CHICAGO'S 'RED' NEWSPAPERS ATTEMPT YOUNG SKEW

But Critics Charge They've Fumbled and Look Foolish

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- A major midwestern daily newspaper, desperate to win readership among a key younger demographic, begins tailoring a product to them.

Clumsy marketing
Yet its clumsiness in marketing to that generation ends up poking through.

It touts temporary tattoos emblazoned with the new offering's name so readers, one ad proclaims, can "let the world know how cool you are." Which prompts one reader to sneer, "There are few things less cool."

This isn't about how the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times are marketing Red Eye and Red Streak, respectively, the 6-week-old tabloids aimed at 18- to 34-year-olds. It's what Tribune did with the launch of Kidnews 10 years ago, a section aimed at the pre- and early teen set, which has now shrunk to one weekly page.

Older readers
The net result of the latest moves to target young readers are watched with great interest in the newspaper world. According to Newspaper Association of America figures, 36.9% of adults ages 18 to 34 read an average issue of a daily newspaper, while 57.9% of adults 55 to 64 do.

But it's not hard to find opinions that the new papers are another example of a powerful mass-media looking foolish by awkwardly attempting something off to the side of its core strengths -- which the targeted consumers notice.

"It's one of those problems of not being comfortable in your own skin," said Gary Hoenig, executive editor at Walt Disney Co.'s ESPN the Magazine, who formerly edited two media magazines.

"We always said people didn't become newspaper readers until they had property and kids," said David Cole, editor and publisher of newspaper trade newsletter The Cole Papers.

Tapping hip and urban
This is a problem for newspapers in an age when the bona fides of adulthood are postponed as long as possible, particularly for hip and mobile urbanites. No one knows how to combat this yet. Early indicators in Chicago remain uncertain.

Though technically selling for a quarter, Chicagoans largely consider the new papers free, owing to heavy promotional giveaways. An executive at one of them admits that the transition to paid is moving slower than expected.

"I'd hoped by the beginning of this month we would have gotten over this period" of massive giveaways, said John Cruickshank, vice president of editorial for the Sun-Times. "We'd like to train [readers] to get them for a quarter."

Finger-pointing
Unsurprisingly, in the two-daily market, Mr. Cruickshank blames the Tribune's freebies -- and what Red Eye General Manager John O'Loughlin says is a print run of 150,000, which roughly triples Red Streak -- for this. Mr. O'Loughlin said sales at retail outlets were going "fairly well," but said no firm data were yet available.

Karen Jacobs, senior vice president and director of print at Publicis Groupe's Starcom, suggested a wait-and-see attitude, calling the papers "laudable and intriguing." She hasn't bought ads in them but stressed her clients aren't suitable.

Both places have already tinkered with the product -- in Red Streak's case adding "more text," said the Sun-Times' Mr. Cruickshank; in Red Eye's adding local news and a crossword puzzle.

"It's a work in progress," Mr. O'Loughlin said.

"In the early going we were a little light," said Mr. Cruickshank. "We weren't taking the reader seriously enough."

Readers not impressed
Readers have noticed. "I don't see the point, and I don't know anyone who's going for it," said Brian Case, a 25-year-old Chicagoan, of the Red papers. His buddy Rob Lowe, 27, has only read Red Streak -- which featured his band on the front page -- but is even more dismissive. "It's so vapid, it's not even something I consider offensive. "

Mr. Cruickshank shrugged off the criticism. Red Streak, he said, is "like the Marines, for the few and the brave and all that."

Of course, the criticism of Red Eye and Red Streak -- like almost all newspapers' attempts to move beyond their mass-market niche -- is that they're not brave enough.

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