TOPICS > Nation

Extended Interview: Express Editor Dan Caccavaro

April 4, 2005 at 12:00 AM EST

TRANSCRIPT

TERENCE SMITH: Tell us for people who haven’t seen the paper and don’t know much about it, tell us what Express is.

DAN CACCAVARO: Express is a free morning daily newspaper in tabloid form that means to give a quick summary of the entirety of the days in an attractive, quick, easy-to-ready package for a busy commuting audience.

TERENCE SMITH: Tell us about that audience, who they are or at least who you hope they are.

DAN CACCAVARO: They are, they are largely on the younger side.

Typically, you know, roughly in the 20-to-40-year-old age range. Obviously there are people outside that also. Largely very well-educated. Many of them are the beginnings of their careers on their way up. The main thing they have in common is that they’re very busy. They’re very busy and they’re in a hurry in the morning and they want to be informed.

TERENCE SMITH: Polls show that that audience — that 25-to-35, 20-to-40-year-old audience — is not buying newspapers.

DAN CACCAVARO: Right.

TERENCE SMITH: And frequently don’t read newspapers.

DAN CACCAVARO: Right. Well, that’s, that’s essentially what these newspapers aim to address. A lot of the reasons people aren’t reading newspapers — the main reason is that they say they don’t have time in the morning. They’re also used to getting their information free.

A lot of people, you know, obviously have come to get their news online. They’re just, they’re used to getting it without having to pay for it.

So a paper like Express really is meant to appeal to that audience. And essentially that’s who we’ve found we are mainly appealing to is people who were not otherwise reading a newspaper in the morning.

TERENCE SMITH: Is it your goal or the company’s goal that you will sort of inculcate a newspaper habit and ultimately lead these readers to subscribe to The Washington Post?

DAN CACCAVARO: Well, that would be the ideal.

The main reason we started Express was to reach that audience that was not otherwise being reached anyway. If we can also turn those readers into Post readers, that would be to the benefit of the Post. That would be above and beyond what we — the main reason we started, but that is definitely one of our goals.

TERENCE SMITH: So what’s the sort of editing philosophy that you bring to service this busy, young, maybe on the rise readership that you are appealing to?

DAN CACCAVARO: Well, the main thing we believe is that people do want the news.

I think some of these newspapers have taken a somewhat different approach around the country where they’ve targeted — they’ve aimed themselves essentially as a youth newspaper and as such have sort of tended to downplay the news and play up the sort of cultural, pop cultural new of the day. So, maybe on their front page they have a picture of, you know, something from “The Apprentice” or something like that and then have the news on the inside.

One of our main beliefs is that this audience really does value the news. So, our paper aims first to give a very comprehensive but quick summary of the entirety of the day’s news from local to national, international, sports, entertainment. But beyond that, we want to package it in a way that’s attractive to this audience that reflects their visual sensibility, you know.

Maybe it has some familiarity to people who are used to getting a lot of information online and — where appropriate — we try to edit the paper with a sense of wit that is also appealing to this audience. We treat the news very seriously.

We don’t package the news, you know, in a way that’s intended to be funny, but if you look at our feature sections, our consumer feature sections, our entertainment section, the choice of topic and the editing and the writing of captions all is done in a way that is meant to be entertaining as well as informative. And we’ve found that that really seems to have hit a nerve with our readers. Struck a chord with our readers I should say.

TERENCE SMITH: And you do all this with a staff of?

DAN CACCAVARO: Fifteen, 15 people.

TERENCE SMITH: Fifteen people?

DAN CACCAVARO: Yeah, going to 16. So, yeah.

TERENCE SMITH: Going to 16.

DAN CACCAVARO: Right.

TERENCE SMITH: And a round figure budget if you can share it with me?

DAN CACCAVARO: I really couldn’t share that with you.

TERENCE SMITH: Does it make money?

DAN CACCAVARO: The financial figures I would have to refer you to our publisher or someone else. But I can tell you that we have exceeded all expectations and we’re doing better than the Post expected us to do at this point in our development.

