Most young people in the United States--children, teen-agers, even many men and women in their early 20s--do not regularly read a daily newspaper. Until relatively recently, few newspaper editors were troubled by this seemingly natural phenomenon; after all, they knew, newspapers are not really designed for the young.
But traditionally, once young folks reached their middle to late 20s and got married, had children, bought homes, voted and paid taxes, they became what sociologists call “invested in their communities"--and then, editors knew, most of them usually began to read the newspaper every day.
Facts of Modern Life
Young people are now marrying later than ever (if at all); they’re having children later than ever (if at all); they’re voting infrequently (if at all). In many large cities, they can’t afford to buy homes, so they live with their parents or rent an apartment or move far into the suburbs, where a long commute reduces both their leisure time and their community roots.
Young families these days also tend to move more frequently than did their predecessors, further reducing their community ties. Moreover, with more husbands and wives both working--and often sharing household chores--many feel they have even less time to read a daily newspaper. There are also more leisure-time activities than ever, taking still more time and attention, especially in warm-weather climates like Southern California,
Perhaps most important, today’s young people have been watching television since infancy and, to a lesser degree, many have been using computers and video games and other interactive forms of entertainment and information that they find more interesting, more exciting, more relevant and more involving than the daily paper.
Result: Fewer young people are reading the daily newspaper on a regular basis, and editors across the country are now worried that if they don’t figure out how to attract this new generation--and attract them at a younger age than ever before--they may never get them.
“We are having a hell of a time catching people young enough,” says James D. Squires, editor of the Chicago Tribune. “We have been predicting . . . that our readers are going to die and we won’t have any to replace them.”
Squires thinks this threat might be overstated. But newspaper readership among the young has declined significantly, and the implications are far broader and more alarming than diminished circulation--and diminished income--for the nation’s newspapers.
“People need a certain, minimum knowledge to navigate through society,” says Herbert Gans, a Columbia University sociologist who has written on the media. Television can provide some of that knowledge, Gans says, but “the networks are having enough trouble keeping their own news divisions going. The watchdog journalism (provided by newspapers) is terribly important.”
William Sullivan, professor of philosophy at La Salle University in Philadelphia and co-author of a five-year study on the mores of the American middle class, issues a similar warning.
“If we are to have a society that, in any sense, is to be understood and directed by its citizens, collectively . . . citizens have to get crucial information and be able to make some sense of that information,” he says.
“The print press clearly represents the best source of not just news, in the simple sense, but of commentary and understanding that we have,” Sullivan says. “What newspapers are about, in their best sense, is the formation of public debate and public opinion. It seems fairly clear that electronic media are far less effective as sources of coherence or intelligibility. . . .”
Not everyone agrees, of course, that newspapers are so essential. Social and political historian Garry Wills says the view that newspaper readers are much better informed than television watchers is “only true for the elite . . . not for the mass of Americans,” who read smaller, far less complete newspapers than the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Washington Post. Most newspaper readers, he says, are far better-informed by television.
But Michael Schudsen, sociologist and chairman of the communications department at UC San Diego, echoes what appears to be a majority view in saying there is “a real difference between reading something about current affairs and getting it from television. . . . The Evening News washes over you. With a newspaper, you’re a little more . . . skeptical, maybe . . . in a way that encourages you to engage in debate or discussion.”
A study conducted for the Newspaper Advertising Bureau in 1987 tested school-age children on their knowledge of public figures and issues and found that reading a daily newspaper, at home or at school, “significantly enhanced their civic awareness scores.” Other studies have shown similar results.
Thus, it seems clear that young people who read newspapers are likely to become better--or at least more-informed--citizens.
But many in the newspaper business say today’s “me generation” just doesn’t care about being well-informed--or about anything other than what directly affects them.
“It’s a generation unplugged from the larger world, except for pop culture,” says Todd Gitlin, professor of sociology at UC Berkeley and author of “The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage.”
