Young people don’t read much anymore because television has made them too passive to do anything as demanding as reading. Or is it that computers and video games have made them too active to do anything as undemanding as reading?
So go two schools of conventional wisdom.
As usual, the conventional wisdom is more conventional than wise.
Yes, a young reader’s attention span may be shorter now because of television; yes, today’s young readers respond better to a more visually exciting presentation of information and entertainment, preferably one in which they can actively participate; yes, today’s youth are accustomed to being able to pick and choose from among small, accessible bits of information rather than having to wade through long stories.
But today’s young people do read. It’s just that they read magazines (particularly specialty magazines geared to their interests) and books (especially fiction) far more than they read newspapers.
Library circulation of juvenile books increased 33% from 1980 to 1987, for example, compared to only 8% for adult books, according to a study by the Library Research Center at the University of Illinois. Sales of juvenile trade books rose 250% from 1972 to 1986. Such authors of adult fiction as Douglas Adams, Stephen King, Clive Barker and Danielle Steele all have large youth followings.
The young read both escapist literature and, in magazines and newspapers, those stories and publications that have an impact on their daily lives and that speak to them in their language. Studies show that those aged 18-to-24 and 25-to-34 are far more likely than people in older age groups to exercise, play sports, go skiing, camping or backpacking, go to a movie, a sporting event, a play or a concert. Not surprisingly, they want to read about those activities, too. The median age of readers of such magazines as Ski, World Tennis, Car and Driver, Rolling Stone, Seventeen, Mademoiselle and GQ is in the mid-to-late-20s--10 to 15 years younger than that for daily newspapers.
In fact, according to one survey, people aged 18 to 34 account for 20% more than their proportionate share of total magazine readership, and they buy more than double their share of paperback books and 40% more than their share of hardcover books.
There is also some indication that the more the young watch television, the more likely, not less likely, they are to read newspapers. The two media are often mutually reinforcing, not just competitive. When a strike closed all New York newspapers in 1978, for instance, the audience for television news shows in New York dropped noticeably; only when the newspapers resumed publishing did audiences return to pre-strike levels.
Indeed, one can argue that today’s younger readers--"the best-educated generation in history and perhaps the most cosmopolitan, precocious and independent-minded,” in the words of one study--are an ideal audience for the daily newspaper.
So why, apart from life style changes, is newspaper readership among the young--children, teen-agers, people in their 20s--at an all-time low? Is it just a matter of their having no interest in anything that doesn’t affect them directly and of their only being attracted to the flashy and the superficial?
“I wouldn’t blackball a whole generation as a trivial group of people,” said Jennie Buckner, a managing editor at the San Jose Mercury News.
Buckner argues that editors shouldn’t think that long stories automatically discourage young readers and that newspapers can attract the young only with short stories that don’t tax their attention span or distract them too long from their strictly personal concerns.
“If they’re interested in the topic, they will read . . . long pieces on it,” she said. “We have to package it better, make it easier to get through . . . show more discrimination . . . just better damn quality.” Specifically, she said, young readers want more sophisticated consumer reporting and aggressive investigative reporting because they “don’t trust official sources.”
Christine D. Urban, president of Urban & Associates Inc., a market research and consulting company that specializes in newspapers, said surveys show that young people have essentially the same interests as older readers, except for local news. “They’re just as interested in national and international (news) and . . . sports and . . . business, the same kinds of things that have traditionally been the foundation of a newspaper.”
‘Barrier to Entry’
The “barrier to entry” that newspapers pose for young readers seems to be much more format and style than content, Urban said.
For one thing, she said, the young seem acutely sensitive to the pressures of time, and they find it “a lot more efficient” to do two things simultaneously--driving a car and listening to all-news radio. A “single-dimensional activity” like sitting down to read a newspaper “seems like a phenomenal waste of time.”
But neither Urban nor any editors claim to have discovered how to overcome this problem and reach young readers.
It’s not for want of trying.