When we started the paper we were doing 20 to 24 pages a day. We have grown to the point where we are now doing 48 pages, or 52 pages in a Friday/Thursday, so that’s an indication of the strength of our ad sales.

So, clearly the paper is succeeding. But in terms of actual numbers…

TERENCE SMITH: Without the numbers can you say whether Express is in the black?

DAN CACCAVARO: I can’t. It’s really not my — as the editor, it’s really not my position to be talking about the financial figures.

TERENCE SMITH: Now these 15 journalists, editors, et cetera, that’s a very small number to put out a daily newspaper. How do you do it?

DAN CACCAVARO: Well, there are 15 or well now 16 very hardworking people, first of all. But really the people we have are very multitalented. They — the editors — are often doing both their page design and the editing. We have a system down. Most of what we’re doing is packaging information that was provided, you know, by the wire service. We don’t have to have a lot of people producing original material.

It really just takes people working very hard to focus on packaging information available in the way that we believe our readers want it. By not having to produce most of the material ourselves, you know, that cuts down the number of people you need quite a bit.

TERENCE SMITH: Are they nonunion?

DAN CACCAVARO: They are nonunion, right.

TERENCE SMITH: I’m interested in your perspective because you did the Boston Metro before this. This is the second free newspaper that you have started from scratch.

DAN CACCAVARO: Right. Um-hum.

TERENCE SMITH: What do you think of this phenomenon — of free newspapers, and what do you feel and believe is the logic behind it?

DAN CACCAVARO: Well, first of all, I’m a firm believer and obviously I think there has been a lot of hand-wringing in the newspaper industry about these papers and what they mean for the future of newspapers. I think a lot of that is misguided.

It sounds to me a lot like people — maybe 15 years ago — talking about the Internet and saying, you know, no one is ever going to buy a book online. It just feels like people who are not seeing the future.

I think these papers have already shown that they are successful as a business model. Clearly, they’re succeeding wherever they’ve started, and we’re doing very well here.

I think we’re showing that we can coexist with the major dailies.

I think some of the fear of these papers is based on a false premise, you know, that it’s an either-or proposition. That the rise of these newspapers somehow means the decline of a major daily, or that we’re dumbing down the news.

But the reality is we’re serving a need within the newspaper — within the newspaper industry, within the media in general. People want for a different type of news, a different type of presentation of the news and to suit a particular need in the morning.

I think that we’re just at the beginning of what these papers are going to do.

DAN CACCAVARO: As I’ve said, I think that we’ve demonstrated that they’re a successful business model. Across the board for these newspapers, I don’t think we’ve even begun to see what they can do as a journalistic model: What can we do now that we’ve reached this audience that was not being reached otherwise? I think that’s one of the most exciting things about these newspapers is, in the coming years, how do we then use that reach effectively journalistically beyond simply providing a quick recap of the day’s news.

TERENCE SMITH: What do you have in mind? What do you envision or at least hope could be the future?

DAN CACCAVARO: Well, the main hope for me is, you know, I really would like to see us be able to find a better way to make use of our resources in our partnership with the Post to extend beyond the interest in just getting the main news — the main nuts and bolts of the day’s news and direct people toward the more thorough, comprehensive reporting that’s available in the Post.

I think — for Express specifically — I think that’s one of the real opportunities we have, that we’re just really beginning to explore, and hopefully find a way to tap into what the Post is doing and find ways to package more comprehensive reporting in a shorter package that will also appeal to our readers.

TERENCE SMITH: But up to this point you seen not to have done that. What you are putting in the paper is either generated by your small staff or from various wire services and agencies that you have.

What’s behind that decision not to use the Washington Post’s people and products?

DAN CACCAVARO: The Post does what the Post does for a reason and the Post is exceptionally good at it. The Post’s great strength is its incredible reporting, credible writing, just the overall resources that they can bring to bear on any given news story.

We have for most news stories 200 to 250 words to devote to that story. It has made no sense for us to take an intricately crafted Post story and boil it down to just the essence in 200 words when we can get that from the Associated Press and hopefully steer people to — who want more to go read that original content in the Post.

