As newspapers work hard to figure out how to attract younger readers, there are some things we already know about why they aren’t there already and what might need to change to lure them in. A lot of studies offer guidance and, though the news might seem disheartening at first glance, there are answers to be found.
Memos to the Newspaper Industry
The numbers are bad and getting worse. Daily newspaper readership among 18- to 29-year-olds slipped to 16 percent in 2000, according to a survey commissioned by American Journalism Review (AJR). This percentage was a new low, and the trend line heads to single digits by the end of the decade. The number had been in the 20-25 percent range a decade before. By contrast, the AJR survey showed that daily readership among 30- to 59-year-olds was 42 percent and, among 60 years and older, it was 69 percent.
Judging from students in my journalism classes at Central Michigan University, readership by young adults may be below 16 percent already. Most of them don’t read a daily newspaper. I must order them to read one and test them on it and then they might take a look at a newspaper Web site just long enough to do a report or pass a quiz. In my advertising classes a decade ago, when I began offering my students a discount subscription to The Wall Street Journal, about 10 percent of them subscribed. Over the years, the number declined despite my impassioned plea that reading the business daily is good for future advertising professionals. In the spring 2002 semester, I had one taker out of 150 students: a nontradi-tional student, around age 30. In 2003 I quit offering the discount subscription. It was a hopeless cause.
Young adults hurry through your product. On the isolated occasions when young adults do read newspapers, they spend about the time it takes to listen to two songs on the radio or the CD player. According to a 2002 study by The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 18- to 24-year-olds averaged nine minutes reading newspapers out of the 48 they spent each day in “newsgathering.” The 25- to 29-year-olds and 30- to 34-year-olds both spent 11 minutes with newspapers. The number went up to 16 minutes for those between the ages of 35 and 49, 21 minutes for those ages 50 to 64, and 33 minutes for the over-65 crowd.
The young will not age gracefully. Publishers used to cling to the notion that people acquired the newspaper habit as they got older: Just wait, they’d say, for the kids to grow up. Not true. Researcher John Bartolomeo wrote that a generation’s newspaper consumption habits are established at age 30 and that the younger generation reads less. In other words, a decade from now 16 percent of people in their 30’s will be newspaper readers every day. Two decades from now, the percentage of newspaper readers in their 40’s might be counted in single digits.
The best effort to address the decline came from Gannett editors, who put together the X Manual in 2001. It is a 300-page compendium of how to draw young adults into the newspaper. Among its suggestions: Beef up front page design and entertainment guides; increase business coverage; try new sections; boost outdoor coverage; improve Web sites, and promote more. Suggested areas for greater coverage included local, world and national news, positive happenings in the community, education, environment, things to do, health and fitness, families and parenting. Gannett recently announced its “real life, real news” initiative, and this bears watching as well.
The young love the Web. Two California newspaper industry groups commissioned a survey by MTV Networks that showed a big gap between what teenagers and young adults looked for from newspapers and what newspapers gave them. The survey found that 14- to 24-year-olds wanted, first and foremost, news about music, then local news. Projecting a culture of diversity is important to the young, the survey found, along with more color, pictures and entertainment news. Ink rubbing off on hands and clothes was a turn-off. “Minimize the old, white dudes on the front page,” MTV research executive Betsy Frank said. The young considered newspapers “important, but just don’t read them.” Frank said the development of Web sites was the most important thing newspapers could do to reach out to the young.
A survey done in 2000 by the Round Table Group echoed the importance of Web sites. It found that 18- to 24-year-olds preferred getting their news online rather than in print. Two-thirds liked the Internet for gathering information, and three-fifths said the Internet offered better information than print. Another study found that young people turned to the content-specific sites on the Web, such as those devoted to sports, music, fashion or dating. News-oriented sites operated by newspapers were at a disadvantage.
Yet general interest Web sites (so-called entry portals) such as Yahoo, AOL and MSN are thriving by providing access points to what the young adults are interested in. They establish brand loyalty that tethers young adults to the sites for life while newspaper-operated sites were casting around unsuccessfully for young adult visitors, not unlike what was happening with their print products.
Charging for Web access is crazy. Despite the young’s affection for the Web, increasing numbers of general interest daily newspapers are beginning to charge for Web access. The Wall Street Journal (1.8 million daily circulation), a business newspaper, has charged from the beginning. The Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch (250,000 daily, 370,000 Sunday) began charging in fall 2002, becoming the largest general interest newspaper to do so. Its editor, Ben Marrison, wrote that the “milk” would no longer be free. Dispatch.com lost a large chunk of its audience overnight. The approach is wrong because, as noted above, young adults like the Web as much as they disdain the print product. So much for newspapers reaching out to young adults via the Web and eventually winning them over to the print product. The Dispatch’s action was more like a death wish than a marketing strategy. It seems unlikely that the rest of the newspaper industry will follow suit.
