The brat beat
If you wonder why the Tuesday "Today" section of The Dallas Morning News often resembles a parenting magazine, or why there seems to be an unending number of touchy-feely family stories in the paper, or how come it's working on a multipart project focusing on young children, you should have been with me last year at the double-X-chromosome focus groups. Then you would understand, and I wouldn't have to write this column.
Granted, the focus groups--two sets of 15 women from Tarrant County, most of whom had stopped reading daily newspapers and none of whom questioned the odd positioning of the nearby wall-sized mirror--were conducted on behalf of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, but the answers to your questions were found there nonetheless. The hausfraus were assembled because the Star-T, like the Morning News and virtually every other newspaper in the country, is losing female readers. Men read the paper; women, increasingly, do not. The hens were there to tell us why, and how we could bring 'em back.
Their answer: We can't. (At least, that's the way I heard it.) By and large, all said that they quit taking the paper every day because they were so damn busy with kids and husbands (or ex-husbands) and soccer games and school and PTA and living a life that the papers just collected. As one said, "Every time I saw that stack of papers, I just felt guilty." So she got rid of the stack and the guilt, all with one phone call to cancel her subscription.
Oh, some of the other editors and execs would tell you what they really said was, "I will start taking the paper if you give me more news I can use." Stuff about, you know, parenting and kids and how to make a ragged life less so. Said execs don't believe what I do, which is that if you go to a focus group and say, "Wouldn't you like it if we did stuff this way?" the focus group will respond, "Why, yes!" only because they think that's what they're supposed to say. They do not believe, as I do, that the kid-filled focus group concerning the future of Itchy and Scratchy in an infamous Simpsons episode is closer to reality than the report generated from the fateful session described above. That's why the Star-T soldiered onward and used the results from those focus groups to reaffirm its commitment to "Family Day," a 12-page, four-color, intensive Tuesday look at all things familial.
That section was designed to appeal to moms, making them feel as though they were missing something if they didn't subscribe. It was to be (and is) filled with all manner of mom-friendly info: helpful hints (how to decorate pumpkins for Halloween), relevant profiles (the CEO of Gadzooks), parent-centered essays (the joys of piano lessons), and issues of concern (paddling, how minorities can talk to children about racial profiling). It also helped prod the Morning News into increasing its parenting coverage. (Editors and writers at the Morning News were contacted to provide their side, to no avail.) Which is why you see many more kidbeat stories than before. Which is why the paper began subscribing to the parenting-magazine formula--frighten parents with stories about the impending doom or suffering or dishonor awaiting their progeny, then offer reassurance and guidance. Which is why, every Tuesday, the Morning News' Today section gives you stories like the following:
"Do they think I'm made of money? Children learn to pull strings to get what they want. Here's help for parents living in a material world."
"Summer families: When children of divorce visit, it takes time and finesse to rebuild those bonds."
"Reach for safety: Here are ways to keep your child from becoming the next drowning victim."
So if you understand why your newspaper is so intent on doing these stories--they reach women who are leaving the paper, they please family-conscious advertisers, they fit well in the vanilla recipe of most daily newspapers--the only question is, do they work? Are all those kid- and family-centric stories keeping readers hooked? Or are they simply one more newspaper "trend" that will go by the wayside as the inevitable decline of the dailies continues?
Catherine Newton, deputy features editor at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, knows the family-kid-parenting thing inside out. She has been editor-in-chief of both Dallas Family and Dallas Child. She oversees the "Family Day" section of the Star-Telegram, which runs Tuesdays. She writes a parenting column called "The Frazzled Parent." And she has two school-age children of her own.
She says that as recently as three years ago, parenting publications like Dallas Child and Dallas Family were crowing that they own the parenting-family niche. Newspapers, ever eager to increase profit margins, wouldn't let that continue, of course--especially since research continually showed that the way into a busy mom's heart/subscription list is through her munchkins. (See above example.) This is why, at last year's national newspaper feature-section convention, editors openly talked about "taking back the [advertising] dollars" from parenting magazines.
Full disclosure: Newton is not only a former co-worker but also a close friend. In fact, she began several of her answers by saying something along the lines of, "Oh, hell, I don't know, Eric. Just don't make me look stupid." But, when answering questions seriously, she is also the Dallas-Fort Worth authority on covering family issues. So there.
"It just makes sense to cover these issues, not only for the business side of the paper, but also for editors who are trying to cover topics that are important to our readers," Newton says. "First of all, there are just basic stories and issues that never go away in parenting, that all parents are interested in. Second, I know that women never read more than when they're first-time parents. Those first few years, you read anything you can get your hands on. So you end up doing more service-oriented stories than you would traditionally find in newspapers, more 'magazine'-style stories, but that's important to a large segment of our readers."
Beth Frerking agrees. Frerking is the director of the Casey Journalism Center for Children and Families at the University of Maryland. And, yes, she's fully aware of the marketing and circulation-department logic that leads a lot of papers like the Morning News and Star-Telegram to increase their family and children coverage. "It's not hard to figure out," she says, "that this is a good way to get readers: focus on their kids."