“It goes along with a . . . deeply cynical attitude that there isn’t any reason to know anything. . . ,” Gitlin says. “It’s the ‘I’m so hip I don’t have to know anything’ attitude, the strategic ignorance initiative, the strategic hipness initiative. Not reading newspapers is part of a larger cultural flabbiness, a slickness . . . among the young . . . that, yes, we have to worry about.”
Newspaper readership has been dropping in all age groups in recent years amid the pressures of time and the competition from television, specialty magazines and other information sources, but the most precipitous drop has been among the young.
In 1967, according to the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, 73% of the people polled said they read a newspaper every day; by last year, the number of everyday readers had fallen by almost one-third, to 50.6%. During that same period, in the 18 to 29 age group, the number of “everyday readers” dropped by more than half, from 60% to 29%.
Newspaper readership studies first began to detect a drop among the young in the early to middle 1970s, and some editors and researchers immediately began to wonder, to worry and to warn their colleagues about the dangers of an ominous generation gap.
“Why should a generation who grew up during the most affluent period of American history, who received more schooling than any previous generation, and who live in times that more than ever require intelligent, informed citizens, not be reading newspapers to the same degree as was true in the past?” the Newspaper Advertising Bureau asked in a 1978 study.
The bureau found no “simple answers” to that question. Most editors seemed to think that for a variety of sociological reasons, the baby boom generation--those born during the first 12 to 15 years after World War II--were probably just going to be a little later than their predecessors in discovering newspapers. If they didn’t start reading papers regularly by 25 or 26 or so, they surely would get the habit once they hit their early 30s.
Today’s young adults, especially the baby boomers, “haven’t stepped up their below-average newspaper reading frequency as they have aged” in the way their predecessors did, says Albert Gollin, vice president/research at the Newspaper Advertising Bureau.
About 80% to 90% of the young people in this country still look at a newspaper at least once a week, studies show, but they are much more likely to read a paper just once or twice a week, rather than every day, as older readers do (and as earlier generations of younger readers often did). Young readers “cherry pick,” buying the paper only on days that the paper has something they want--entertainment listings on Friday, say, or a television guide on Sunday.
Younger readers also read the paper more selectively, seeking specific stories or sections, rather than starting with Page 1 and reading or scanning right through the paper, and they spend less time with the newspaper than do older readers (32 to 34 minutes a day among those aged 18 to 29, contrasted with 47 minutes for those aged 45 to 54).
But contrary to what some think, today’s younger readers generally do not avoid newspapers because they do not trust them. In one study last year, readers aged 25 to 29 consistently rated newspaper coverage of several specific subjects more favorably than did readers in any other age group. In another study--conducted in 1986 for Times Mirror, parent company of The Times--respondents aged 18 to 29 rated the press more favorably than did any other age group in terms of its credibility, independence, professionalism and freedom from political bias.
Thus, most young people are not hostile toward newspapers, just apathetic toward them. Study after study has shown that they do not consider a daily paper either essential or relevant.
“There is no strong sentiment among the 21-34 (year-olds) that a daily newspaper is vital to their lives,” said one such study.
That is particularly serious at a time when young people have suffered more than any other age group from inflation. The median income of householders aged 18 to 24 dropped 13% from 1979 to 1988, after adjusting for inflation; the media income of householders aged 25 to 34 dropped 7%. Virtually all other age groups increased their median household income in the 1980s. Since many in the younger groups do not consider a newspaper essential, they’ve decided it is an expense they can do without.
Newspapers now offer seven-day subscriptions, Monday-through-Saturday subscriptions and Sunday-only subscriptions, but to address this financial problem--and young people’s interest in reading the paper only on certain days--they may ultimately have to consider such radical solutions as less expensive, partial-week subscriptions--Friday/Saturday/Sunday or Monday/Thursday or whatever the individual subscriber wants.
Another possibility, says Publisher David Lawrence of the Detroit Free Press, might be a special daily section designed for younger readers, although it is not clear how a single section could simultaneously serve the disparate interests of elementary school children, high schoolers, college students and people in their middle-to-late 20s. Trying to do so might only compound problems.
