as radical, the Independent pointed out that offering different formats is a common marketing strategy for everything from toothpaste to laundry detergent.

The success of the Independent tab form was immediate. According to figures kept by the International Newspaper Marketing Association the Independent got a 27-per-cent boost in circulation, prompting the venerable Times of London to launch its own tab version.

However, the trend that's sweeping North America involves the tabloid-size dailies known as "commuter papers." The trend began in Sweden in 1995, where Metro was distributed through the country's extensive transit system. The model worked across Europe and five years ago the papers began expanding into North American cities with rapid transit: Toronto, Montreal, New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. In Chicago, the Tribune and its rival Sun-Times offered a pair of giveaways known as the "Reds"  -RedEye and RedStreak - that responded both to Metro and the success of North American alternative weeklies in attracting younger readers.

In Toronto and Montreal, Metro's rival is Quebecor's 24 Hours, which looks a bit like a supermarket tabloid. Metro launches in Vancouver on March 14, while 24 Hours is expected by month's end. CanWest will launch Dose in five cities on April 4, with a focus on a younger demographic and an innovative web site.

The unknown quantity

CanWest's Dose is the unknown quantity — in fact, spokesperson Jaye Kornblum-Rea says they're not yet sure what the content will consist of. But the Dose web site suggests what we might expect: sophisticated visuals, high-school yearbook copy, and a staff preoccupation with mediocre television (Amazing Race, O.C., and Desperate Housewives).

Writes publisher Noah Godfrey, 27: "Born at a very young age. Spent much of my childhood growing up. After graduating from McGill, moved to New York to be a media investment banker, work in corporate strategy at AOL Time Warner and in business development at MTV. Attended Harvard Business School and tried to start a business operating Botox retail centers."

Business Manager Davi Singh's craziest aspiration: "Being stuck in a room with Anderson Cooper — he's so yummy!" His guilty pleasure? "I like boys."

Vancouver reporter Jennifer Selk recalls the smell of the rat race lingering on her after working "at a scary investment bank" on Bay Street. "Stinky." Vancouver's Chantal Eustace's craziest fantasy? "[I]t would be cool to be a secret agent skilled at racing around in stilettos and kicking butt with kung fu grace."

Last fall, INMA executive director Earl Wilkinson pointed out in a marketing workshop that newspapers that are bucking the trend to declining circulation are the ones that emphasize editorial quality. Despite the success of giveaways with an audience that is disinclined to read newspapers, when it comes to actually buying a newspaper, while size matters quality also counts.

Up-market papers gain readers

Research done in the competitive UK, where newspaper content can be divided into down-market, mid-market, and up-market papers, long-term surveys have revealed that the so-called popular papers — read sensational tabloids — have seen the greatest readership loss over the last two decades. While the down-market dailies have declined 29 per cent over the last two decades, the mid-market papers have only lost 11 per cent of their circulation. As for the so-called quality papers — what North Americans would call newspapers-of-record — their circulation is up seven per cent.

The study suggests what the marketing wonks in charge of many newspapers have long denied: that subscribers are willing to pay money for good journalism. And it suggests "dumbing down," the strategy-of-choice for most North American papers trying to protect profits and audiences, may actually contribute to declining readership.

Upmarket or down-market, there's no denying the tabloid format plays a role in attracting younger readers. According to Media Life Magazine, market research repeatedly finds that non-readers object to the grief of carrying fat broadsheet papers to recycling. Which may explain another odd fact out of Britain. While the Independent's rebirth as a tabloid was wildly successful in London, the tab version of its sister paper, the Irish Independent, bombed everywhere except on university campuses and transit outlets.

Globe tab component planned

In North America the only vaguely comparable equivalent to Britain's up-market tabs is the long-established profusion of alternative weeklies. Broadsheets such as the Vancouver Sun have experimented with tab format entertainment guides to compete with them — the Globe and Mail will launch a tabloid guide called 7 in Vancouver on April 8 — but that's as far as we've come.

Traditionally, newspaper competition has been good for readers. Editors competing to attract readers often produce better journalism. But in the case of the daily giveaways, the opposite appears to be true: they're not interested in readers, they just want advertisers such that they can put ambitious ad flyer into the hands of commuters.

Without paid circulation to prove how many readers a paper really attracts — as opposed to how many readers took a handout from a hawker — it's easier for publishers to play fast-and-loose with claims about "readership."(Even with paid distribution it's possible to fudge circulation figures, as Chicago advertisers found last fall when the Hollinger-owned Sun-Times was caught inflating its circulation by 50,000 readers a week.)

