Seeing Reds I: A Tower of Babble
The 18-to-34-year-old public that doesn’t read newspapers is a coveted demographic for reasons that aren’t obvious. The teenagers at one end of this age group are too young to have much money; many thirtysomethings with decent salaries and careers also have babies and mortgages. These two groups speak different languages; some of the 34-year-olds are the parents of some of the 18-year-olds.
Yet we’re being asked to think of them all as a mass, as the elusive cohort advertisers pine for today and newspapers must seduce into readership if they’re going to keep publishing tomorrow. They can be reached, apparently, only through their music, their hormones, and their irony. Monday’s lead story in the Tribune’s RedEye was Kurt Cobain’s diary, and in the Sun-Times’s Red Streak it was plunging sales of on-line music. Coverage–such as it was–of the next day’s elections showed up inside. RedEye mentioned by name the major Illinois candidates; Red Streak didn’t. Neither said what any of them stood for. Market research presumably established that 18-to-34s scoff at the idea that anyone stands for anything. There was no argument about that from RedEye and Red Streak–even though their parent papers have spilled barrels of ink over sharp disagreements on issues such as abortion and gun control that some kids have been known to care about.
The RedEye formula: “Make articles shorter and choose relevant stories,” says coeditor Jane Hirt. “We built the paper around those two basic ideas.” She didn’t say what relevance means at RedEye, but a lot of great editors have demonstrated it can become whatever you want to make it. So far, RedEye and Red Streak haven’t made it much of anything.
One of the first things that can be said about both papers is how cheap they look. A lot of good, relevant stories haven’t run, probably because it would take too much trouble to write them. Consider, for example, those entry-level jobs 18-to-34s either hope to find or hope to keep–you’d think a publisher of a newspaper just for them could package the economy in a way they’d respond to. What about the war soon to begin in Iraq? They must know they’re the ones who’ll do all the dying in it. What about a terrorist attack with the smallpox virus? Aren’t they the ones who were never inoculated?
Last Friday’s big story was the murder of Jam Master Jay. “A hip-hop WHODUNIT,” said the front-page headline that launched RedEye’s three pages of coverage. The headline signified RedEye’s insight–honed by focus groups, no doubt–that death is one more thing young folks think it’s OK to be flip about.
RedEye isn’t sure that it’s safe to be serious. Its Web site, www.redeyechicago. com, says: “Take a moment and meet the people that make RedEye what it is.” Meet coeditor Hirt, “a Taurus.” (We’re told everyone’s sign.) “This Renee Zellweger look-alike (‘I wish’), is a fan of Pringles–plain, 1/3 less fat–Ben and Jerry’s Phish Food and Colin Firth (‘yum’), but not so much Shakira (‘yuck’).” Hirt’s intro, like all the others, goes on in this vein for a while before taking a turn with “But seriously folks.” Now we learn that before she came to RedEye, Hirt worked her way through the Tribune, where her last job was foreign and national news editor. The Tribune’s market research must have established that RedEye’s audience is less likely to appreciate professional experience than a shared taste in snack foods.
“The Web site is essentially a brochure for advertisers,” says Hirt. And so it is. “What the heck is RedEye, you ask?” begins the message aimed explicitly at the merchants. It’s “our new, innovative refreshingly different insert-cool-buzz-word-here kinda publication talking to the up and coming in the language of the up and coming. It will be hot off the presses five days a week and finding its way into train stations, bus stops, gyms, clubs, bars and any other location where those rascally 18-34 year-olds gather to see and be seen. Produced in the oh-so-chic tabloid-sized edition, RedEye will make for an easy read. The quick, punchy features will pull readers from cover to cover. A sure way to make the advertisers inside see green.”
This is an argot as foreign to journalists as it is to the demographic the Tribune claims it now has a bead on. Figuring out how to speak to an abstract readership is a long, slow process of trial and error. Advertisers must be persuaded to have faith, and for some reason, marketers believe the best way to communicate with advertisers is in gibberish.
I put RedEye and Red Streak to the test the other day. I wandered over to the new Starbucks at Damen and Lincoln, pulled a copy of each from their new free boxes outside, and ordered a small coffee. By the time I was done with both papers I still had half the cup to go. This gave me time to case the joint, observing that everyone in it with a newspaper was reading the New York Times, and to ask the barista if she’d seen anyone come in with either of the Reds.
“Huh?” she said blankly.
