I’ve blogged before about the major struggles of the so-called alt-weekly press in recent times as the Internet has upended both the business model and the editorial mission of such papers.
But what about urban commuter publications? These are the tabloid freebies that sprang over the decades up to serve the daily public transit population in large urban areas, offering quick-read news and entertainment during subway, train and bus commutes.
Unlike the alt-weeklies with their often-edgy or otherwise counterculture editorial slant, the commuter tabloids were generally more conventional in their content — focusing less on controversial POV topics and instead on “what’s happening” in headline news and on the dining, arts and entertainment front.
One such publication that I came to know quite well was Skyway News — named after the iconic skyway system in downtown Minneapolis — where professionals could grab a copy of the tabloid while dashing off to grab their public transport. For me, reading Skyway News was a way to pass the time while taking my 35-minute bus commute (yes – it took that long to travel just three miles in the city during rush hour).
Alas, Skyway News, which debuted in 1970, eventually went the way of so many alt-weekly papers. First it tried expanding its circulation (and editorial focus) to cover residential Northeast Minneapolis, changing its name to The Journal in the process … but finally shut down for good late last year.
Still, it was an amazing 48-year run for a paper that never had a circulation exceeding 30,000.
This week, we’re hearing news that one of the most successful of the urban commuter tabloid ventures has bitten the dust, too. In this case it’s Washington DC’s vaunted Express, a free commuter tabloid published by the Washington Post since 2003.
In his customary colorful way, Dan Caccavaro – the tabloid’s founding editor who remained in that position for the entire 16 years of the publication’s existence – explained to readers what was behind the paper’s demise:
“When we launched in 2003, there was no such thing as an iPhone. It would be another year before Harvard students would start using a novel social network called Facebook to keep tabs on their classmates. No one was tweeting anything – or Instagramming or Snapchatting. And most of us still mocked our “CrackBerry”-addicted friends who just couldn’t wait until they got to work to check their email.
The headline of Caccavaro’s editorial says it all: “Hope you enjoy your stinkin’ phones.”
While circulation of the Express had been declining since its height of nearly 200,000 copies to around 130,000 today and while the paper’s finances had slipped into loss territory, the death knell came when the DC metro system introduced Wi-Fi service on its trains. With that move, the ability for the Express to engage the attentions of DC’s metro commuters died.
Whereas at one time the Express and its quick-read news format was “an integral part of the morning commute for Washingtonians,” the ability for people to stay online during their commute effectively made the Express an irrelevance.
As Caccavaro explained in his final editorial salvo:
“It wasn’t unusual in [the] early days to see two-thirds of riders on a rush-hour train reading Express … The appetite for Express was so great, in fact, that we more than once considered printing an afternoon edition.
This Monday morning as I rode the train to work, I was struck by a very different observation. Three people on my crowded Blue Line train were reading Express … one man had his nose in an old-fashioned book. Almost everyone else was staring at a phone.”
What’s particularly ironic is that the Express, with its lively, quick-read character and attractive, colorful layout, was the precursor to the kind of news and information that everyone expects to see continuously fed to them on their devices. So as it acclimated a generation of readers to being quickly-informed, entertained and pleasantly distracted during their commutes, Express actually sowed the seeds for the wholesale shift to mobile screens to receive information in the same fashion.
With the closure of Express, there can’t be more than a handful of urban commuter tabloids left in existence in America. I can’t think of single one. But if you’re aware of any, please enlighten us – and let us know what might be the secret behind their continuing relevance.