Misreading the "Reds"

Mike Miner, who writes the media watch column Hot Type for the Chicago Reader an alternative weekly, said that the Reds haven't been successful in Chicago since their fall 2002 debut — they often sit in the boxes. As a solution, RedEye still has hawkers who who press the paper into commuters'hands.

Miner worries that because these cheaply produced commuter papers forced ad rates down across the market, more up-market newspapers will cut spending on original journalism.

And he believes that too many advertisers naively go for the cheapest ad rate and don't consider how well publications are read and how long consumers hang on to them. "A lot of advertisers see that the Reds reach the same demographic as alternative weeklies, but they're a lot cheaper, so why not give it a shot," Miner said in a telephone interview.

"The Tribune could have used these papers as a [journalism] laboratory to try out things they could later use in the Tribune. Get some new young voices; see what we could do to advance the art. But [corporate management] would rather be in a state of denial that RedEye exists than to let them do some interesting journalism."

Perhaps publishers with backgrounds in advertising and PR simply don't define "good journalism" the way writers do.

Kornblum-Rea, a Toronto PR consultant, said that most of Dose's key staff members have unusual backgrounds for a newsroom. Few have experience in journalism. Most, including the editor, have experience in selling something to readers.

Kornblum-Rea said Dose staffers are typical of that "elusive" young demographic that doesn't normally read newspapers. "They lead very busy lifestyles. They're quite clever and quite savvy, but time is a commodity for them and they like to know a little about a lot of things."

That's why Dose will also court them with a web site and a mobile portal. Kornblum-Rea emphasized that the paper will have strong graphics, because this audience is more "visual." She said Dose will offer a combination of "repurposed" copy from the CanWest banks along with some "fresh" writing from the young contributors they've lined up.

"We haven't really defined the content yet," she said, "but it will be the only medium 100 per cent dedicated to this demographic."

Editor Pema Hegan, 28, has a Vancouver connection working with Rethink Advertising. In London he worked with the entertainment listings publication Time Out.

The paper's management team consists entirely of young men under 30, which Kornblum-Rea said is a reflection of the demographic they're chasing.

The metrosexual thing

Since when do advertisers want to reach young men? According to Canadian business consultant Joanne Thomas Yaccato, author of The 80% Minority, North American women control 80 per cent of the consumer dollars spent. And if advertisers have little interest in men, why do newspapers want to attract them?

"I think it's the metrosexual thing," Kornblum-Rea said. "They're more interested in things like grooming products - skin cleanser, hair gels. They're becoming significant consumers and feeling empowered by the products for them," she said, noting that her nine-year-old son knows the difference between hair gels. "At one time there was peer pressure for men not to be in the consuming habit. A guy who spent two hours looking for $200 jeans would get his friends saying, 'What are you, gay?'"

Kornblum-Rea isn't worried about the stunned reaction many people have to the name. Simpsons aficionados call it "D'ohs." Toronto journalists refer to it as "Dozzzzzze." Local CanWest scribes nicknamed Dose "The Clap" - something nasty that no one wants to pick-up.

Kornblum-Rea says such reactions show these people are over 34 years of age. "They did marketing research with thousands from this demographic and they don't know that meaning of 'dose.' What came back from them was that it means 'just enough' or 'the right amount.' The essential stuff. As in a dose of reality.'"

Free — let us count the ways

In Reinventing Newspapers, a 2002 study of the free daily phenomenon, Piet Bakker of the University of Amsterdam School of Communications notes that the papers are still carving out a share of the market. Despite their lack of content — the papers on average have about one-tenth the editorial staff of the metropolitan papers they compete with — in Europe they have claimed about 14 per cent of the market.

They may even act as a kind of training paper to lure virgin readers to the subscription product. In the UK, London Metro successfully promotes The Evening Standard and the Daily Mail, prompting new readers to pick up weekend copies at the newsstand. But market research so far has found that, on average, about half the readers of commuter papers read no other publications.

And while the Toronto Star's media watcher Antonia Zerbesias said it's too soon to tell if North American subscription papers will benefit from the freebies, she has her doubts. "This is a generation that will pay for hardware — an i-pod — but not content," Zerbesias said.

That's hardly a generational thing: why would anyone pay for something they can get for free? Which may be the other reason these commuter papers are putting the paid dailies that are fielding them at risk. In CanWest's case, since Dose will carry an even lighter, "repurposed" version of the none-too-original stories from the chain, why would anyone to pay for a CanWest product which offers only more of the same?

Shannon Rupp is a Vancouver freelance writer and frequent contributor to The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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