In an effort to make their newspapers essential to younger readers--and to ensure their own survival--editors across the country are now experimenting with a wide variety of special programs and special sections, expanded coverage and redesigned pages.
For the first time, much of this effort is being directed at the very young, who have traditionally been introduced to newspapers later than to any of the other mass media. Editors can now choose from among more than 100 syndicated youth features; some newspapers are creating their own.
Newsday in New York is a pioneer in this field, having started “Kidsday” in 1978. “Kidsday,” a four-page, color section published every Sunday and a half-page published every weekday, is written for (and mostly by) children aged 8 to 15. Each week, a different local school class produces the section under the supervision of Rosemary Skapley, a Newsday editor, and her four-member staff.
“Kidsday” includes games, puzzles, jokes, letters, “Kids in the Kitchen” recipes, interviews with entertainment and sports celebrities and stories on such subjects as drugs in sports, noise pollution and how to deal with pressure and verbal abuse. Many of these features are syndicated nationally.
More than 100 other papers now include in their Sunday editions one of the independently produced youth sections designed for specific age groups. Pennywhistle Press, for the 6-to-12 set, is produced weekly by Gannett and is in 40 Gannett papers and five non-Gannett papers. Young American, a monthly designed for 8-to-14-year-olds, was started by Michael Forzley, a former street gang worker in Chicago, and is now in about 70 papers (including two locally, the Daily News and the Orange County Register). A third supplement, Youth Beat, for 16-to-24-year-olds, began in 1976, folded after two years, and is expected to resume weekly publication late next month, according to its publisher, Direct Link Media.
Under the Newspaper in Education program, sponsored since 1965 by the American Newspaper Publishers Assn. Foundation, more than 600 newspapers now sell copies to local school districts at a substantial discount; many of these papers provide newspaper-based lesson plans and train teachers to use the paper in the classroom for everything from children’s games to instruction in reading, geography, economics and other subjects.
Many newspapers are attacking the readership problem at its root--illiteracy. Estimates of the number of illiterates in the United States range from 17 million to 25 million, and the largest percentage of these (40%) are aged 20 to 39. (The Los Angeles Times Learning Lab, established in December 1987, provides basic reading instruction for such illiterates.)
Little research exists on whether newspapers actually gain new readers from some of these programs, but Gerald Stone, a journalism professor at Memphis State University, did report in the Newspaper Research Journal last year, “Youngsters at every age level who have used newspapers in schools are more likely to be newspaper readers than those who haven’t had the school newspaper experience.”
(Television can also recruit young people through the classroom; Whittle Communications this month began “Channel One,” a 12-minute daily newscast for teen-agers, beamed via satellite to six high schools nationwide on an experimental basis.)
The one newspaper innovation that has generally been the most successful in attracting young readers is a special weekend entertainment section--generally published on Friday, often in tabloid form, complete with movie listings, event schedules, restaurant reviews and a new emphasis on rock music and the youth club scene.
Presentation is almost as important as content in such sections. Young readers, accustomed to the quick pace and vivid, full-color images of MTV, are often turned off by the traditional, drab, gray newspaper. So, in their weekend sections--as, increasingly, elsewhere in the newspaper--many editors are using color photographs, charts, graphs, livelier layouts and shorter stories.
“So much of what we do in a newspaper just doesn’t have any excitement,” says N. Christian Anderson, editor of the Orange County Register. “What is there in newspapers today that has the passion that MTV has? Nothing.”
In 1985, Anderson says, the Register started a Friday entertainment section, a tabloid, “younger in its look and younger in its orientation,” with a regular photo spread on the youth nightclub scene.
Friday circulation jumped by 10,000 to 15,000 in six months, Anderson says.
The San Jose Mercury News had a similar idea, with similar results.
“We tried . . . to make our Weekend section and daily Living section feel more appropriate to the 18-to-34 age group . . . more exciting, colorful, hip, contemporary,” says Jennie Buckner, now a Mercury News managing editor and, starting July 1, vice president/news for all Knight Ridder newspapers.
