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.

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Eric Celeste
Contact: Eric Celeste