That was really the main reason we took the approach that we took. It’s just the Post’s strength is just diluted if you boil it down into a short story.

Now when we have the opportunity with — we do these — we call them “refers,” these cross-references to the Post. So if there’s a story — a very short story in our paper about some development and we know the Post has a very good story on it, we try to make sure to let our readers know that that’s available in the Post.

And our hope is that once they’ve learned the basic, you know, nuts and bolts of the day’s news, that if they want the analysis and the commentary, that they’ll go to the Post for that.

TERENCE SMITH: That sounds like a direct invitation, if you like this, you’ll love the Post, buy it.

DAN CACCAVARO: Well, I think it is. It definitely is that, but our intention in doing it isn’t — we don’t use the pages of Express as an advertising vehicle for the Post. We really do those — our cross-referencing to the Post — in places where we really think our readers would want to go find more.

The intention is really as a service to the reader. From our perspective in editing the paper, we think it as a service to the reader and not as a vehicle for promoting the Post as a subscriptions, you know, point of view.

It’s really from our fundamental belief that our readers want to be informed we try to pick and choose the places where we believe they’re likely to hop from one of our stories to the Post and let them know that that’s available.

TERENCE SMITH: And now, you know, coming up to two years into operation –

DAN CACCAVARO: Sixteen months..

TERENCE SMITH: Anyway, now just months into your operation, you suddenly have competition, another freely distributed tabloid newspaper, the Examiner being produced and at the moment distributing even more copies than you are.

DAN CACCAVARO: Right. Well, it makes the market more complicated. It makes the market more competitive, but in a lot of ways, I think we’re not really going head to head — the Examiner and Express.

I think people see us as very similar because we’re both free, we’re both tabloid shaped, but I think we’re largely very different otherwise.

TERENCE SMITH: Characterize that difference.

DAN CACCAVARO: Well, first of all, in our, in our distribution model.

We distribute Express primarily at metro stops for commuters and also through news boxes in busy, busy places within the region. The Examiner — most of their distribution is free home delivery — so it’s being dropped at people’s doorsteps.

I think by that nature we’re very different. We are very much a commuter newspaper — and everything about the way we design the paper, edit the paper is geared toward people who are in a hurry in the morning.

They — you know, I can’t speak for what their aim is but what we’ve found is that our paper is appealing to people because it’s short, because the sensibility is young, because they find the design very appealing.

And so far we haven’t really seen any effect from the Examiner being in the market. We haven’t seen a drop in readership. In fact, the demand for the paper has been strong enough that we’re now bumping our circulation up to — heading toward 200,000 copies and we couldn’t do that if we were losing readers.

So, I think so far, it really felt to us like head-to-head competition.

TERENCE SMITH: I know from talking to them what their goal is, it’s to eat your lunch.

DAN CACCAVARO: Oh really? Their, their goal is to eat Express’ lunch specifically or the Post?

Well, that’s — I’m not sure how to respond to that. I mean, so far that hasn’t been the case, you know.

TERENCE SMITH: I mean, does that come as a surprise?

DAN CACCAVARO: In a way it does because, because I don’t think — looking at the newspaper I don’t really see it as being entirely — I don’t really see it being comparable to Express. I see it appealing to a somewhat different audience.

TERENCE SMITH: Namely?

DAN CACCAVARO: Namely, it seems to me to be more of a paper that’s intended to be read at home over coffee or something. It’s not as quick. It’s some — I don’t know — 50-some-odd pages most days and I think when you’re on a train in the morning, at some point that number of pages — a certain number of pages becomes too many pages.

We intentionally designed Express to be short and we’ve found that that’s what our readers want. At a certain point they don’t want more. More is not necessarily better. So to me as a paper that appeals to a commuting audience, we’ve found that what we do is — seems to be more appealing. Shorter stories, a shorter package of news, seems to be what people want in the morning. On their way to work when they’re in a hurry, it just feels like it suits their needs better.

