Thursday, March 15, 2007

Better Red than dead

Posted By on 03.15.07 at 06:20 PM

I used to have nothing but hate for RedEye, so you'd think I'd be launching into a screed right about now against its new hangover edition. But as a Web professional I'm feeling sort of generous toward the concept, if not necessarily the product. RedEye is, in fact, the wave of the future, though Bag Boy and and that cartoon dog with the wizard hat may not be. Allow me to explain.

Newspapers are getting smaller, and there's not a damn thing that can be done about that. In a letter to Romenesko (that I can't, unfortunately, locate), a reader mentioned that the much-vaunted era of big papers was not a result of an expansion in the market but rather the contraction of it. Most cities don't have as many papers as they did during the middle of the century. When second, third, or fourth dailies died, it left reporters without jobs, advertisers without venues, and readers without their usual fix. The survivors used the opportunity to expand and produced the enormous papers of the late 20th century. The contraction produced good papers, too, by separating the wheat from the chaff.

But they're too big for this era. The NYT just made the wise decision to scrap their stock listings, which, as Simon Dumenco points out, were an ungodly waste of print. Lists of any kind, from stocks to stats to events, are better on the web for economic and usability reasons.

But listings aren't the only excess. I'd argue that some content is too--actual articles and reporting.

As a Web editor, I know when you, as an audience, read the Reader. I know you do it at work. A lot of you read it on your lunch break, it seems, but a lot of you don't. Some of you read it at home, of course, but online readership is highest from 9 to 5. That's when people read my personal blog, too, and, I suspect, almost all non-porn sites on the Internet. (I'm not judging; I wouldn't be doing what I do if I didn't do the same thing, and frankly, if you'd rather neglect your work than your friends and family, I'm not going to say I disapprove.) 

This is a more important phenomenon than people think. There are lots of benefits to the Web (content is more likely to be free, cross-referenced, searchable, etc), but the greatest revolution of all is you can consume it while people think you're working.

The problem is that no one (except a few publications with a worldwide audience) has figured out how to make as much money off the Web as print. The brilliance of RedEye is that it targets the niches where its relatively affluent audience is isolated from the Web--the commute, the lunch table, and the john--niches that were freed up when people like me realized they could read newspapers at the desk instead of on the train. For free.

Media compete for your time, and RedEye found a weakness in the market, a weakness caused, in part, by the Web.

I do wish RedEye was funnier, smarter, riskier, and less fucking corporate. Blogs have taught us that news in miniature can actually increase the public's interest in journalism as well as making us more informed readers.

I also wish the NYT real estate and life sections weren't like a 21st-century Edith Wharton novel.  But that sort of offal moves papers and courts advertisers with the promise that the multimillion-dollar-apartment buyers written about in the Times are also reading the paper as well.

And maybe a newspaper can skim some of that cash off the top and use it for honest-to-god reporting. RedEye makes my stomach turn sometimes, but if it's profitable that means it can pay for a national treasure like Paul Salopek (if any book industry people are reading this: think "anthology").

RedEye isn't so much a cancer on journalism as hair loss from the chemo. In fact, it might be better off with even less journalism. The definitive statement on RedEye that I've read comes from a commenter at Chicagoist:

Is the Redeye free? Does the Redeye have a crossword puzzle? yes and yes.

Good enough for me.

I pick the stupid thing up a few times a week, but I can't say that I've read it in months, I just do that damn crossword puzzle. So as long as they keep publishing crossword puzzles, I'll pick it up.

Bonus link: Dude, RedEye has a cover archive.

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