Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Thinking YOUNG

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Thinking YOUNG

Article excerpt

A small, Knight Ridder paper in Penn State's backyard gives it the old college try in bid for new readers

It's move-in day for freshmen at Penn State -- and the merchants of College Avenue are ready for them, hawking everything from T-shirts to checking accounts. The Centre Daily Times is about to make its own pitch to college students in the form of "Blue," a new tab-sized section wrapped around the daily paper and designed for 18- to 34-year- olds. At a time when newspaper executives across the country are sweating over their failure to interest young readers, "Blue" represents the CDT 's best idea for reaching them. "I don't know if it's gonna work, but I feel like we've got to try," Publisher Henry B. Haitz III says from across a conference table in State College, Pa.

Worries about increasingly newspaper-wary young adults have spawned daily and weekly publications across the country, usually heavy on the entertainment news. What makes the "Blue" section (a reference to Penn State's blue and white colors, immortalized by Coach Joe Paterno's Nittany Lions football team) most unusual is that it's wrapped around the outside of the paper. A weekday product also is ambitious for a paper the CDT 's size; with an average daily circulation of 25,607 and news staff of 35, it's Knight Ridder's second-smallest by circulation. But the need also is particularly critical here. Some 32% of the county population and 44% of the city is aged 18-24, versus 13% nationwide -- and only 21% of them read the CDT each weekday.

Haitz wasn't convinced other models were worth trying in State College. Plopping down copies of Chicago's RedEye and Pittsburgh Trib p.m., two daily standalones, on the table, he says, "We haven't heard of anyone who's having any outstanding success at getting at that age group." But "Blue" is the type of zoned publication that could work in college towns all over the country wherever the target audience lives in the same place, says Dan Cotter, COO of Urban & Associates Inc. consultancy of Sharon, Mass., who led the CDT through its launch.

Haitz, who easily rattles off market statistics and tends to speak in sports metaphors, knows something about what doesn't work. He'd been CFO at the paper in 1996 when it launched Buzz, a freestanding entertainment weekly for young readers that languished, and then folded after 18 months. Haitz told himself: "If we're not doing something to reach this demographic, we're not doing our job."

He got his chance four years later when he was named publisher. A study for the paper by Urban & Associates had identified an opportunity in the local college market, some 42,000 strong in a county of 110,000 adults. That spring in 2002, Haitz held a two-day retreat with his department heads. Task forces were assigned to come up with specific recommendations for a young reader product. The project lost traction, however, when the editor left the paper.

Haitz hired Bob Heisse, city editor at The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, as executive editor in January 2003. Heisse's task was to nail the news content for a fall semester launch. By April, it was decision time.

Arrival of the 'Blue' period

While some publishers experimenting with spinoffs take the view that they may never get young people reading the core daily, CDT executives felt a standalone seemed patronizing. They wanted to position the new edition of the paper as an addition. The CDT was comfortable with the wrap format, having used it for hotel copies and football game previews. It was important that it publish daily to reinforce regular reading habits, and be distributed where students are: on campus, and in student apartments and select single-copy outlets.

Going the wrap route also would allow the core paper to stay as is, recognizing, as Heisse says, the "large segment of the population that doesn't want any more Penn State news." Finally, putting the section out front instead of inserting it ensured the target audience wouldn't miss it, even if it risked turning off or confusing older or uninterested single-copy buyers. …

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