TERENCE SMITH: Do you discern any political difference between the two papers?

DAN CACCAVARO: Well, we don’t have an editorial page, so we don’t have an expressed point of view on the day’s news. We present the news just in a neutral way as best as humanly possible.

They have an editorial page that I think skews more conservative I think..

TERENCE SMITH: More conservative you’d say than The Washington Post?

DAN CACCAVARO: Yeah. Yeah. To be honest, I haven’t followed their editorial page closely enough to comment on it in-depth. I just know that — you know, I believe they pitch themselves that way as well.

TERENCE SMITH: What new things do you want to introduce over the next year and a half? I mean, do you want to add an editorial page? What new things do you want to introduce?

DAN CACCAVARO: Well, some things that we have introduced that we want to expand upon is we started — just a few weeks ago — we started doing a Thursday entertainment pullout section which is something that the entertainment coverage is a big part of our appeal to our audience, I believe.

What we used to do on Thursdays was maybe an eight-page weekend entertainment section. Now we’re doing a 24-page pullout weekend entertainment section and that’s something that we want to continue to build upon.

Otherwise, editorially, you know, we have plans that are in the works that I’d rather not get into the details of.

But one thing I do want to do is find a way to package — to add at least one place in the paper where we can provide a little bit more coverage of at least one particular subject a day. I think somewhere in the middle of the paper, a place where we can go at a little bit greater length.

TERENCE SMITH: If you don’t feel that you’re competing, for example, with The Washington Post or necessarily head to head with the Examiner then who is your competition?

DAN CACCAVARO: I think our competition — I don’t think we face a direct competitor. I think our competition is just anything that takes people’s time in the morning, you know. Really — if it’s going online before they leave work or reading a book when they’re on the train. But, but otherwise, I don’t really see that we have real direct competition in that sense, at least not for readers, you know.

From a business perspective, obviously any print publication in the market is more competition for advertisers. But from the perspective of appealing to readers, I don’t think there is sort of a direct competitor.

TERENCE SMITH: Does Express exist online?

DAN CACCAVARO: Not really. We have a very modest Web site, but it’s really not our intention to have a Web component. The Post’s Web site is really — you know, it’s such a good Web site there’s no point in trying to duplicate that with Express especially since the whole point of Express is just to have very short news. People wouldn’t go to a Web site to find that.

TERENCE SMITH: As you look out across the country and see close to a dozen of these papers springing up, what does that tell you about the newspaper business as a whole?

DAN CACCAVARO: Well, it tells me that people are starting to pay attention to what it is that is causing the mainstream major dailies to lose readership.

And that they’re, that they’re starting to recognize that a paper like Express, you know, a quick morning read, is an attractive way to attract that audience.

So, I think it shows a validation of this concept that papers who were –you know, they were skeptical of it to begin with are now seeing it as a way to address their erosion of readership.

And I think it bodes well for both free dailies and for traditional dailies because I think as free dailies grow and attract young readers to the newspaper reading habit and as major dailies learn from what it is that free dailies do that attracts that young audience, I think both will benefit from it. That’s my hope.

TERENCE SMITH: What did it say to you that The New York Times, arguably one of the most powerful papers in the country, just bought a half interest — virtual half interest — in the Boston Metro that you started?

DAN CACCAVARO: Right. Well, I think that’s very telling. The publisher of The New York Times at one point said that he thought these papers were demeaning, that the newspapers that started these free dailies were — I think he said that they were demeaning themselves or something similar to that. And now his company has turned around and bought an interest in Boston Metro.

So I think that’s an indication of how the industry is beginning to perceive these papers as being a really serious part of the future of newspapers.

TERENCE SMITH: Acceptance, even if a grudging acceptance?

DAN CACCAVARO: Yeah, I think so. I think grudging in places and more enthusiastic in others. The Post has been very enthusiastic about Express, so I think there’s an increasing enthusiasm for these newspapers.

TERENCE SMITH: As you come up to the second anniversary of Express, is there any evidence that you can cite that people, younger people especially, have started to Express and then have switched over and subscribed to The Washington Post print version?

