The Demise of the Urban Commuter Tabloids

The end of the line: The final edition of Express at the McPherson Square Metro stop in Washington, DC.

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).

An amazing 48-year run: Skyway News / The Journal (Minneapolis, 1970-2018).

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:

The final edition of the Express tabloid paper (September 2019).

“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.   

How quaint.”

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:

Express editor Dan Caccavaro then …

“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.”

Express editor Dan Caccavaro now.

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.

The New York Times: Out of print in ten years?

It isn’t anything particularly special to hear people talking about the declining market for print newspapers, and how market dynamics and demographic trends have put the traditional newspaper publishing model at risk.

At the same time, most newspaper publications have found it quite challenging to “migrate” their print customers to paid-subscription digital platforms. The plethora of free news sites online makes it difficult to entice people to pay for digital access to the news – even if the quality of the “free” coverage is lower.

New York Times CEO Mark Thompson, appearing on CNBC’s Power Lunch program (February 12, 2018).

But it was quite something to hear a forecast made by Mark Thompson, The New York Times’ CEO.  Earlier this month, Thompson made remarks during CNBC’s Power Lunch broadcast that amounted to a prediction that the NYT’s print edition won’t be around in another ten years.

Thompson went on to explain that his company’s objective is to build the digital product even while print is going away:

“The key thing for us is that we’re pivoting. Our plan is to go on serving our loyal print subscribers as long as we can.  But meanwhile, to build up the digital business so that we can have a successful growing company and a successful news operation long after print is gone.”

It’s one thing for newspapers in various cities across the country to be facing the eventuality of throwing in the towel on their print product. It’s quite another for a newspaper as vaunted as The New York Times to be candidly predicting this result happening.

It would seem that the NYT, along with the Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and possibly USA Today would be the four papers most able to preserve their print editions because of their business models (USA Today’s hotel distribution program) or simply because of their vaunted reputations as America’s only daily newspapers with anything approaching nationwide distribution.

I guess this is what makes the Thompson remarks so eyebrow-raising. If there isn’t a long-term future for The New York Times when it comes to print, what does that say about the rest of the newspaper industry?  “Hopeless” seems like the watchword.

It will be interesting indeed if, a decade from now, we find no print newspapers being published in this country save for hyper-local news publications – the ones which rely on print subscribers seeing their friends and family in the paper for weddings, funerals, community activities, school sports and other such parochial (or vanity) purposes.

Interesting … but a little depressing, too.