The stats are familiar to every publisher. Newspaper readership among the young is falling faster than Bush’s approval rating. In 2000, only 16 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds were reading a daily paper. “This percentage was a new low, and the trend line heads to single digits by the end of the decade,” John K. Hartman, a professor of journalism at Central Michigan University, wrote in last winter’s Nieman Reports, which asked the ominous question, “Can Newspapers Reach the Young?”
I was taught in the sixth grade how to fold The New York Times for subway reading. It was part of the upwardly mobile strategy fashionable in public schools in the ’50s (and now reserved mostly for kids who are already up there). To this day, I spend at least an hour with the Times, and I read several other papers—always have—even though I’m a TV-news junkie. It astonishes me that savvy young people don’t immerse themselves in column inches. Maybe it’s worth exploring the reasons why.
Hartman notes that young people prefer to get their news online, and 60 percent say the Internet offers better information than print does. But my impression is that this trend crested with the ubiquity of news on cable. In 1963, I joined a long line at the newsstand, waiting for the dailies to appear with my favorite word (EXTRA!) after John F. Kennedy was shot. I’d spent hours glued to the TV, but I needed the paper to make it really real. A similar thing happened after 9-11, when I foraged Manhattan newsstands for the dailies. So did a lot of my younger friends, but mostly with some future incarnation of eBay in mind.
Not only do few young people regularly read a daily paper, they spend less time doing so. “Teenage readers will give you 10 minutes if you’re lucky,” Tom Curley, president and CEO of the Associated Press, wrote in Nieman Reports. He advises publishers to “make it quick . . . easily accessible and cheap”—ideally free. Most alternative weeklies follow this strategy, and by placing copies at strategic locations they can home in on a specific (optimally young) audience. That’s why you’re likely to find the Voice and The New York Press at certain venues and not at others. Lately a new breed of dailies has piggybacked on this strategy. Wags call them subway tabloids.
The folks who publish subway tabs don’t appreciate that term, but it describes their main distribution scheme, which is to give the paper away at mass-transit stations. The idea is to grab people on their way to work, when they’re (allegedly) fresh. “Our primary purpose is that when you get to the office you have a quick overview of what’s gone on in the world,” says Henry E. Scott, managing director of Metro New York, one of two free dailies in this market. They claim a circulation of between 200,000 and 300,000 each. Metro, which debuted here in May, is part of a syndicate with 35 similar papers in cities around the world. “Our belief,” says Scott, “is that the Metro reader of 25 has more in common with the 25-year-old reader in Paris or Prague than with a 50-year-old.”
The competition, am New York, which has been around since last October, is a little different in its scope. “We know that we’re mostly read by 18- to 28-year-olds,” says the paper’s senior vice president, Bernard Weintraub. “But if a 50-year-old picks us up, we’re happy about that.” This strategy seems better suited to the reality of distributing a paper at railroad and subway stations, where anyone can take it.
Scott insists that geezers aren’t likely to pick up Metro because they can’t relate to the celebs billed on page one. To test this assumption, I trolled the subway looking for people reading Metro. I spotted plenty of twentysomethings, but just as many fogies who looked like they’d never heard of techno. Several friends who take the PATH train reported the same thing: People of all ages are reading these tabs. Perhaps that’s why few of the ads are kewl.
“Sometimes young people just want to know the news,” says Weintraub. “They can go other places to know what’s cool.” He claims that 62 percent of am’s info-seekers don’t read other papers, and compares his tab to the news-radio station 1010-WINS. I favor am because it has a more local, journalistic feel than Metro—it actually breaks stories. But then, it’s owned by the Tribune syndicate, which also runs Newsday. Maybe I’d prefer Metro if I were still bleaching my hair (or if I had enough hair to bleach). But what strikes me about both subway tabs is how much less less graphic they are than their counterparts in other cities. Their front pages are relatively text-heavy, and their heads are more declarative than juicy.
Could it be that these papers are designed for babes in earphone land? The mellow prose certainly complements a trancey state, creating a receptive environment for most advertising, and the quiet look makes the ads stick out even more. Metro‘s mission statement boasts of allowing ads to intrude on the content, with company logos appearing as shadows behind the classifieds, or products protruding into a story. One foreign edition of Metro, displayed in its media kit, has the nose of a plane jutting into the type. That hasn’t actually happened in New York—and it may never, says Scott—but I’ll wager that the “integrated” ad is coming soon to a subway stop, if not a newsstand, near you.
I’m less worried about these tabloids dumbing down journalism than I am by the prospect of an ad-edit mesh. I don’t want to see my prose caressing a futon ad, but I don’t think pay-for papers will resist this innovation if readers accept it. (I recall that one daily was thinking about making its pages smell like freshly baked bread, after a focus group chose that scent.) In the future, newspaper ads may move and even pop up, while the text remains stationary. I wonder if someone will sue for being groped by the Daily News.
But the most pressing issue relates to the reason why young people don’t read dailies. If you’ve already seen the news (or laughed at it with The Daily Show), and you’re faced with a banal paper, wouldn’t you rather peruse The Onion on the way to work? Young people are drawn to attitude, Nieman Reports concludes. They like being provoked, as long as it’s not gratuitous, and they enjoy writers who express strongly held beliefs, whether or not they agree. My generation is much more intolerant. Maybe that’s why we’re so quick to see media conspiracies, and why we require such studied—and phony—neutrality from the dailies.
Unfortunately, subway tabs don’t fill the need for radical writing and proud subjectivity. That’s what alt.weeklies do, and it’s their main appeal to the young. Since I’m an editor at the Voice, you should take this with a block of salt. But give me a read that pisses me off and I’ll go out of my way to pick it up—not because I need an instant info fix, but because it keeps me kicking.
‘Evil Walks Streets Again’
When I saw this front-page head in Thursday’s Daily News, my first thought was: So, nu? Evil always walks the streets, in many guises. But the subject of this statement was evil in a special way.
Joel Steinberg, who battered his lover and beat his child to death, was released from prison last week, prompting the News to run an editorial urging New Yorkers to stare at him—or, in their words, “Let him feel every New York eye burning straight through to his rotten soul.” I’d like to see Rudy Giuliani get that treatment, if only because he defended cops who killed innocent people, most of them black. But not all evil acts are equal.
Steinberg’s crime was horrendous—almost the essence of the word. But it occurred in a certain social context. He was a white, middle-class resident of Greenwich Village. If he’d lived in the ghetto and done the same deed, there would have been fury, but it wouldn’t have flared up again 16 years later. I doubt that the officer who stuck a broomstick up Abner Louima’s rectum will rate the same News editorial when he’s released.
Steinberg wasn’t just a sociopath; he was a social-code breaker. He shattered the assumption that middle-class people don’t do that sort of thing. That was his greatest threat to society. Staring him down has less to do with responding to evil than with maintaining stability.
Was Steinberg a monster? Yes. But he’s a useful monster. That’s why he still sells papers.
Research: Matthew Phillp