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Papers wrap news in free, bite-sized nuggets
For more than two decades, as more people turned to television for their news, newspaper editors and publishers have been fighting a losing battle to hold onto readers and find new ones.

Looking to get young readers in the pipeline, the industry pushed newspaper education programs, pumped up sports and entertainment coverage and created young people's pages. During the Internet boom in the '90s, newspapers spent big bucks on Web sites aimed at today's computer-savvy youth.

Yet since 1990, average daily newspaper readership has continued to decline at a rate of 0.5% a year, an ominous figure if you're in the newspaper business.

But now, a handful of news organizations are handing out free, quick-read tabloids — some daily, some weekly — mostly targeted at younger readers in larger cities.

Distributed by hand by vendors at bus and subway stops and in new boxes in high-traffic areas, these papers are expected to spread to smaller communities and could have a huge impact on the newspaper industry.

Publishers say they are thrilled with the response from advertisers, who covet 18-to-34-year-old readers. Editors say that the new papers are catching on with a young crowd that many had all but written off as having no interest in holding — let alone reading — a newspaper. And some young people admit that it's the first time they've actually regularly read a newspaper.

Last week in Dallas, 140,000 issues of a new free daily, A.M. Journal Express, hit the streets a week after the establishment daily there, The Dallas Morning News, launched a pre-emptive strike by publishing 100,000 copies of a mini-version of itself, Quick.

"It's one of the best things that's ever happened at this company," says News publisher James Moroney III. The feature- and lifestyle-heavy Quick also steers readers to The Dallas Morning News and its Web site, he says, but even if it doesn't do that the new tabloid has all the hallmarks of "being a very good business," drawing new advertisers.

His competitor in Dallas, Jeremy Halbreich at American Consolidated Media's Express, also is bullish. Express isn't limiting itself to just young readers but "anyone who has left home in the morning and is heading to work or school."

What is happening in Dallas reflects two different trends, says newspaper analyst John Morton.

He says that executives at Quick— as well as those at The Washington Post's new Express, the Chicago Tribune's RedEye and the Chicago Sun-Times' Red Streak — "are hoping that young people who pick up the paper will develop the news-reading habit and eventually go to the mother paper for heftier doses."

But companies such as Halbreich's, Morton says, are simply tapping into a new market with short, punchy publications that shout "this is not your father's newspaper." Similar ventures, which are common in Europe, are underway in Boston, Philadelphia, Toronto and New York.

Most of these new papers are free because younger readers are used to getting news — just as they have music — for free on the Internet.

"Young people view news as a free commodity," says Alex Storozynski, editor of the Tribune Co.'s 1-month-old a.m. New York. "But you can't get the Internet on a subway — and that's where we come in."

"If they were charging for it I wouldn't buy it, but free is another thing," says Albert Williams, 20, after a vendor handed him a copy of a.m. last week. Williams has never been a regular newspaper reader.

Newspapers typically reap 80% of revenue from ads, 20% from circulation. It's too soon to tell whether these new giveaways will prompt other established dailies to begin giving away their papers. Says Morton: "This may be the beginning of that."

Storozynski, a former editorial writer at New York's Daily News, is more direct: "The future is that people are not going to pay for newspapers anymore."

"Free is always a good price," says Peter Bhatia, editor of The Oregonian who heads the American Society of Newspaper Editors. "One thing that is certain: It is another competitor for those of us in the mainstream press that we need to evaluate and take seriously."

Last year, Gannett, publisher of USA TODAY, began publishing free weeklies, Thrive in Boise and Noise in Lansing, Mich. Gannett plans to roll out weeklies in Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Louisville. "The goal is to reach young people in any way that we can," says Gannett spokeswoman Tara Connell.

Not everyone likes the newcomers.

"It's just dumbed-down news," says Richard Karpel, head of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, which represents 123 weekly newspapers — many of them free — such as New York's Village Voice and Washington, D.C.'s City Paper.

Papers such as The Village Voice attract readers with long investigative articles and opinion pieces while the content of these newcomers is nugget-sized and often taken straight from wire services.

"At a time when 70% of the public thinks Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11, the last thing we need is dumber newspapers," Karpel says.

So far, these freebies don't appear to be cutting into circulation of newspapers that are sold in their areas.

Chris Ma, publisher of The Washington Post's Express, predicts these new papers may help sustain their elder brethren.

"You can't be interested in more complete, more contextual and more analytical coverage if you aren't familiar with at least the basic facts of what's going on in the world. Express tells people what is happening and that is likely to increase the appetite of people to read more in depth."

Contributing: E-mail pjohnson@usatoday.com

 
 
 
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