If you find news radio too intellectually taxing or wish CNN would slow down its news ticker, the Washington Post Co. has just the thing for you— Express, a free weekday tabloid that debuted in the nation's capital this morning, distributed by hawkers at subway stops. Express compresses the news into 60-word "in brief" capsules, and when writing about something really important—say, Paris Hilton's reality TV show—splurges with 400 words. Express ladles the news out with an eyedropper into tiny text boxes and then flattens it with a steamroller. Although most Express stories began life as real stories in the Los Angeles Times, Billboard, the Hartford Courant, the Wall Street Journal, or the Associated Press wire, Express editors apply such vigorous abbreviation and compression that the resulting pieces approach the vanishing point.
The editorial vanishing point was obviously on the minds of the local alt-weekly, Washington City Paper, which produced 10,000 copies of its Express parody— Expresso—and handed them out this morning at many of Express' distribution points to the confusion of many commuters. City Paper Editor Erik Wemple gave the paper out in front of the Post Co. building, and City Paper ad rep Shelia Reid even convinced an Express hawker to offer Expresso as he dispensed the Post Co.'s product at a subway stop.
The team of parodists led by City Paper's Webmeister Dave Nuttycombe anticipated the journalistic emptiness of Express, which they didn't have the luxury of viewing before parodying it. "For Those Who Will Not Read, We Salute You!" proclaims the Expresso cover story. Expresso asks the man on the street what he's not reading these days. "That Potter book," says Carl of Germantown. "I haven't read any of the Potter books lately. At all," says Jen of Arlington. Expresso's entertainment listings feature a "Quick Guide to Things You're Already Doing," namely listening to a Clear Channel radio station (the Washington area has at least eight). The sports section gives today's scores from Madden NFL Football 2002 (Buffalo Bills 13, Baltimore Ravens 9; etc.) and Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4 (Xsk8r, 8,232,403; SpiTZfiRe, 7,222,275). The "Crap to Buy" page displays pictures of a Mini Cooper, a video camera, an iPod, a Segway, a can of Pabst, a digital camera, and—of course—no text to read.
Express Publisher Christopher Ma doesn't promise greatness from the Post Co.'s new publication in his welcoming note to readers, as most publishers do. He writes that there'll be "top news highlights," entertainment recommendations, and consumer features for consumption during an average 15-minute subway ride. But seeing as each morning's Express goes to the printers at 9 p.m. the night before, its "news highlights" will enlighten only those who've studiously avoided television, the radio, or the Internet for the previous half-day. Is there really a market for people who read on the subway but can't afford any form of electronic media?
Express' comatose entertainment and sports sections likewise suffer a lack of timeliness, and its finance and career sections shout "generic." In this sense, the City Paper parodists got it absolutely right: Express doesn't want to be read; it wants to be paged. It wants you to linger over one of its many advertisements. But as I argued in a previous "Press Box," Express is an advertising solution to a declining Washington Post circulation problem, and before it can work as a vehicle for ads, it has to have some marginal editorial success. Here the Express staff are screwed: If there's good enough editorial content to make Express a cash cow, it will naturally, at the low, low price of nothing, bump up againstthemothership of the Washington Post and rob it of readers, which is the opposite of the Post Co.'s intentions.
Can Express escape this double-bind and produce something worthy of a commuter's 15 minutes without threatening the Post? The Post Co.'s deep pockets and reserves of talent suggest that it could produce an excellent free tab if that were its wish. In his slightly defensive Internet chat today, Express Managing Editor Dan Caccavaro indicates that today's paper is a bit of a summer tryout, promising readers a variety of improvements, including stock information, regular pointers to more comprehensive Washington Post stories on the Web, a big Thursday entertainment section, and more in future issues.
I suspect, though, that Caccavaro is woofin'. Express headlines might get snappier, the graphics a little sweeter, and the story selection a tad more timely as the staff settles in. But when the blueprint demands mediocrity, why bother mucking it up with excellence?