Many papers without Sunday editions have been adding them--theorizing that young people, in particular, will be attracted. A 1987 survey for the Newspaper Advertising Bureau showed that if readers were forced to choose between reading a Sunday paper or reading a paper the other six days a week, more than half the 18-to-24-year-olds said they would rather have the Sunday paper. In every other age group, the daily paper was preferred, and that preference increased as age increased.
What are papers that already have Sunday editions doing to attract the young? The Chicago Tribune publishes a weekly Style section aimed at young women and also provides special supplements for students, distributed with the paper in schools. The St. Louis Post Dispatch publishes a weekly, staff-written column based on discussions of teen-agers’ problems by a “peer panel” of high school students, responding to letters from other high school students. The Boston Globe is publishing a continuing series on math and science instruction in the local schools and a weekly “Learning” page; the paper has also added a teen column, increased its coverage of pop culture and added a weekly, full-color, youth-oriented ArtsEtc. section.
Even the New York Times, long a bastion of journalistic traditionalism, has added new life-style sections and columns on fitness, child-rearing and participatory sports, among other subjects of interest to younger readers. The New York Times also added pages on health and education and expanded its coverage of pop music and added a page on children’s programming to its weekly television guide.
‘Is This for Me?’
In an effort to provide what Executive Editor Max Frankel calls “multiple entry points on every page so that the scanner, the person in a hurry, can decide very quickly, ‘Is this for me or is it not?’ ” the New York Times now labels many pages (“International,” “National,” “The Living Arts”) and stories (“Review/Dance,” “Suburban Journal”).
These changes are not designed exclusively for young readers, of course, but they do enable readers to save time and to easily find only what interests them--two special concerns of the young. Moreover, Frankel said the paper is also planning to make its Sunday magazine more “hip . . . with it” and to publish more reports on campus life, street fashions and young designers as part of an overall effort to become more “reader friendly.”
“We’ve got to be important in people’s lives,” Frankel said. “They’ve got to need us, and once we get them hooked--and preferably if we get them hooked early enough--then it will be a lifelong habit that they have to at least look at us every day.”
Ironically, at a time when many newspapers are pushing the use of newspapers in the classroom as one of the best ways to begin the newspaper habit among the young, the New York Times has largely moved away from such programs at the elementary and secondary school level, according to Lance Primis, president of the paper.
The New York Times pioneered the development of teaching tools for using newspapers in the classroom in 1932, and by the late 1960s sales through the paper’s College and School Services accounted for 18% of total Times circulation. But in the 1980s, cost-cutting and advertisers’ diminished interest in the young audience prompted the Times to greatly reduce those programs. The paper no longer provides teaching materials to schools (although it does sell papers to the schools and, two years ago, renewed its college sales program).
Highly Regarded Program
In contrast, the Los Angeles Times didn’t start an official Newspaper in Education program until relatively late--1985--but it now has what is widely regarded as one of the eight or 10 best such programs in the country. Last year, The Times trained more than 1,000 teachers to use the newspaper as a classroom tool.
Apart from this program, though, the Los Angeles Times has probably made fewer changes to try to attract younger readers than almost any other major newspaper in the United States.
The Times has added color and shortened many stories, and it does provide a weekly review of books for young adults and extensive coverage of rock music, movies and television, and the paper’s suburban sections do emphasize local news and sports--all steps that surveys say can attract younger readers, even if that is not always their primary purpose. But The Times still publishes many long stories (like this one), and the paper has not done much specifically designed to attract young readers, the one demographic group whose wholesale defection in recent years has alarmed newspaper editors from coast to coast.
“It’s a matter of priorities,” said William F. Thomas, editor of The Times from 1971 until his retirement this year. “There’s not enough room in the paper for all the things we want to present to people who need and want more broadly based information.”
Thomas said he has never seen “convincing proof” that attempts to woo younger readers “paid off in later newspaper readership.” Nor, he said, did he “see any sense in tailoring any part of the paper . . . (in a way that) clashed with its basic personality.” Even The Times’ comics pages are aimed at adults, not children, Thomas said. “I didn’t want the comics pages to be out of character either.”