But just because papers are driven by market forces to cover children's issues doesn't make such stories less viable, says Frerking, who is, perhaps, the country's family-beat expert. At her editor's behest, she began covering the family and children beat in the early '90s for Newhouse News Service, a wire service used by newspapers all across the country. At that time, she was one of the few reporters on such a beat. Now, more than 300 reporters and editors subscribe to the Casey Center's "listserv," an e-mail group that talks about family issues.
She has also seen the changes in how the D-FW market covers such issues. Frerking worked at the now-defunct Dallas Times Herald and is a University of Texas graduate and a Texas native. She saw first-hand how committed the Morning News is to increasing its emphasis on covering family issues during a recent seminar at the paper. Such resolution was unheard of even five years ago.
"In 1993, I was really breaking ground in terms of reporting on families and children from a national perspective," she says. "So my stories always got wonderful play, often on Page 1, because there weren't many people doing it. Certainly not looking at issues off the news."
As an example, she points out the JonBenet Ramsey case. "After she was murdered, when they showed those videotapes of her all dolled up for the beauty pageants, I was just horrified. So I did a quick-turn story on how we sexualize little girls in these pageants. That story ran all over the country."
Now, though, papers have reporters who cover those beats or are more apt to think of their own way to cover such issues, and are willing to put their top reporters on the story. "When these papers--and papers in Portland and Seattle and Cleveland and on and on--increased their coverage, my stuff didn't hit as much. They were already doing it."
Unlike some who think such coverage is inevitably sappy (I often fall into this category, even though I used to contribute to the sap by writing a parenting column), Frerking insists that Important Journalism can be made from children's issues. She maintains that if newspapers present the full spectrum of childhood--the tragedies of needy children, the excesses of spoiled kids, the serious and humdrum and fun of everything in between--they're performing a public service. "I have this unending faith in most people and think they're concerned about the world their kids are gonna live in," she says. "And if we can say to middle-class readers that there's a number of reasons you should care about this, everything from immigration trends to foster care to other areas of concern, we're doing our job. And the papers that are doing the best job of this are those that put it on a level that isn't always extreme--you know, only doing the most trivial or the most horrific stuff."
The Morning News, for example, is working on a project that will "examine children under 5 and how they're being prepared in school and how various other institutions are serving them--or not serving them." Says who? Gilbert Bailon, executive editor at the News, who did not return calls after other editors and reporters referred requests for comment to him. How do I know that he said this? I read it in the Los Angeles Times, in media reporter David Shaw's detailed examination of this trend nationwide.
Why won't he talk to the Dallas Observer about this issue? Because resolving to cover children's issues better doesn't preclude one from acting like a child. But I digress.
Bailon tells the Times that his commitment to this project, and to covering parenting issues in general, stems partly from his role as a father of two. "That's certainly raised my level of awareness," Bailon told the Times. "Too often, those issues are not what most daily newspapers...see as part of the core paper. But what is more core than the families that subscribe to our paper?"
To advertisers, no one is more core. And don't think for a moment that this doesn't play a large part in determining how much emphasis the papers are putting on parenting and family issues. Because although radio and TV advertisers want to reach impressionable youths, traditional newspaper advertisers--think Foleys, think furniture, think car dealerships--want Mom and Dad. And they prefer Mom, since most believe that a family unit's buying patterns are established by her.
"Oh, they definitely want our ad dollars," says Joylyn Niebes, publisher of Dallas Child and Fort Worth Child. "I've seen it in the national press, and I've certainly seen it in the local press. I see what they're trying to do, but they won't succeed."
Niebes says that, like most moms (three kids, from 4 to 16), she doesn't have time to read a paper every day, anyway--and advertisers know that about moms. "At the end of the day, I still have an unread Morning News in my hand, and it gets thrown in the trash, because I still have parenting to do," she says. "That's why magazines like ours are so effective. Not only are we cheaper for advertisers, but we provide service stories and information once a month, so a mom can have us around for when she needs to use us as a resource.
"No matter how many stories they do about parenting, newspapers are not going to reach more moms because they ask moms to adapt to the newspaper's schedule, not the other way around."
So, all this fawning over munchkins ain't workin', right? "Well, I haven't seen any research, but there's no question that there's anecdotal evidence that it's working," Newton says. "We get tons of feedback, a bunch of letters every week, phone calls, everything. Stories and contests we do in 'Family Day' almost always draw more feedback than anything else we do."
Anecdotally speaking, I have to agree with that. Although I still roll my eyes at the unending stream of family-first stories, I'm not the person the paper is worried about losing. That person more resembles my wife, who picked up the eye-roll-inducing "Today" section from this past Saturday--the one with the feature story giving tips to parents who take their kids to water parks--and said, "Oh! Now there's a story I'll actually read." When I told her I thought it was more...oh, say, pandering claptrap, she correctly noted that if I spent more time taking my daughter to the water park, as she had, I'd realize what a good service piece it was.
So the Morning News is better at reaching my wife than I am, which brings us back to why I wish you'd attended that focus group, so I wouldn't have had to write this column and reveal that fact.
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