December 12, 2005

EXTRA! EXTRA!

New tabloid breed is more than screaming headlines but could they be blueprint to the future?

Overview

The word tabloid has a romantic if sensational legacy in newspaper history. It conjures up images of wild headlines, street reporting, taut prose and exaggeration. It also usually invokes the past, a reference to broad-shouldered big-city tabs aimed at the working class—a vanishing breed of print.

Today, however, tabloid is coming to mean something else. A new breed of youth-oriented tabs is emerging in cities such as Philadelphia, Chicago, Washington, Dallas and Boston. And a second, new model of tabloid is being established in several cities aimed less at young people and more at stealing readers from the traditional broadsheets by offering them something quicker to read.Some newspaper executives, indeed, think audiences may soon prefer the size and even the style of tabloid to the “mainsheets” of the past.

All this at a time when many headlines suggest that newspapers are dying—not being born.

What are these new tabloids like? How does their journalism compare with the traditional broadsheet papers that came to dominate American journalism in the 20th century? Might these new tabloids suggest anything about the future of print?

A new study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism finds the answer may surprise traditionalists prone to dismiss the tabloids as just newspaper lite. A reader with 20 minutes will be more likely get a basic outline of the news about a broader range of topics—including foreign affairs, technology, science, faith and the top stories of the day—from the tabloids than the section fronts of the broadsheets.

Yet readers of the tabloids would be hard pressed to get much in the way of sourcing, impact or even more than one side of the story—even on the top stories of the day. Indeed, 74% of controversial stories offered just one side or mostly one viewpoint on things—and this doesn’t include the very shortest items.

And despite their supposed youth orientation, the new tabs do surprisingly little to pioneer making news events more relevant to new audiences—fewer than one in ten stories even tried. This is basically the same percentage found in the section-front stories in the broadsheets.

Among other findings:

  • The tabs offer little for anyone who wanted to learn about their own community. Only 22% dealt with their home town—compared with 53% of the broadsheets’ section fronts.
  • And only 17% of the tabloid stories, indeed, were even original reporting. The vast majority of stories were wire copy—72%. That compares with 93% original reporting in the broadsheet section-front stories.
  • Not only are the new youth oriented tabloids light on tailoring their narratives to the young, only 16% of the stories in the youth-oriented tabloids are about the coveted 18-35 year-olds—and most of those are about celebrities.
  • The Washington, DC Examiner, independently owned and aimed more at traditional newspaper readers, is something of a hybrid. It puts a higher emphasis on local news than the youth oriented tabs and offers more original copy and longer stories. Still, its content does not contain much more in the way of sourcing, context or multiple viewpoints than the youth tabloids.

The findings may help explain why a recent study conducted by the New York Times and Scarborough Research, a market research company, found that most of the readers of free-tabloids also subscribe to one or more pay-dailies. Consumers are adding the tabloid to their regular newspaper consumption, not replacing one with the
other (1) (though they may indeed be stealing time from one paper for the other).

At a time when the finances of the industry appear challenged by declining circulation and shrinking advertising, this might hint at something about the newspaper of the future. Combining the broader news summary of the tabloids with the depth of the broadsheets on the key stories of the day may point to a way for newsrooms with fewer reporters to continue to cover the waterfront—and in a way that may serve readers better than simply covering fewer things or making every story a little shorter.

Some might argue USA Today and many smaller papers have already moved in this direction, writing shorter stories and designing their front pages and section fronts to billboard what is inside. But their approach is still rooted mostly in stories of middle length, neither the 100 to 250 word summaries of the new tabloids that cut to the basics of the news, or the depth of the traditional big city broadsheets.

The findings also raise some questions about the efforts of the newspaper industry to try to reach out to the young. The new tabloids have done this mainly by investing in new design and format—shorter stories, more celebrity news, lots of small photos—but have devoted less energy and resources to the content of the news itself. Rather than do original reporting, framed for a younger sensibility, they are mostly trimming wire copy. They are not, in other words, pioneering ways to cover the news for a new generation, but mainly tinkering with ways of presenting it.