But for many young people, comics have traditionally been the point of entry into a newspaper, and while television cartoon shows may have diminished their appeal somewhat, studies continue to show that comics are the favorite newspaper feature of most very young readers.
At 42, Shelby Coffey III, who replaced Thomas as editor, is 22 years younger than Thomas--but he agrees with his predecessor that a newspaper should remain true to its traditions and make no radical changes to accommodate specific audiences. Readers tend to become comfortable with their newspapers; radical change discomfits and alienates them.
The Times has, however, been experimenting with a few possible approaches to youth in its Orange County edition--a weekend entertainment guide, a weekly, full-page forum for (and largely by) high school students and a weekly news quiz.
These experiments (and a few others) were launched in Orange County largely because of competitive pressure from the Orange County Register.
The Register has aggressively sought younger readers. The paper publishes essays by young readers and offers a Family section every Thursday (including a serialized story for children aged 10 to 13). The Register also publishes some of the best color in any American newspaper, includes a special youth supplement, Young American, once a month and has a Friday entertainment section that is extremely popular with readers.
The problem of youth readership affects newspapers of all sizes, and many other medium-sized--and smaller--papers are also trying a wide variety of tactics in an effort to address that problem.
The Helena (Mont.) Independent Record (circulation 13,000) and Bismarck (N.D.) Tribune (circ. 29,000) have both started weekly tabloid sections for teen-age readers. The San Francisco Examiner (circ. 144,000) has hired three critics under 30--for rock music, television and the theater. The Sacramento Bee (circ. 250,000) uses special, youth-oriented radio advertisements on local rock music stations.
James D. Squires, editor of the Chicago Tribune, thinks smaller papers have an advantage over large metropolitan dailies in the pursuit of young readers.
“The young audience that we’re trying to get is now much more likely to be grabbed by a local newspaper that deals with its community news,” Squires said. “That lowest level of governmental jurisdiction, which taxes them and which causes them problems--they want to know about it.”
Interest in Local News
But studies show that most young people are not very interested in local news, the traditional franchise of all newspapers--especially smaller papers--and that gives smaller papers both a special challenge and a special opportunity.
Not all editors think covering local government is the best way to meet that challenge.
“I have diverted one hell of a lot of resources that used to be on government beats to areas like sports and entertainment to go where the audience is,” said Michael Lloyd, editor of the Grand Rapids (Mich.) Press (circ. 138,000). “Going to the shopping mall is an entertainment. We deliberately run, once a week, a list of all the events happening at the shopping malls, whether it’s a blood donor deal or a gingerbread-house (building) competition . . . home improvement fairs, craft fairs.”
Many small and medium-size papers also use Newspaper in Education programs as the keystone of their efforts to attract young readers, for now and for future generations. Programs at the Biloxi (Miss.) Sun Herald, Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Gazette, Jacksonville (Fla.) Journal and The State in Columbia, S.C., are generally regarded as among the best in the country (along with those at such larger papers as the Philadelphia Inquirer, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, Minneapolis Star Tribune and St. Louis Post Dispatch).
It’s no coincidence that four of these papers are owned by Knight Ridder, which is in the forefront of those trying to solve the problem of attracting young readers.
“We’re still just at the top of the first inning in even thinking about how to attack it,” said James Batten, president and chief executive officer of Knight Ridder. “Cosmetic touches, which a lot of papers--including some of ours--have done don’t really go at the heart of this question. This is a demographic group that’s different in all kinds of ways from those that went before, and I think that we have to understand them better than we do and really be wide open to approaches that may be radically different from what we’ve done before.
“Anybody who is not actively concerned about (young readers) . . . is living in a dream world.”
‘Very High Priority’
Knight Ridder is giving the problem of young readers “very high priority,” Batten said. He has just appointed Lou Heldman, deputy managing editor of the Miami Herald, to take charge of a youth readership project full time, with help from one other full-time staffer and several others working half time, all looking for fresh approaches to attracting young readers.
“No idea is too crazy to be off limits,” Batten said.
