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Gannett takes aim

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Gannett Co., Inc. has brought its battle for the hearts, minds, and spending habits of young readers to Rochester.

            Gannett confirmed last week that it has chosen Rochester; Wilmington, Delaware; Pensacola, Florida; and Greenville, South Carolina as launching sites for its next wave of free, youth-aimed weeklies.

            But details on the new Rochester publication won't be released until early next year. And Democrat and Chronicle executives declined to be interviewed. Spokesperson Tom Flynn emailed us a brief press release, in which Democrat and Chronicle publisher Dave Hunke promises "a new tabloid weekly newspaper packed with fresh concepts and lively content."

            Our sources tell us it will launch early next year and will be directed at 24 to 34-year-olds. Content will be heavy on entertainment, people, and "how-to" stories. No politics. Currently, we're told, its name is The Insider, with a large "R," presumably referring to Rochester.

            The weekly will be produced by the staff of the Democrat and Chronicle, which will continue publishing the Thursday Weekend entertainment section.

            "Our parent company in the last few months has launched five free entertainment and lifestyle newspapers," Hunke said. "They are designed for young adult readers in communities as diverse as Boise, Idaho, and Cincinnati, Ohio."

Gannett's foray into the free-weekly market is a response to bad news that daily newspapers across the country have been facing for decades: They're getting old with their readers and they're losing circulation. Members of the cherished 19 to 34 demographic simply aren't interested in their parents' newspapers.

            Various marketing studies have been executed by colleges and big newspaper chains alike. And all of them, almost without exception, are showing that young people are interested in big, bright photos accompanying short articles on entertainment. Young readers want to be able to scan a newspaper in seconds. And they don't want to pay for it.

            The big dailies are all reacting differently to this dilemma. The Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times began publishing paid "commuter dailies" with kicky names like RedEye and Red Streak. They're long on entertainment newsbites and short on the type of news content and analysis that, at one time, formed the mission of both dailies.

            (The Monday, December 15, edition of RedEye, for example, has for its cover a picture of the freshly detained Saddam Hussein with the headline "BAGGED." The story is a short dispatch from the Associated Press. Inside is a "Red Hot" item on Vern "Mini-Me" Troyer's new reality TV show.)

            Meanwhile, other printed biggies like the New York Times are focusing on winning over more university students by simply distributing more of their core product on college campuses.

            Gannett has chosen the free weekly. Its first, called NOISE, was launched in Lansing, Michigan, in 2002. Since then, Gannett has followed up with free weeklies in Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Louisville, and Boise.

"Everyone who talks to us about it says they've picked up a few issues to give it a try and have given up," says Bingo Barnes, editor in chief of Boise Weekly, an alternative newsweekly in the same market as Gannett's new weekly, Thrive.

            Distributed every Monday, Thrive averages 54 pages of lifestyle features, local and national entertainment news, and the occasional "unique story" by an environmental reporter, Barnes says.

            And while Thrive "lacks any real substance," according to Barnes, it does pose a threat to Boise Weekly from a promotional and advertising perspective.

            "They leverage their marketing muscle and sponsorship opportunities to elbow us out at every turn," Barnes says. "They have worked exclusive distribution tied with sponsorships in several large venues. They do not get involved in smaller arts-related sponsorships like we do. They made a marketing partnership with Clear Channel (which owns six stations locally) and now distribute Thrive at all Clear Channel radio events."

            Barnes has also noticed overlapping ads in Gannett's daily and weekly publications. "One thing that packs Thrive in the back are the 12 pages of classified ads pulled directly from the daily," Barnes says. "When you break it out, probably only about 20 percent of the paper is paid advertising. The rest is house ads and classifieds pulled from the daily."

            John Fox, editor of the Cincinnati alternative newsweekly CityBeat, says Gannett's CiN Weekly describes its target audience as between 25 and 34.

            "Interestingly, no reviews at all anywhere," Fox says of CiN. "No restaurant, movie, book, music, or arts reviews. No opinion columns at all. This, in my mind, means they don't want to alienate anyone, at least at this early stage. They don't want to give anyone a reason not to read them, but at the same time the lack of personality offers little incentive to read them."

            Much like Barnes, Fox sees Gannett using its weight to draw advertisers into CiN, which averages 88 to 106 pages and publishes every Wednesday.

            "They're throwing money and free ad space around in order to get their name attached to events and groups," Fox says. "It's probably a smart move --- those sorts of associations helped us in the early years. But we've maintained those relationships. It'll be interesting to see if CiN Weekly dumps partners when the money runs out."

            Regardless, Fox sees a silver lining to Gannett's free-weekly strategy.

            "We're hoping Gannett will break the ice with large mainstream advertisers --- the kind the Cincinnati Enquirer already has relationships with --- and sell them on the concept of advertising in a free weekly," Fox says. "For years the Enquirer has been bashing our concept to advertisers, telling them that free weeklies have no readers and can't deliver customers. Now they're out trying to sell the free weekly concept. So we've been hoping that they'll get some friendly banks, department stores, and big-box retailers into CiN Weekly, allowing us to at least get our success story in front of those advertisers for the first time."

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