Free dailies are reaching younger, urban market

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Long a staple in Europe, free dailies are relatively new to the US market. Don Nizen, operations director for Boston Now, says free dailies represent 50 percent of the newspaper market in Europe, but just 6 percent in the US. There are now some 39 free daily newspapers in the US, 12 of which have been launched in just the past seven years.

While circulation numbers continue to fall for large metro paid dailies, free papers are stepping in to meet the needs of the younger urban demographic. They are generally tabloid size (easier to read on crowded mass transit), can be read quickly (for handy knowledge at the water cooler) and are delivered when people have time to read and catch up (during the commute). They sometime contain some syndicated national and international news, but are more local and heavy on entertainment news.

The trend is not limited to the metropolitan markets. The Steamboat Pilot & Today is a free daily newspaper published in the resort town of Steamboat Springs, CO. Publisher Bryna Larsen says one key to the success of The Pilot is that it contains information readers can't get any place else. The paper has one news rack for every 50 people in the county.

"What's in the Denver Post may or may not affect people in Steamboat," says Larsen. With the Pilot, you don't have to sift through pages and pages and "get your fingers all inky" to get the information you need.

City Paper is a free daily published in Nashville, TN. According to Albie Del Favero, publisher, its model is a little bit different than other metro papers. "What sets us apart is that we are relentlessly local in our approach to content. In essence, we are [the] community newspaper for a very large community." Del Favero says City Paper covers Nashville, a city of 500,000 people, and northern Davidson County.

Nizen describes free dailies as, "The Internet in print." He says people are used to getting their news for free and haven't developed the habit of paying for it. Younger readers, the coveted 18- to 34-year-old demographic, normally get their news from the Internet or TV. Larsen says even though people pay for Internet access or cable service, people still perceive it as essentially free.

All agree that the strength of free dailies, no matter the size of the market, is that they're hyper-local. Whether it is reporting on the outcome of a city council meeting or news about the latest hot dance club, the free daily provides information that influences readers in their daily lives.

They also agree that people want a quick read. They don't have the time to sit down in the morning with their coffee to read a paper cover to cover as people once did, says Del Favero. City Paper normally publishes 24 pages and would probably top out at 48, he says. Nizen believes people won't spend more than 15 or 20 minutes reading news today, but they want to feel like they have at least a little news.

"I don't believe for one single second that the population of the country doesn't want to read news," says Larsen. Instead, they are getting their news in different ways. While they may get the facts about breaking news from the Internet or on their cell phones, papers still provide in-depth coverage, the "whole meat and potatoes," the next morning. She says, "All we care is that we are providing the news, no matter how people want to consume it."

Are advertisers still wary about buying space in free papers? Not according to Nizen. Although it used to be true, he says, that reluctance no longer exists. Free dailies now run ads by major national advertisers, not just local. Ads for JetBlue, Bloomingdales and major motion pictures are nestled comfortably beside ads for local restaurants, clubs and banks in Boston Now. Nizen says that they have as good as or better distribution systems as paid papers.

Larsen strongly believes that where the readers go, advertising dollars will go. Free papers have to position themselves as real papers, not pennyshoppers, and must pay close attention to content, she says. Free papers that are doing well are investing heavily in their newsroom.

With local advertisers, free does not connote "not wanted" or "throw-aways," like free alt papers struggled with in the past, says Del Favero. "There are a lot of people paying for a paper that doesn't leave the plastic wrap. Our readers are making an active choice." Del Favero says that although the resistance is weakening, some large advertisers are still making the blanket statement that they don't buy advertising in free newspapers. But Del Favero says that most City Paper advertisers are more concerned with results and cost, not about whether or not someone paid for the paper.

The future of free dailies looks promising. Nizen believes that with independent papers with foreign investors like Boston Now, and paid dailies coming out with free papers to protect their market - like Express, published by the Washington Post - there will be quick expansion to more markets. In markets where there is no mass transit system, Nizen predicts papers will expand to a home delivery model as well.

Del Favero says City Paper has no current plans to go to home delivery. "I firmly believe that reaching people at their place of work is far more effective." About 35 percent to 45 percent of City Paper distribution is in office buildings. One of the reasons The Pilot doesn't do home delivery is because there are many second homes in the delivery area and the young, on-the-go population prefers to pick it up during their daily activities.

The Pilot, City Paper and Boston Now have all integrated the Internet into the publishing model effectively. Sidebars in Boston Now tell readers to go to its Web site for more information, and reader input helps determine the news for the next day's edition.

City Paper publishes an e-paper, which is an interactive PDF. It's free, but people still have to see the ads, Del Favero says. It may even be a better vehicle for some advertisers, as readers can click on an ad and go directly to an advertiser's site. Del Favero says that about 35,000 readers read the paper exclusively online.

"The Internet is the greatest invention of my generation," says Larsen. The number of people going online in the past 10 years is staggering. Papers are finally getting to the point where their investment in online makes money, not loses money.

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