For those editors who worry that trying to attract young readers might undermine a paper’s basic mission, it’s worth noting that Knight Ridder newspapers have won more Pulitzer Prizes than any other papers in recent years--22 in the last four years alone.
Like its sister Knight Ridder paper in San Jose, the Philadelphia Inquirer--winner of seven Pulitzer Prizes in the last four years--has already instituted new appeals to youth. For the very young, the Inquirer redesigned its Sunday funnies to include a strip on celebrities of interest to teen-agers and “The Mini Page,” an assortment of stories, puzzles, illustrations and quizzes aimed at the 6-to-12-year-old audience and created by Betty Debnam, a former schoolteacher in Washington, D.C. (“The Mini Page” is syndicated to about 450 papers nationwide, including more than half a dozen in the Los Angeles area.)
Every Friday in a special edition distributed to Philadelphia schools, the Inquirer prints a full page of activities, “For Students Today,” referring them to specific stories in that day’s paper to learn about math, science, social studies, language arts and other subjects. Philadelphia teachers can also call a toll-free number at the Inquirer to reach “Lesson Line,” which provides guidance for using Inquirer stories as teaching tools.
Lynne Berman, who is in charge of the paper’s Newspaper in Education program, also supervises the production of monthly, 16-page, tabloid supplements on such issues as human rights, ethnic images, architecture and children’s literature. The supplements are distributed to Philadelphia schoolchildren and sold to more than 100 other newspapers around the country for use in their schools.
The Detroit Free Press, another Knight Ridder paper, also creates special monthly supplements for the schools on such subjects as elections, building self-esteem, the arts, black women and state history. But the paper’s most innovative project is its high school journalism program, begun in 1985 and financed in part by local corporate sponsors. Journalism students come to the Free Press and, working with a Free Press editor, they write, edit and lay out their own school paper--which is actually printed as a full page in special editions of the Free Press. Nineteen schools participate in the program.
The students are mostly members of minority groups, so “by including high school newspapers in special Free Press editions, we have made our newspaper more relevant to this group and more likely to be used,” the paper says.
In cities like Detroit, with large minority populations, newspaper readership is a particularly acute problem; many members of minority groups are less well educated than most Anglos, and many immigrants do not speak English.
Statistics suggest that the problem of attracting young newspaper readers could get worse, in part because of these conditions. According to a study by American Demographics magazine, minorities--primarily blacks, Latinos and Asian-Americans--will account for 87% of all U.S. population growth over the next decade; the median age of members of minority groups is considerably younger than that of non-minorities and birth rates in some minority groups are generally higher than for Anglos.
But the problem of declining readership among the young ultimately cuts across all ethnic lines--and most geographic lines as well. It may be somewhat less acute in the Northeast, where one survey showed 54% daily readership in the 21-to-25 age group (compared with 45% in the West and Midwest and 36% in the Southeast), but editors everywhere are worried about the loss of young readers.
“There are a lot of alternatives out there that are providing information that seems to fill some of their needs,” said Gregory Favre, executive editor of the Sacramento Bee and chairman of the readership committee of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. “Perhaps we’re not putting out a newspaper that younger people want to read.”
Tom Lutgen of The Times editorial library assisted with the research for this story.
DIFFERENCES AMONG YOUNG READERS
Figures from National Assessment of Education Progress studies indicate that newspaper reading habits among readers aged 21-25 vary by region and education. REGION
Less Than Few Once Once Daily Weekly a Week a Week Never Northeast 54.0% 28.7% 9.8% 6.3% 1.2% Southeast 35.5% 35.4% 17.4% 8.5% 3.0% Central 45.4% 30.5% 13.9% 8.5% 1.7% West 44.7% 29.7% 15.9% 7.7% 2.0%
Less Than Few Once Once Daily Weekly a Week a Week Never 0-8 years 23.9% 20.7% 22.4% 19.8% 13.2% 9-12 years 38.5% 31.2% 16.9% 9.9% 3.5% High School 41.5% 30.8% 16.2% 9.5% 2.0% College 52.1% 32.1% 10.8% 4.2% 0.8%