From the size of the stacks in the two boxes, I’d guess I was about the first person to open either of them that day. This was around 10:30 AM. When I came by again at the end of the day both boxes were empty. I’m guessing circulation came back around and cleaned them out–perhaps to create an illusion of demand, perhaps to frustrate delinquents who might have opened the boxes and dumped the contents in the streets. Litter is a big issue with a newspaper that flaunts its inconsequence.
Not that RedEye has to be inconsequential. If I worked for the Tribune I’d hold it in my hands and dream of a new day dawning. I know cynics would sit at every desk around me, seasoned journalists awash in contempt and shame, but RedEye requires the long view. It’s a pale, even ghostly imitation of an afternoon tabloid the Tribune Company published in the early 70s called Chicago Today. Today had been the old broadsheet American, and the company renamed and redesigned it in a desperate attempt to make the paper lively and relevant and keep it alive. Unlike RedEye, Today was an actual newspaper, written by and for adults. But like RedEye it claimed to be punchy–“Punchy, not paunchy” was one of its slogans–and it was many things the Tribune was not, jaunty and stylish among them. It folded in 1974, and that was a lucky day for the Tribune, which picked up some of Today’s best people and became a better paper for them.
But almost 30 years later the Tribune is again gray and forbidding. RedEye could be a laboratory for the kind of lively writing and design the Tribune seems too lumbering and institutional to accommodate.
The biggest difference between RedEye and Red Streak is spiritual: Red Streak is a cynical Sun-Times spin-off concocted because Hollinger will do everything in its power to make sure RedEye fails. It’s full of features that are already in the Sun-Times and have been lateraled into the kids’ paper to show off what the Sun-Times is already doing right. RedEye is the Tribune’s attempt to change from without in ways it can’t change from within.
Seeing Reds II: Ghost of Papers Past
Years ago sportswriter Steve Rosenbloom wrote what he calls a “big boy column” for the Sun-Times. Then that paper’s sports editor suggested he try stringing together a column of short, snappy, abrasive rim shots. They became “Between the Lines,” which was so successful the Tribune hired him away. For a while Rosenbloom was all over the Tribune sports pages, but his specialty, which he calls “short-attention-span theater,” always looked alien in the staid Tribune, and he dwindled away into a weekly appearance buried in the Sunday paper.
But now, he says, “we’re banking an entire newspaper on short-attention-span theater.” So in addition to the Sunday column for the Tribune, he’s writing three days a week for RedEye, which is playing him up like a star. Rosenbloom believes in the concept of RedEye, though he’s withholding judgment on the content. He says he even knows doctors and lawyers who subscribe to the Tribune because they feel they ought to read it, but don’t because it’s too much for them. And he adds that in 1999, when the Tribune dumped his page-one column “Hit & Run,” teenagers were one of two groups that wrote in to mourn. (The other bunch was businesswomen who wanted a quick dose of sports so they could hold their own at work.)
Red Streak looks less committed than RedEye to short-attention-span theater. It runs actual stories on page one and even a few long stories inside. A piece on Microsoft in the Tuesday Red Streak looked actually daunting–it had been posted at salon.com days earlier. Red Streak has either less attitude than RedEye or simply a more comfortable attitude–it’s a cheesy tabloid produced by a more serious tabloid whose editors understand the form. I’m told that “Scurrilous–Gossip, Goofs and Scandals,” the daily back-page feature that’s big on babes, is the personal project of Michael Cooke, editor in chief of the Sun-Times. Red Streak is like a stripped-down Sun-Times without airs and with more sex. Women staffers can hardly complain; everyone knows 18-to-34s are cool with sex.
Issue one introduced “P.O.’d–Confessions of a Chicago Curmudgeon.” It was written by Mike Danahey, who’s only 42, beyond the demographic but not really ancient enough to pass as a bona fide crank. He posed for his picture wearing a flat cap that made him look older. Danahey admitted in print that the theory behind Red Streak seemed kind of stupid to him. This was safe for him to do. All the research and theorizing was done on the Tribune’s side of the street, so Danahey was actually making fun of RedEye.
Editor & Publisher’s Mark Fitzgerald promptly dubbed Danahey an “annoyance…stumbling out of the blocks.” I liked Danahey. I called him up to find out where he’s from, and he said he’s on loan from Hollinger’s Elgin Courier News, where he’s a feature writer. Danahey came late to journalism from PR; further in his background are some courses at Second City. He told me that in his view the point of growing up is getting to know interesting people of all ages, and if his new young readers don’t understand that yet, he means to tell them. He’s an adult writing as an adult (I forgot to ask what his sign is). Fitzgerald and I disagree about Danahey, but I think all this means is that neither one of us has a clue how to judge the worth of a newspaper for people who don’t read newspapers.
