I devoured Anna Quindlen’s New York Times’s columns as a teenager. I knew which days they appeared and ran to get the paper. I read about AIDS, motherhood, politics and feminism—definitely not light topics. I don’t suspect they were written specifically for suburban high school students, but they helped me make sense of a world that seemed terribly confusing.
I am now a journalist working at the heart of my New Jersey newspaper’s effort to reach young readers. Last December I moved from The Record’s crime beat to its features section with the nebulous charge of writing for people in their 20’s and early 30’s. I often reflect back on what lessons I can learn from that young reader sitting at the kitchen table reading Quindlen’s words.
I wanted this assignment because, having just turned 30, I knew what an interesting and complex time this can be, especially with so many in my generation delaying marriage and families. We are searching in different ways for our right career path, our great love, and for a more complete understanding about ourselves. Along the way, we are creating new types of relationships with friends and parents, within communities, and in our homes.
Writing for Young Adults
As a reader and staff reporter, I didn’t see these issues reflected in our pages and, in the spring of 2002, I wanted a new challenge. So I proposed writing a column, profiles or features directed at my peers. Eventually our editor, Frank Scandale, combined all three and offered me a shot. Almost a year later, I am still trying to figure out how best to hone such a broad idea into specific stories and how to incorporate these stories into a daily newspaper.
There are many days when I wonder what young readers want to hear from me and my paper, if anything.
Though I hear of many new publications offering short snippets to younger readers, my gut and some reader response instruct me to move in a different direction. So I try to craft well written, informative pieces in a comfortable and friendly voice. To do this, I address the reader directly. I put more of myself in stories by integrating my experiences and my thoughts and preferences in what I write. In my role as a feature writer, I want to speak to that part of the young reader that is still developing and coming into its own. I want to help them make sense of their world and encourage them to think for themselves.
Some of my first stories were about notable young people—the 25-year-old photographer who’d become the star of the New York art world, a marketing guru who was Sean “P. Diddy” Combs’s right-hand man, a young magazine publisher and a novelist who had struggled for 10 years to finish a short-story collection. I also wrote about more challenging and serious aspects of dating and sex and about books meant to help young women sort it all out.
Amid this kind of coverage, I also found myself veering towards lighter “fun” topics such as fake tans (probably the story that garnered the most response), style and shopping. I love fashion and think it’s important to write about it—getting dressed is a big part of our lives—but I still struggle with citing such stories among the main topics I use to connect with younger readers. They are a far cry from Quindlen’s columns.
In late spring, top editors at The Record established a young readership committee to examine what additional steps the newsroom could take to reverse the ebb of young readers. A group of about 10 young reporters, myself included, along with one of our Internet content providers and three editors have met almost weekly to decide on our recommendations. In our initial meetings, as my colleagues talked about what young readers want, hard news was rarely included. Stories about state and federal budgets and school boards were shunned in favor of celebrity profiles and news about local bands.
So noticeable was the absence of important issues that one of our editors asked if we had given up trying to make serious news appeal to young readers. Few were willing to accept this premise and, in fact, the paper is going to start publishing a weekly oped column in November, written by a rotating group of young staffers, about topics ranging from the high cost of housing to the future of altar girls in the Catholic Church.
Will this op-ed column—written in a young voice—appeal to young readers? I hope so, but then, I love news, and I like being informed. Newspapers didn’t have to force news on me when I was younger because my parents read two newspapers, and social and political issues of the day were common dinner conversation. To take part, I had to be informed.
What stunned me about our paper, once I started to pay particular attention to these issues, was how often we missed opportunities to connect with young readers. School-related stories are written for parents, not students, yet we write about teenagers in relation to school and to little else. Many of our stories are “traditional” newspaper stories, and those do not seem to acknowledge the needs, interests and concerns of a younger reader.
My editor, Barbara Jaeger, has been very supportive of my attempts to write less traditionally and with a different voice. But at times, these efforts came up against our style and standards. I wanted to use the word “ladies,” for example, but our stylebook dictates we use “women.” In the profile of a photographer, I described one of his more risqué photographs: semen splattered on a man’s pants. My editor deferred to the higher ups. I argued that it was a telling and important detail about his work and his willingness to push the limits. I also thought young readers want frankness. The editors heard my argument and respected it, but left out the line.
In the recent meetings of our young readership committee, we have been trying to come up with a more concrete definition of what we think young readers want. To help us, each of us was assigned a specific date of the paper to review for articles that might and might not be of interest. I was eager and nervous to hear what others thought concerning my work.
On the day when we shared our reviews, Tara Kane, my 24-year-old colleague, held up the front of our paper’s entertainment section. I saw the headline for a Q & A that I had written about Patricia Field, the costume designer for HBO’s “Sex and the City,” and my heartbeat quickened noticeably. When you are talking about younger readers, “Sex and the City” is a pretty safe bet. But Field is an older woman. Would Tara connect with her? She did, and I relaxed. She’s just one young reader, and it’s just one story, but at least it’s a start.
Leslie Koren, formerly a crime reporter, now writes features for The Record in North Jersey.