“Before we put the Weekend section in, Friday was the worst day of the week for us in circulation,” Buckner says “Once we started Weekend, Friday became better than any day except Sunday.”
Mercury News research has shown that readers under 35 (and especially those aged 18 to 24) are much more interested than older readers are in this coverage. The same research said young people are more interested than older readers in health and fitness; the paper now has a reporter assigned full-time to that subject. Another Mercury News reporter works full-time covering such family issues as education and child care, writing about subjects ranging from learning disabilities to children’s imaginary playmates.
Perhaps in part because of these changes, the Mercury News has increased its circulation in the 25-to-34 age group by 12% since 1985.
Spurred by similar research, other newspapers--in cities large and small, in virtually every section of the country--have tried other approaches to lure the young reader: science and medicine sections; expanded outdoor recreation coverage; columns on personal finance; comprehensive coverage of television; new weekly television guides; expanded and prominently displayed coverage of high school sports.
These changes are by no means universal. Surprisingly, despite their proclamations of concern, many editors have done little to attract younger readers. From 1967 to 1987, according to a Newspaper Advertising Bureau study, there was a substantial drop in the number of newspapers publishing stories at least once a week on child care, teen-age fashion, health, medicine, science, technology and youth, teen, school and college activities.
Even newspapers that have responded to the youth readership problem have often made only “cosmetic” changes, says Christine D. Urban, president of Urban & Associates Inc., a market research and consulting company that specializes in newspapers.
Many newspaper executives are “searching for small . . . tactical changes,” she says. “They can’t just . . . take their present newspaper and try to sell it harder; that isn’t going to work. It’s not a matter of . . . having found the latest rock columnist. . . .
“There will have to be a profound rethinking (of) . . . all the basic conventions of the newspaper,” Urban says, “the bulk, the size, the format, the story count, the graphics. . . .”
That’s what USA Today has done--and that’s why it is probably more successful with younger readers than virtually any other major paper.
In Los Angeles, for example, only 26.6% of Los Angeles Times readers are aged 18 to 29, but 36.2% of USA Today readers are aged 18 to 29 (although The Times, with about 15 times the circulation of USA Today in this market, has far more readers than does USA Today in every age group, including 18 to 29).
USA Today is designed for the television generation in everything from its heavy coverage of television and televised events and its television look-alike vending machines to its consistent, predictable format and its widespread use of color, short stories and a blizzard of photos, maps, charts and drawings (more than twice as many illustrations per page as any other major daily).
USA Today also has the largest--and one of the most innovative and aggressive--Newspaper in Education programs in the country, supplying teachers with newsletters and curriculum guides and supplying students with posters and special supplements on such subjects as careers, the economy, the Constitution and the presidential election.
Joan Baraloto, director of educational services for USA Today, says the paper sells an average of about 100,000 copies a day to schools throughout the United States.
Every Monday and Tuesday night, a team of USA Today editors and educators--in consultation with various academic specialists--work as the newspaper goes to press, developing a lesson plan based on the next morning’s paper. Like the paper itself, the four-page lesson plans are transmitted by satellite to printing plants from coast to coast, and when the papers are delivered to the classrooms, the lesson plans are delivered along with them.
A typical lesson plan last month suggested more than 20 specific uses of that day’s paper, including vocabulary-building (using words from USA Today headlines), arithmetic (keyed to a story on the savings and loan crisis), geography (keyed to a story on the derailment of a train carrying chemicals) and economics (keyed to a story on Pepsi’s first Spanish-language commercial).
“USA Today is actually designed for the media age,” Baraloto says. “I think the attraction that kids find (in USA Today) probably is . . . its being the bridge between the TV world and the print world. They can cross that bridge. It’s a comfortable bridge for them.”
But USA Today is a unique--and controversial--newspaper and, while its Newspaper in Education program is widely admired and its use of color and graphics has been widely emulated, many editors warn against filling their newspapers with short stories and flashy graphics in an effort to attract younger readers.
Tom Lutgen of the Times editorial library assisted with the research for this story.