I also noticed that last Friday’s Red Streak ran the same Debra Pickett column that appeared that day in the Sun-Times. Her Red Streak tag is “Age 29,” and since Pickett turns 30 next July that could be a clue as to how long Cooke expects Red Streak to be around.
No one told Pickett she was about to debut in Red Streak, but she’s OK with it. She likes her Red Streak picture better than her Sun-Times picture (it’s happier), though she’s not so sure about her writing. It seems Red Streak ran her column exactly the way she’d turned it in at 5:30 Thursday evening. The Sun-Times version reflected the editing and rewriting of serious journalists. “I like working with editors,” Pickett says. “I definitely am a writer who recognizes the need to be edited. I don’t know if it’s more 29 years old to not have an editor.”
It’s certainly more inarticulate. Here’s how her raw copy began in Red Streak: “I thought it would be like backpacking across Europe. Just in Milwaukee, rather than, say Milan.”
Here’s how that came out in the Sun-Times: “I thought it would be like backpacking across Europe. I’d throw everything I needed–extra warm gloves and ski hat, granola bar, ChapStick, postmodern novel–into a single bag, hoist it over my shoulders and hop the train from city to city. I’d hit the cultural high points and take in the scenery, guided only by wit and whim. It would be just like Europe. Except that it would be in Milwaukee.”
When Newspaper Guild writers like Pickett show up to their own surprise in a new newspaper (if technically a new edition of an old newspaper), the guild has an issue on its hands. But it’s small potatoes. Here’s the big thing the guild’s Sun-Times unit has already told management it needs to discuss: “They’re putting out a paper they call an edition of the Sun-Times, and they’re using nonguild people on it,” unit chair Bob Mutter tells me. Red Streak was a three-week crash project launched when RedEye was announced, and a handful of writers and editors from nonguild Hollinger papers such as the Courier Sun were brought in to work under Cooke and make it happen. “We can definitely see cooperating with them,” says Mutter. “Or we could have seen it if they’d asked for our cooperation.”
The biggest commitment Red Streak has made so far to its readers is to provide them with lots of solid information on sex. Last Wednesday introduced “Ask Ellie” (“She wants to romp, he wants to cuddle” was the headline), by Ellie Tesher from the Toronto Star. Last Thursday offered “Sex Matters” by Meghan Bainum, a senior at the University of Kansas who broke in a year or so ago in her student newspaper. (“She has no shame and she has no fear,” a school administrator told the Chronicle of Higher Education.) And Friday unveiled “Em & Lo,” another column you could have read a week earlier at salon.com. It looks like sex in Red Streak will be like the crossword puzzle in the New York Times, getting harder as the week goes on. Em & Lo’s theme: “Love, honor, and anal play / Should I strap one on to save my marriage?”
This Monday and Tuesday Tesher was back again. Can RedEye compete with Red Streak’s formidable stable of sexologists? Not likely. Whatever RedEye is, it’s still a Tribune paper.
Seen breaking bread together the night before the elections at 437 Rush (the old Riccardo’s) on Rush Street: Lynn Sweet, Washington bureau chief of the Sun-Times; Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown; Bruce Dold, editor of the Tribune editorial page; congressional candidate Rahm Emanuel; Democratic political consultant David Axelrod; Democratic County Board candidate Forrest Claypool; Democratic state senator Carol Ronen; retiring Democratic state representative Judy Erwin; and Emanuel aide David Blitstein.
Axelrod’s been holding these election-eve dinners for journalists and politicians–many of them, like Emanuel and Claypool, his clients–for years. The conversation was all politics, waged in a shorthand incomprehensible to the laity, and the journalists present paid for their meals.
I mention the dinner at the risk of implying that I’m implying there was something improper about it.
A memorial service for Tom Fitzpatrick will be held at 3 PM Sunday, November 24, at the Tribune Tower. Fitzpatrick, who died in June, is best remembered in Chicago as a Pulitzer-winning columnist for the Sun-Times in the 70s, but he’d also worked for the Tribune. Anyone planning to attend should RSVP at Fitzpatrickmemorial@yahoo.com or by calling Dorothy Storck at 312-944-1179. Depressing as it sounds, Tribune security will be checking names.