Let us become hip!

From: Franklin, Tim
Sent: Monday, December 09, 2002 8:12 PM
To: All Editorial
Subject: Re: New task force

To the staff:

I realize that staff memos aren't cool.

But the work of our new Young Readers Task Force will be.

I've asked Elaine to head up this committee. Its mission will be to make recommendations that will help improve readership of the Sentinel among young adults.

Like most newspapers in America, the Sentinel has experienced a decline in readership among young adults aged 18 to 34. That decline is the reason why one of our sister newspapers, the Chicago Tribune, recently took the extraordinary step of launching a separate edition of the newspaper. That edition, Red Eye, is specifically targeted to young readers.

Unlike the Tribune, we are not contemplating launching a new newspaper. Nevertheless, improving readership of the Sentinel among young adults will be one of our top priorities in 2003. The task force will be empowered to look at everything -- from new beats to new sections.

It's worth noting that other departments within our company -- not just the editorial department -- also will be exploring ways to better reach young readers.

If you're interested in working on this committee, please let Elaine know. If you can't serve on the committee but you have good ideas, we'd like to hear those, too.

* * *

Tim Franklin's right; staff memos aren't cool. But then, neither are task forces. Especially when they're dispatched to find out what's cool.

According to this Dec. 9 e-mail, sent from top editor Franklin to the entire editorial staff, the Sentinel has finally recognized an ongoing crisis: Young adults have stopped buying the daily newspaper. So the 42 year-old top editor has asked his 45-year-old managing editor, Elaine Kramer, to entice more 18- to 34-year-old readers.

Fortunately, Franklin is "not contemplating launching a new newspaper" to attract the youngsters, as the Chicago Tribune did with Red Eye. Good thing, since all the Red Eye offers young Chicagoans is five-paragraph stories about frivolous, photo-ready topics.

Instead, he's launching the equally doomed Young Readers Task Force, hoping to nudge the whole Sentinel in a direction that will appeal to his newly prized demographic.

The memo asks that those unable to serve on the Task Force kindly submit their "good ideas" anyway. I fall right in the middle of the coveted age range, but no one bothered to send me the e-mail. I'll presume my own ineligibility and just offer some suggestions.

While hundreds of tiny fixes are needed (try replacing "Fred Basset" with "The Boondocks" on the comics page, for one), here are four broad proposals to get the ball rolling, free of charge:

Hire young people. Sadly, many talented, misled journalists just out of college would be thrilled to work for a big paper like the Sentinel. Look for those with a keen eye for relevant subjects. Be prepared to counter their lack of experience with guidance, support and trust. Or, give established young writers an incentive to join the Sentinel, if only to free-lance occasionally. Just be sure to find writers who actually live in the realm they cover.

Redesign the paper. It wasn't that long ago that the Sentinel endured an image overhaul. You didn't finish the job. Think like the magazine people do. Use striking, detailed photographs, and make them prominent. Start cropping them more carefully. Splash them over section headers, get wacky, get thoughtful. Even the staid New York Times will replace letters in a section title with similarly shaped photo objects. Is there some sort of rule against running images outside the lines?

Ignore the numbers. Readers aged 18 to 34 are far less interested in reading about trends, artists or diversions that have already received the full media treatment. Why not regularly highlight musicians that will never crack the Top 40, writers who may never become best sellers and activities that will not otherwise draw a giant crowd? Your desired audience expects subjectively chosen topics that predict the next important thing, before it's old news. Have Jim Abbot lift story ideas from CMJ, instead of Billboard, for example.

Market your changes effectively. Last, but maybe most importantly, get the word out. Think you're on to something? Then figure out how to let your intended audience know about it. Those TV commercials a few years back were hokey and ridiculous. Advertise where the kids are, and try some of the marketing concepts that a magazine might. Can you imagine the Sentinel sponsoring nights at downtown spots? I dare you.

All of this is just one person's humble opinion, of course. But someone should give this a stab, because Sentinel staffers will probably surrender to fears of alienating older readers and reach lame compromises.

The Young Readers Task Force sounds like lip service, a dippy response to a nagging concern. It will probably vanish in a few months, another forgotten New Year's resolution.

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