The USA Today approach works. USA Today has done the best job by a newspaper of reaching out to the young through its print and online products. The national newspaper’s dailies-in-dorms program provides prepaid, discounted copies of newspapers available for first come, first served pick-up by students. It added 30,000 additional daily sales and two million dollars to the bottom line. The program, piloted at Pennsylvania State University in 1997, has gone nationwide. Other newspapers participate in the program depending on their proximity to the college and universities involved. Beyond providing a better-rounded education to students (its stated purpose at Penn State), the program encourages a lifelong newspaper reading habit. The Penn State program expanded in 2000 to 20 of the 24 campuses of Penn State, reaching 70,000 students.
USA Today does very well on campuses in single-copy sales, too. It often outsells local newspapers, regional newspapers, and even national competitors from two-to-one to 10-to-one. Its handlers understand, like the major Web sites, that media consumption habits developed while young last a lifetime. Surveys of Penn State also showed that USA Today’s program increased readership of daily newspapers in dormitories as much as sevenfold without affecting materially the readership of the campus newspaper. Yet student newspaper publishers, advisers and student journalists continue to fear incursions by daily newspapers onto their campuses. Many—including my employer, Central Michigan University—are successful in defeating efforts to offer the dailies-in-dorms program on their campuses.
Follow the Reds. The Chicago Tribune took seriously the research by the Media Management Center’s Readership Institute about disaffected young adults and in October 2002 started a Monday-through-Friday newspaper for young adults called RedEye. The rival Chicago Sun-Times followed suit with the Red Streak. Both papers deserve credit for “trying something” in the wake of young adults rejecting their core products, though the Sun-Times does better with the young than the Tribune. Part of the Tribune’s motivation was to keep out the Metro, a foreign-owned commuter tabloid that has invaded the major East Coast markets of Boston and Philadelphia. Another Tribune motivation was to try to drive the Sun-Times out of business since the paper is experiencing severe financial difficulties.
For a while, the Reds were given away. Now the attempt is to charge 25 cents for the purchase by their target audience—young adult professionals who commute. So far the watered down, tarted up, things-to-do laden Reds have failed to achieve critical mass. Readership figures are kept under wraps, which is an indication that their audiences are blip-sized. The Washington Post copied the Reds and launched its Express in spring 2003. No readership data there, either. The Tribune’s parent company started a mini-daily in New York City called amNewYork in conjunction with its Newsday. Other metropolitan newspapers have started weekly, young-adult oriented, free tabloid-sized newspapers with limited success. The Centre Daily Times in State College, Pennsylvania, has begun a young-themed section that wraps around the traditional daily, having tried and failed with a weekly free product six years ago. More attempts by the newspaper industry to woo the young are on the drawing board, including new weeklies in Cincinnati, Ohio and Louisville, Kentucky.
Newspaper companies deserve an A for trying, as well as an A for admitting, through their somewhat desperate actions, that they lack the affection of the young. At long last they are trying individually and collectively to do something. The owners of the Reds have been savaged by critics over the content and format of their publications. But so were the founders of USA Today 21 years ago. It took USA Today 11 years and more than one billion dollars in losses to achieve profitability and the better part of 15 years to be accepted as a respectable journalistic product. Give the Reds, the Express, amNew York, and other new daily, weekly and wrap-around products comparable time and money before pulling the plug.
The magic key is out there. Somewhere out there is the key to unlocking the young adult market. The key appears to be based on free (no cost) products and easy access. College students read campus newspapers because they are free and easy to obtain anywhere on campus. Young adults read alternative weeklies because they are free and easy to obtain around town. Both groups eschew traditional dailies.
Therefore, I suggest that daily newspapers create a free weekly product aimed at young adults in their circulation area. This new weekly product should be twinned with the newspaper’s free Web access, perhaps under a different, hipper name than The Daily Bugle. Young adults like the Web because it is virtually free and easy to navigate. Newspapers can use the weekly readership and Web site visits to sell the merits of the daily print publications. Some young people might grow into users of the Web, the weekly, and the daily. If not, two out of three ain’t bad.
Newspapers can still do journalism. Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie, Jr. and Associate Editor Robert Kaiser wrote a well-meaning book in 2002 about the deterioration of journalism in the United States. “The News About the News: American Journalism in Peril” detailed the public’s diminishing appetite for hard-hitting journalism. Other recent books have echoed the same theme that entertainment values are pushing journalism aside in many mainstream media. This is awful. Yet unless the most mainstream medium of them all—newspapers—can find a way to attract the young to their print and online sites, Pulitzer Prize-worthy journalism is going to go unnoticed and unheeded, and the mainstream press eventually will lack the resources to do good journalism because advertising support will have gone elsewhere.
There is not a bigger challenge for the newspaper industry to confront in the early 21st century than winning over the young. Think Red. Think Web.
John K. Hartman is a professor of journalism at Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant, Michigan. He is the author of two books, “The USA Today Way 2: The Future” (2000) and “The USA Today Way” (1992). He has examined much of the research done on young adult newspaper readership and is a widely quoted source on the topic. Jacqueline Hartman provided editing assistance to the author.