NEW YORK — Will Millennials ever read the newspaper? And, if they do, will retailers then try to reach them through the gray pages?
A pair of ambitious experiments designed to answer “yes” to both questions is under way in Chicago, where fledgling tabloids Red Eye and Red Streak are both fighting for readers who don’t read. Or don’t read their parents’ papers, anyway.
Red Eye and Red Streak are the progeny of the local heavyweights, The Chicago Tribune and The Chicago Sun-Times, respectively. Both began publishing last Halloween, although Red Eye is the originator of the concept — after the Tribune announced its launch plans, the Sun-Times scrambled to start Red Streak as a defensive move.
They started life as free dailies printed five days a week and, more than six months later, neither has managed to convert their readerships — which are somewhere south of the 100,000 copies each prints each weekday — to entirely paid ones at a cost of 25 cents a day. While officials at the two papers claim the majority of their readers now buy the papers, the statement cannot be confirmed since neither is audited. And reports are that many readers feel their light, breezy tones and news selection are condescending rather than “a quick read.” (Red Eye launched with a page-one story that Starbucks was testing breakfast sandwiches in some stores.)
Regardless of whether anyone wants to read “the Reds” (and then someday graduate to their parent papers), the bigger question for now is whether they can convince any companies to buy ads in them. The conventional wisdom about newspaper readers is that they’re old, and thus undesirable. According to the University of Chicago’s General Social Survey in 2000, only 19.5 percent of those ages 21 to 25 read a newspaper. The other 79.5 percent aren’t exactly the audience that Sean John, for example, wants to reach.
But Red Eye’s average reader, a Tribune spokeswoman claimed, is 31 years old with a median income of $63,000 per year, according to Gallup poll data the company commissioned. Red Streak editors said their reader is younger and therefore less affluent. Both papers average 40 to 60 pages each day, with about 20 to 25 ads daily.
Another problem both papers face is that they are seen as experiments by advertisers. The Sun-Times has said it will publish Red Streak as long as Red Eye is around, while potential advertisers admit they want to ensure the papers have some staying power before they commit ad dollars.
But Red Eye’s pitch to Chicago-based retailers was strong enough to score a few early successes. Carson Pirie Scott, a unit of Saks Inc., has been running off and on in the paper since its launch, highlighting younger-skewing brands like Sean John.
“If the newspaper can get more young customers into our stores and is a vehicle that’s being read, we want to make sure we’re in it,” said Ed Carroll, Carson Pirie Scott’s executive vice president of marketing. He added, “We’ve looked at the sales results relative to what our other markets are doing, and on a per-cost basis, we feel it’s great.”
The key phrase is “cost basis” — ad pages in both papers sell at a significant discount compared with the parent papers, rather than a premium. A full-page ad in Red Eye costs just $2,000, and Red Streak’s sales force is scared the Sun-Times’ current advertisers might elect en masse for its cheaper ($1,359 per page) option. “Carson’s is one of the largest advertisers in the Sun-Times,” Red Streak’s marketing coordinator, Ari Frank, said. “While we do offer them space at a discounted rate, we don’t want to discourage them from advertising there as much as they are.”
Both papers have targeted boutiques in hip neighborhoods like Wicker Park and Lincoln Park, but larger retailers with Chicago presences continue to wait and see. Target Corp.’s Marshall Field’s flagship store has yet to buy an ad, nor has Chicago’s Saks Fifth Avenue store. And spot checks of both papers reveal that on any given day, fashion ads can be entirely absent (while riverboat gambling is distressingly regular).
They haven’t had much luck with the single-brand stores, either. The Spanish sportswear retailer Custo Barcelona, which opened its first and still only U.S. store in Chicago this spring, has eschewed advertising in either paper so far in favor of national magazines. “However, we plan to watch both as they grow, paying particular attention to each paper’s circulation and editorial as well as the brands who advertise,” said co-founder Custo Dalmau in an e-mail. “But we would not have selected Chicago for our store if we didn’t feel that a young, affluent audience existed in the city.”