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Keeping Tabs on the Tabs

The Project For Excellence in Journalism has a new study out today examining the content of three of these new compact commuter tabloids that are published -- or co-owned -- by big mainstream newspaper companies. They are the Boston Metro, in which the New York Times Co. has a 49 percent stake, the Express published by the Washington Post Co., and the Dallas Quick, published by the owners of the Dallas Morning News.

The study compared those papers -- which contain easy reading digests of the news and are largely aimed at younger people who don't necessarily read traditional dailes -- to the Boston Globe, Washington Post and Dallas Morning News. (For a look at the strange and secretive Metro culture in Boston, see "Echo Chamber" in the Oct. 28 Boston Phoenix.)

These new urban commuter tabs are being churned out largely because of the mainstream media's desperation to appeal to the coveted 18-34 demographic and time-pressed readers. None of them are going to be winning Pulitzer prizes soon. But if you look around Boston, you'll see a lot of T-riders thumbing through the Metro.

Here are several notable findings:

1) The tabloids aren't very local-- only 22 percent of their stories dealt with the home community.

2) The tabloids do very little of their own reporting -- only 17 percent of the stories came from original reporting while 72 percent were ripped from wire services.

3) There isn't much sourcing in the tab stories -- 56 percent of them contained one or zero sources.

4) The PEJ also found that despite the youthful orientation of these new papers, only 16 percent of the stories were actually written about people in the coveted 18-35 demographic, and most of those subjects were celebrities ala Jessica Simpson. Amy Mitchell, associate director of the PEJ, says that what appeals to young readers is not the content, but "the look and format." Translation: They like a paper they can read from cover to cover in the time it takes to get from Park Street to Coolidge Corner on the Green Line.

Still, for all the lack of traditional journalistic nutrients in the new tabs, Mitchell says they have some value. They're better than not reading anything.

"They are....able to offer people in 20 minutes...a general basic read of what's happened, but in a pretty broad-based way," she says. "I think there is a lot lost in terms of depth of information. At the same time, if you're reading that instead of nothing, you're better off than you were before."
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