The Soviet Union collapsed; America elected its first black president; the Internet revolutionized how we communicate. But over the past 24 years, the Beacon, the Washington area’s largest-circulation print publication for older readers, hasn’t changed much.
To be sure, crossword puzzle clues are now printed in larger type, in response to a reader’s request, and the monthly paper, which is free, now has editions in Baltimore, Howard County and Palm Springs, Calif.
But as traditional print publications have struggled, and in some cases collapsed, in the global transformation to digital media, the Beacon has soldiered on, buffered in large part by the fact that its target audience — readers older than 50 — has consisted largely of people who prefer the old-fashioned feel of a newspaper in their hands.
“Boomers I know, and seniors as well, they all say, ‘Oh, I like my paper. I want my physical paper. I want to be able to glance at the headlines, and the advertisements,’ ” said Stuart Rosenthal, 56, the paper’s editor and publisher.
While television is still the leading news source for people 50 and older, the percentage of people 65 and older who list newspapers as a main news source has remained steady since 2001, at about 55 percent, according to an August report from the Pew Research Center. But that is likely to change as more tech-savvy generations turn 50. In the Pew study, only 29 percent of people between 50 and 64 cited newspapers as a main source of news, down from 49 percent in 2001.
For now, however, rather than scramble to stay on top of cutting-edge technology as general-interest publications must do, analysts say that older-audience papers can — and should — ride the wave gently.
“You have to stay with your market: You can’t get too far ahead; you can’t get too far behind,” said Ken Doctor, a media analyst for Newsonomics, a California consulting firm. That market will likely tip in favor of electronic reading at some point in the coming years, he said.
When Rosenthal founded the Beacon in 1989, he was not thinking about the digital future. An overworked tax attorney whose wife was a magazine editor, Rosenthal came home late one night and announced that he would rather be doing something like what she did. The two decided to start a newspaper for older readers, to fill a need they didn’t see being met in Washington.
Basing it on a similar model in Colorado Springs, the couple put out their first edition with about 15,000 copies and drove up and down Wisconsin and Connecticut avenues, dropping them off in restaurants and residential high-rises.
Shortly afterward, they received the voice mail complaining about the size of the crossword clues. They were delighted. “Bang!” he said. “We have a reader!”
Now, Rosenthal estimates that the Beacon has more than 200,000 readers in greater Washington, and about 400,000 for all its editions.
Stories range from travel tips to advice about avoiding scams to helping retirement money go further to understanding restless leg syndrome. Readers include retired federal workers, older people who have moved to the area to be near their children and residents of the area’s many retirement communities.
“They’re picked up readily,” said Saul Padwo, 87, of Rockville, who said he reads the paper religiously. “By the end of the month, it’s usually all gone.”
The paper, which has a 13-member full-time staff plus some freelance writers, is fully funded by ads, which cost significantly more in print than they do online. Nevertheless, print advertising in the Beacon remained steady through 2007, even as general audience newspapers saw a precipitous decline in print ads — a fact that Rosenthal attributes to the slower pace of Internet adoption among older Americans.
But in 2008, even the Beacon’s advertisers began to pull away. Many — particularly those for retirement communities — were pummeled by the housing crisis, during which fewer older people were able to sell their homes and move. Between 2008 and 2010, print ads in the Beacon fell by 25 to 30 percent as businesses switched to online advertising. But in the past couple of years, Rosenthal said, some are coming back.
“I think overall they’re starting to come to the conclusion that it’s not working,” he said.
For one thing, Beacon readers appear to be more comfortable with print ads.
“I think it’s a trust factor,” said Gordon Hasenei, the paper’s vice president of operations. “If you respond to an ad online, you could end up with cookies in your machine, or someone using it to introduce viruses or to hack or whatever, and here’s this standard old product that they’ve been seeing for 50-odd years.”
The Beacon is not oblivious to the rising tide of technology. The staff is developing a mobile app, and it has a Web site with about 4,000 unique visitors a month. But its main focus remains the print editions, which readers pick up at drugstores, libraries, senior centers and doctors’ offices.
“We figure we have about another five to 10 years at least of putting out a paper,” said Hasenei, sitting across from Rosenthal in the conference room at the Beacon’s eight-room office in Kensington.
Though the paper aims for balance, over the years, Rosenthal’s editorial voice has come through more strongly as he has felt more comfortable taking a stand on issues such as privacy and social security reform.
“Once I came close to 50 myself I thought, ‘Well, I can start writing my opinion here,’ ” he said.
Another change has been in the range of editorial content, as more people live longer. Along with stories on cholesterol medication or forgetfulness, the paper now writes about topics such as same-sex marriage and motorcycle clubs.
“I think we basically have almost two generations — boomers and their parents,” said managing editor Barbara Ruben, who writes many of the features. “There’s a different cultural context for both of those — someone who came of age in the ’60s, and others who fought in Korea or World War II.”
That multigenerational dimension has affected other older-reader publications as well: In 2003, AARP began “versioning” its magazine, which goes out to about 22 million households each month. It now has a version for the 50-59 set, one for the 60-69 set and one for people 70 and older.
Appealing to the younger element is also why the Beacon, once called the Senior Beacon, gradually changed its name, with the word “Senior” getting smaller and finally disappearing about six years ago.
“All of that was to be younger-looking,” Hasenei said. “So when somebody walks by our racks and sees the ‘senior’ they’re not immediately turned off.”
Jill Kephart, 55, of New Market, Md, said she used to pick up the Beacon for her parents, but in the past couple of years has started reading it herself.
“I feel great at 55, but I still find something in there that’s interesting,” she said. “I think it runs the spectrum.”