One of the findings of the Scarborough-New York Times research is, while readers of the free dailies do tend to be younger than those of the available broadsheets in town, “they are not overwhelmingly within the coveted 18-34 consumer category” and most of the drop in age is explained by the distribution of the tabloids at subway and bus stops.(2)

The new Project for Excellence in Journalism study examined seven papers—three commuter tabloids and one home delivery tab, plus three broadsheets—in three cities across the United States: Boston, Washington, D.C., and Dallas. (3) The three commuter tabloids are partially or fully owned by the major broadsheet paper in town and are aimed at younger readers. The mostly home-delivered tabloid, the Examiner, is owned by an independent chain, Clarity Media Group. (Note: because of the unique nature of this paper, references to “the tabloids” in the main analysis that follows refers to the three youth-oriented, newspaper-owned tabloids. The Examiner is referenced as a separate entity and is given a more complete analysis near the conclusion of the report.)

The study looked at two weeks of weekday coverage—two days each, Monday-Friday, randomly selected between April 15 and August 15, 2005, and overall coded 2,321 stories: 981 newspaper-owned tabloid stories, 634 stories from the independent Examiner and 706 broadsheet stories. Every story at least two paragraphs long in the tabloids was coded, as was every story of at least this length on the section fronts of the broadsheets. (4)

The Project for Excellence in Journalism, a research institute funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts and affiliated with Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, designed and executed the study in its offices in Washington, D.C.

What’s in a Personality?

The personalities of the new tabloids stand apart from either the tabs of old or the broadsheets. They might be described as serious but impudent and a little harried, like a smart college kid on a caffeine high. Where the front pages of the old big city tabs, for instance, scream with one big headline—“Headless Body in Topless Bar?” may be the most famous New York tabloid headline—some of the new tabs feature multiple stories on Page 1 and often lead with national or international headlines, just like the broadsheets. But the front pages of the new tabloids also function like magazine covers, with lots of pictures and teasers to what’s inside the paper.

The headlines in the tabs also tended to be more sensational. When the Michael Jackson verdict was handed down on June 14th 2005, for example, all the papers studied put it on Page 1, but the tabloid headlines read “He Beat It,” “Free & Cleared: Jury Disliked Accuser’s Mother . . .Defense Lawyer Becomes Legal Star.” The straight but humorless Washington Post Headline typified the broadsheets: “Jury Acquits Jackson on All Charges.”

Inside, while the tabloid section format is traditional—national and world news first and sports, celebrity, and lifestyle “back of the book”—the design is sharper and rapid fire, with one-liners and short snippets sprinkled throughout and colloquial phrasing—“Body & Soul”, “Wedding Stuff”, Tech Stuff” found in Quick, and “Home and Shopping,” “Look Out,” and “Careers” in the Express.

Footnotes

(1) Mahoney, Kathleen R. and James H. Collins, “Consumer Newspaper Choice in Markets with Free Print Opinions: Are Free Daily Newspapers Competition or Opportunity for Traditional Paid Products?,” New York Times and Scarborough Research, November, 2005.

(2) Ibid.

(3) In Boston we examined The Boston Globe (owned by the New York Times) and Boston Metro (owned 50% by the New York Times and 50% by Metro, an international chain). In Washington, we examined the Washington Post, the Washington Express (owned by the Post) and the Washington Examiner (part of the Examiner chain owned by Clarity Media Group.) In Dallas we examined the Dallas Morning News (owned by the Belo chain) and Dallas Quick (owned by the Dallas Morning News/Belo).

(4) At first glance, it might strike some as unfair to the bigger broadsheets to compare the entire tabloid to merely the section front stories of the traditional, larger format papers. Yet we chose this comparison for a reason. The time it takes to get through the stories on the section fronts of a broadsheet is closer to that required to plow through the whole of the tabloids, though it would still take significantly longer. This comparison is actually the fairest one in terms of the consumer. It can be assumed then that, if a reader carefully selected their way through the entirety of the broadsheet, the options there are even richer.