DAN CACCAVARO: Well, yeah, I think it’s really, it’s really hard to track that. I could only speak anecdotally to that. And, anecdotally what we’ve found is that people have not — that the opposite hasn’t happened, that people have not en masse stopped reading the Post to read Express.

We also find that a lot of people who do read Express also continue to read the Post which is very good.

But in terms of how many have started reading Express and have then switched — or have then added a Post subscription, I don’t know. I’d like to believe it’s the case. Anecdotally, I hear of a lot of people who read Express and then turn to the Post Web site for more on stories that we’ve written. But I don’t have numbers to show how many.

TERENCE SMITH: Because logic suggest that the opposite could be true.

DAN CACCAVARO: Right.

TERENCE SMITH: That somebody could say, well, wait a minute, why should I pay X amount of dollars to subscribe to The Washington Post? I can get this shorter quicker version for free.

DAN CACCAVARO: Right. Well, I think that’s what we’ve shown is really that we really are serving a different need, you know. Even people who are traditional Post readers may not want to read it while they’re on the train in the morning. They might want to read it when they can spend more time or they might want to read it over lunch or before they leave, but they still want something that they can read on the train in the morning.

There was a concern when we started, what would the effect be on the Post, and so far it doesn’t appear that the effect has been negative, you know, at least –

TERENCE SMITH: Your circulation has moved up. What were you at the start and what are you today?

DAN CACCAVARO: We started at 125,000. We are now building toward 200,000. I think we’re at about 180,000 today and we’re increasing in the coming months to 200,000.

TERENCE SMITH: Is there some cap or optimum number?

DAN CACCAVARO: You know, I don’t know. That would be a question for our publisher, I think. I think 200 is a comfortable for us for the immediate future, but I think if the need continues to grow, if the demand continues to grow, I can’t imagine us not increasing to meet that need.

TERENCE SMITH: Is it possible that at some point in circulation you really do begin to cut into the audience of The Washington Post print edition?

DAN CACCAVARO: I honestly don’t know if there’s a number where that would be the case because as I said, the trend that we seem to be seeing is that a large percentage of our readers weren’t and would not likely be Post readers.

They’re just people who just would not otherwise pick up a newspaper in the morning. And the people who were reading the Post continue to read the Post for everything else that the Post delivers that we don’t deliver.

So I’m not sure if more Expresses would necessarily cause a greater erosion of Post readership.

TERENCE SMITH: Except that as we speak The Washington Post circulation is going down. It’s going down rather dramatically, 5 percent in the last two or three years.

DAN CACCAVARO: Right.

TERENCE SMITH: Any company would be alarmed by that.

DAN CACCAVARO: Sure.

TERENCE SMITH: So what’s going on here?

DAN CACCAVARO: That’s a question for people other than me, I think. But, it’s not really any different from the newspaper industry in general. I mean, newspapers across the country, around the world really, are losing readership.

So to point to any particular cause for that, I’m not sure, I’m not sure we could point to Express and say that’s what’s doing it.

I mean, there’s competition from the Web, there’s just generally people becoming busier and not reading daily newspapers as much. So I’m not sure. Why that’s happening I think is really a question for Len Downie and for people at the Post.

TERENCE SMITH: Because it’s very striking. Yes, it’s true across the country, it is true that newspapers across the country have been losing about 1 percent circulation a year for the last 10 or 12 years. But the drop at The Washington Post is several times that more precipitous at a time when the region is growing.

DAN CACCAVARO: Right.

TERENCE SMITH: The population is increasing.

DAN CACCAVARO: Again, I would love to comment on that. I just –it’s really not — I mean, my focus is on Express — that’s something you would have to the Post about. I wouldn’t want to speculate. It’s just not my area.

TERENCE SMITH: So what’s the future? Literally one more question. This movement of free newspapers spreading across the country, how old is it?

DAN CACCAVARO: It’s essentially about 10 years old. It really got a start in Europe around 1995 and moved to the United States in the early 2000s.