Kicking off Sidekick

What new member of The Boston Globe family -- delivered in a downsized format -- offers a bite-sized digest of information and entertainment aimed at people who don't necessarily have the daily newspaper reading habit?

If you guessed the Metro, the free commuter-oriented daily tabloid that the Globe purchased a stake in earlier this year -- after a spirited Boston Herald effort to block the deal -- you would have been right. Until today.

But now, amid modest fanfare, the Globe has launched Sidekick, a 16-page tabloid insert into the daily paper that publisher Richard Gilman says is looking to appeal to "infrequent and "non-readers." The section -- labeled as "Your Guide to a Better Day" -- contains some revamped elements previously found in the paper such as the comics, tv listings and the Critic's corner. The good news is those nomadic features, which often frustrated readers trying to find them on a regular basis, now have a home. The bad news is that one long-time comic page reader is already complaining about being disoriented by the new Sidekick format, which spreads his beloved funnies out over five pages. (Still, the complainer is well past the target demographic.)

There are also some fresh features such as poker columns (Texas Hold 'Em tourneys have become the ulimate TV reality show), a new puzzle, more interaction with readers though the web site and Globe staffers answering reader questions about, as the press release says, "everything from food to travel to entertainment."

In an interview today, Gilman described Sidekick as -- "it's fresh, it's young, it's fun." And he said he did not see much overlap with the editorial mission of the Metro, arguing that "The Metro has its audience and we are eager to reach that audience. But the Globe's audience is broader."

One broader context to Sidekick is the drive to connect with elusive younger or time-challenged readers that has so vexed a newspaper business dealing with an aging, declining base. Earlier this year, a Newspaper Association of America official estimated that there may be up to 200 young-adult spinoffs that have been created by mainstream newspapers, some launched as separate products and some, as in the case of Sidekick, designed as inserts. Supporters see it as crucial industry innovation. The less charitable use terms like "dumbing down."

Given the level of free-floating anxiety about the future of the newspaper business, some serious experimentation is called for. But one unsolicited piece of advice for the Sidekick folks is to sharpen up the graphics and layout. This thing should look more like the Globe's Calender section and less like the lifestyle pullout in a 5,000 circulation weekly.
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