Washington Post

The Washington Post could do worse than emulating Woolworth

September 6, 2013: 11:03 AM ET

A glib statement from incoming Post owner Jeff Bezos demands scrutiny. The last thing the Post should do is to mindlessly chase the youth demo.

130906105342-woolworths-620xaFORTUNE -- "All businesses need to be young forever," Jeff Bezos told Washington Post staffers on Wednesday. "If your customer base ages with you, you're Woolworth's."

A pithy statement -- glib, even. Not entirely inaccurate, but also not quite accurate, and not anything the Post (WPO) should ever use as a guiding principle. News organizations have repeatedly shown that when they try to chase "the youth demo," they fail miserably. Meanwhile, the Post would actually do well to emulate Woolworth's many decades of success and innovation, while also, of course, avoiding that retailer's eventual fate.

Post employees lauded Bezos, the founder of Amazon (AMZN) and the Post's incoming owner, for his remarks on Wednesday, vague and platitudinous as they might have been. Any show of genuine optimism from a newspaper owner at this point is bound to be well-received by newspaper employees. And Bezos seems to be genuinely optimistic, if short on specifics. For now, it was enough for him to say that he believes the newspaper business can be saved, and though he didn't say anything about further investments in the Post, he at least indicated that he's not planning any further cuts.

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Nobody, including Bezos, knows yet what will work. The underlying problem for the newspaper business is that its most vital function -- reporting on public affairs -- doesn't by itself generate enough demand to support it at the levels that are needed for the people (citizens, voters) to be adequately informed. It never did -- straight news has always been subsidized by the other, more-popular parts of the newspaper -- comics, sports, real estate, advice columns, coupons, etc. That subsidy is drying up as newspapers shift from print to the Internet, and unless some other form of subsidy is found, news reporting will continue to diminish.

This has little to do with age demographics, though. First of all, newspapers must work on behalf of the citizenry as a whole -- even including the people who don't read newspapers. From a pure business perspective, though, they need to reach as many people as they can without pandering (pandering being the job of marketers, not journalists). It became clear years ago -- well before newspapers found themselves in a death spiral -- that people of all ages were increasingly turning away from newspapers, favoring radio, TV, and the Internet to keep them as informed about the world as they cared to be.

Newspapers did everything they could to win those people back, even after it became clear that it wouldn't ever happen. They pandered -- first to the "general public" and then to "the youth demo," with all kinds of terrible, marketing-department-inspired drivel. The truly curious and civic-minded among us were, and remain, the only people left who might still be interested in newspapers, but many newspapers -- the Washington Post definitely among them -- turned them off by cranking out piles of pop-culture coverage and dull, artificially "balanced" news reports. All the while, newspapers were also cutting back on news staff and making their product less and less appealing on every level. Again, this all started before circulation and revenue started plummeting at startling speeds as people piled on to the Internet.

The truly curious and civic-minded, by the way, tend to be older people. Not necessarily old -- older. And they tend to have disposable income. But those were just the people newspapers decided to forsake in their fevered attempts to regain the attention of the general public and the young.

Contrary to Bezos's statement, all businesses do not have to "be young forever." Of course, they must keep up with the times and avoid alienating younger people, but there are all kinds of businesses that cater to an older, or at least mixed, crowd -- including in media. Not that cable news should be considered a good example of what newspapers should do, but their audiences do comprise people who are interested in public affairs, and cable-news audiences are downright geriatric. The average Fox News viewer is at least 65 and probably older. CNN's and MSNBC's audiences aren't far behind, with the median ages of its prime-time viewers hovering at around 60. NPR's average listener is 55. The median for the increasingly popular HGTV is 53, with more than half the audience in the 25-54 demo that advertisers covet. Young people watch it, too, just like young and old alike would read newspapers (online or off) more often if there was something more there to attract them.

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The median age of Comedy Central's audience is 28. These generally aren't kids who want to know everything that La La Anthony is up to. They're grownups -- often college graduates, starting families, buying real estate, and investing in college funds. And if you isolate the network's top shows -- The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, which are geared toward public affairs -- the average age quickly rises, to about 40.

If newspapers are going to chase a particular demographic, it should be that one: smart, engaged people of all ages. People who enjoy reading. Newspaper readership has always risen with age. Further, the population as a whole is going to continue to age for the next couple of decades as the Baby Boomers continue to move into retirement. That should take away some of the appeal of attracting the young at the expense of everyone else.

Bezos's reference to Woolworth doesn't quite wash, either. Woolworth is an American success story like few others. It lasted for nearly 120 years and -- much like Amazon -- it invented a whole new way of retailing: the five-and-dime store. It also spent much of its corporate life innovating, not "aging." In 1979, 100 years after its founding, it was running the largest chain of variety stores in the world. It started a chain of single-level discount stores -- Woolco -- in the early '60s, just as Wal-Mart (WMT), Kmart, and Target (TGT) were doing the same. But it was more ahead of its time than either by going big: some Woolco stores were more than 100,000 square feet, highly unusual at the time. Even its flagship five-and-dime outlets not only survived the onset of shopping malls, but thrived within them. The company also launched new stores like Kinney Shoes and Styleco that did well during the mall/shopping-center era.

What did Woolworth in, in fact, was in part an effort to diversify and chase trends, as well as the economic transformations that were making life tough for nearly every American retailer other than Wal-Mart. Woolworth launched Foot Locker and, during the dotcom era, the catalog/online athletic-wear retailer Eastbay. Woolworth was essentially gone by 1997, thanks mostly to the company diverting attention away from its core businesses -- the discount and department stores.

Viewed from another perspective, it could be said that Woolworth continues to thrive and innovate -- Foot Locker Inc. (FL) is the direct successor of Woolworth, and its shares are worth about 3.5 times what they were when the company dropped the Woolworth name in 1997. It owns several popular brands, including Champs Sports and CCS -- a huge supplier of equipment for skateboarders and snowboarders. How's that for staying young?

Bezos's comments were offhand, and we shouldn't read too much into them. On the whole, he delivered exactly the right message, especially when he said, "The number one rule has to be: Don't be boring." If more newspapers had taken that advice years ago, they would probably have found themselves in a much better position now.

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