I really like something that the French editor Francois Dufour said about getting young people interested in the news. Dufour is pioneering the development of successful newspapers aimed at particular age groups, and he made an important observation about teenaged readers: “Sports and music news are very difficult to cover because the audience is split among many different passions. You can’t say ‘I’m doing a newspaper for teenagers.’ You have to remember you’re writing for a segmented audience.”
That’s excellent advice. It wasn’t so long ago that most newspapers had “women’s” sections, until it dawned on editors that the label stereotyped, patronized and risked alienating half their readership. We shouldn’t have to learn that lesson all over again with young readers.
But having said that, there are some general things that can be said about the kind of news publications that will draw readers of high school and college age. Again I turn to Dufour. I’m familiar with Dufour because at USA Today we made a careful study of what he was doing as we looked for ways to make our own publications more appealing to younger audiences. Here are some of his prescriptions that I consider right on target:
Make it quick. Teenaged readers will give you 10 minutes if you’re lucky, so your paper better offer fast-paced writing and easy layouts to navigate.
Make it newsy. Of course sports and entertainment are important. But your target is young readers who might pick up a newspaper, and those are most likely to be readers who have a genuine interest in world news.
Make it useful. Information that helps them succeed at school, in or out of class, will bring these readers back for more.
I have a fourth nugget of wisdom, gleaned from The Collegiate Readership Program that USA Today undertook in partnership with community newspapers and nearly 200 U.S. colleges and universities: Make it easily accessible and cheap. In fact, make it free, or nearly so. A small surcharge on tuition and fees subsidizes the program, and the papers are stacked near dormitories or wherever they’re easy to pick up.
The results are encouraging. Newspaper readership on these campuses grows by multiples, and many students start reading more than one. An independent study shows that the newspaper habit leads to greater interest in public affairs, which in turn spurs further growth in newspaper reading. That might be a good reason to hope for the success of the free commuter tabloids that are now showing up in train and subway systems of U.S. and European cities. These publications might kickstart reading habits where none existed and perhaps whet the appetite for more.
Another observation from the collegiate program is that male college students read more than their female classmates, mainly because of higher interest in sports news among young men. But Dufour’s work with younger readers shows that school-age girls and boys are equally interested in newspapers. So there’s a fifth recommendation: Start working on enticing women readers to your paper while they’re still in grade school.
There’s plenty for the news business to cheer about in all this. Despite all you might have heard about the indifference of young people to news and public affairs, the facts show that they will read newspapers and that creative people in our industry are figuring out how to turn that basic fact into future subscriptions. Some of that important work is now under way at The Associated Press, and we will be expanding the services and features we offer that will help our members attract young audiences.
Tom Curley is the president and CEO of The Associated Press. Prior to this, Curley was president and publisher of USA Today. In 1982, he became the original news staffer of USA Today after being asked in 1979 to study the feasibility of a national newspaper.