Monday, August 07, 2006

Are the free papers on the right track?

My story for the August issue of the PJR Reports is about the proliferation of free commuter newspapers in the Philippines and elsewhere. Given the declining readership figures among Filipinos and the increasing newspaper costs, are Inquirer Libre and the other free newspapers showing the paid-for newspapers the right approach to survive?

Speaking of free papers, JournalismJobs.Com interviewed editors of two of the most popular free dailies in the US: Jane Hirt of RedEye, a Monday-Friday tabloid edition of The Chicago Tribune that was started in October 2002, and Dan Caccavaro of Express, a commuter daily in D.C. launched in August 2003 by The Washington Post.

Interview excerpts:

Jane Hirt, editor, RedEye As the overall newspaper industry continues to lose readers every year, why are more large newspaper companies launching free daily papers?

Jane Hirt: I don't know about other newspaper companies, but the Tribune is interested in diversifying its portfolio of news offerings. We live in a multi-channel world with endless choices, so it makes sense to offer different options to different people who have different needs. We also live now in a highly-customizable, on-demand world: As a consumer you can watch your favorite TV show whenever you want, program your iPod to play your favorite music in the order you wish to hear it, order a Mini Cooper with only the features you want ... that kind of choice changes the media game as well. Niche papers like RedEye can focus on super-serving a specific group of readers without trying to please everyone. Since its launch in 2002, has RedEye run the risk of stealing potential readers from the Chicago Tribune?

Jane Hirt: We haven't detected a problem with cannibalization of Tribune readers. That's probably because the Tribune and RedEye are very different newspapers, with different missions and different target audiences. Each is a distinctive read; RedEye complements but doesn't aim to supplant the Tribune. One of our goals is to get people in the habit of reading a daily newspaper. Whether they feel like reading RedEye or the Tribune on a particular day, the point is that the Tribune has captured that reader.

Dan Caccavaro, editor, Express There's been some criticism that free papers are thin on sources and context. Is there any truth to this? How many staffers are used to put out the Express?

Dan Caccavaro: I think this criticism comes from people who don’t quite understand the purpose of a free commuter daily. They measure us by the same standards they’d use to judge a paper of record, and by that measure, of course we don’t stack up. It’s a bit like criticizing a convenience store for not carrying 12 types of brie.

Our goal is to present a concise encapsulation of the day’s top news developments in a package that can be digested in about 20 minutes. We don’t intend – or pretend – to offer the kind of context or comprehensive analysis that readers expect from a paper of record like the Post. That said, we strive to pack as much information as possible into each news story we run, so we do manage to provide a surprising amount of news in a very small space. And we regularly direct readers from our pages to the Post for analysis or additional reporting on important news stories.

This is what makes our partnership with The Washington Post so powerful. We provide one service (getting our readers up to speed very quickly) and the Post provides another (providing context, commentary and enterprise reporting). I think readers in our market have come to understand and appreciate how the two papers complement each other. We have an editorial staff of 21. You're no stranger to the free daily newspaper market, having successfully edited Boston Metro before you joined Express. Will free papers eventually replace paid ones?

Dan Caccavaro: No, I don’t think it’s going to be that simple. But I do think papers will learn from the success of free dailies like Express and find ways to make themselves more appealing to the kinds of readers they’re losing – whether by changing their formats or their content choices or by changing the way they distribute their content.

In markets where it makes sense, I think some papers will roll out free sister publications like Express to complement the broadsheet and capture infrequent or non-readers. Others are likely to convert from broadsheets to a more reader-friendly tabloid format with no story jumps. And, yeah, I wouldn’t be surprised if, eventually, some papers stop charging altogether.

But overall, what I think we’re going to see is the traditional daily gradually becoming just one of many options readers have for getting their news as newspaper companies develop more and more new methods – including some electronic formats that probably haven’t even been dreamed up yet – to deliver the news to readers in ways that suit their lifestyles.

For more of their interviews, click here.

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