From: Gen-X reader
To: Boomer journalist
Subject: Why should I read your newspaper anyway?
Date: Not too late to change.

So I guess my question is this. Why is your newspaper so boring? You’ve got tons of info that I really like when I actually have time to sit and wade through it all. And your local news and sports are great. But you’ve got no style. You’ve got no edge. You certainly aren’t much fun to read.

Ouch. So began a Gannett task force report, culminating months of review, discussion and introspection by a 19-member group of 25- to 34-year-olds. Task force members dissected newspapers, read magazines, watched broadcasts, shared ideas, pored over research, and shared their views with journalists throughout the company. At issue: Young adults are reading fewer newspapers, less often. Adults 25 to 34 years old are less likely to subscribe seven days a week and are more likely to use multiple forums of media for news, including the Internet, radio and television.

Issued in June 2000, this report was one of Gannett’s initiatives to give new urgency to understanding and attracting young readers. During the past four years, we’ve spent countless hours reviewing the data on young adults’ reading habits, especially those between the ages of 25 and 34. We’ve listened to focus groups, studied newspapers in print and online, evaluated available research, and tried out new gadgets including personal digital assistants with text messaging, e-books and more. When we asked whether adults were really interested in news—especially local news—we confirmed they are avid consumers of information. Young adults are Internet-savvy, multitasking and a headline-scanning crowd, accustomed to getting free information where they want, how they want, and when they want.

It is imperative that our newspapers keep and grow these young adults as readers, if not in daily print then online, in free niche weeklies targeted at these young adults, and with other forms of delivery.

This younger generation’s willingness to alter the ways they approach work, play and use of media is significant when we think about how to reach them. This tells us that we need to offer both the right content and presentation, including advertising. And the content needs to be available in the way they want to receive it and when they want to have it, whether in print, on the Web, or broadcast. And newspapers need to promote their content across print, online and broadcast better so young adults know that the coverage and information is there.

Brad Robertson, a Gen-X Task Force member who is now director of business development for The Des Moines Register, observes that “a black-and-white headline with a long story is not enough anymore. Media habits taught us we need poignant photos, art, breakout boxes, charts, strong headlines, full color, Web links, cool ads, organization and attitude.”

In summer 2003, Gannett researcher Anne Suh conducted in-depth interviews with 30 young adults from different communities about their lifestyles and media habits. She also asked them to take photos of the places and people relevant to their lives. Pictures they took were revealing, offering a valuable window into the very customized and constant way young adults get information and news. One young man took a picture of his favorite place—his family room where a 50-inch TV screen is center stage in front of a comfortable chair and computer. The man enjoys watching ESPN while surfing the Web for other scores and sports updates.

A young woman took a picture of the magazines to which she subscribes. She also goes to several Web sites daily, including the online local Gannett newspaper. She has two children and a full-time job. There is scarce time in her daily routine to read a newspaper, though she makes time to look through her magazines. Her photos were of her children, her favorite restaurants, and neighborhood. Friends call her “the Internet Queen.” She is a typical young adult in her ability to get information instantly and share it just as quickly.

Suh told us that these young adults “have a strong interest in hearing from their peers or other ‘real people’ voices, shaped by the availability of voices on the Internet.” As Suh observers, “Because they are accustomed to navigating through so many media messages, questioning the source is a reflex response.”

Confronting the Challenge

David Daugherty, Gannett’s vice president of research, describes the industry challenge as transitioning from a daily newspaper-driven business to a multiple-media news and information delivery business. “Our most daunting challenge is producing a newspaper every day that appeals to a general audience. If we intend to remain a mass medium—and into the foreseeable future we do need to remain a mass medium—we have to cast a wide enough net to draw in a large and diverse audience. Our readers and, as important, our potential readers, are changing faster than we are. We need to be quicker in adjusting to their news and information needs, and we need to be more innovative with our products, including how we deliver news and information to them,” says Daugherty.

Who are these potential readers? This year about 45 million Gen-Xer’s are turning 27 to 38 years old. The bulk of them are in their early to mid-30’s and more likely than ever to be entering a time in their lives when news events usually matter more and information newspapers provide can be seen as useful. But research shows they won’t simply pick up a daily newspaper and read. Then there is the huge Gen-Y group, numbering some 77 million. Born between 1977 and 1994, the oldest among them turned 26 years old in 2003, based on American Demographics research.

Throughout Gannett, we’re working to understand and respond to the significant changes in the way members of these younger generations use media. As part of our response to what we’re learning, newspapers are revamping content and presentation, experimenting with new sections, launching free weeklies geared toward the interests and sensibilities of young adults, improving online content, and expanding delivery.

The Detroit News, for example, targets young adults with an array of special sections covering such topics as health and fitness, eating and drinking, and personal finance. Its Money & Life section includes among its mix of stories the concerns and interests of young readers. A recent section featured Money Makeover, in which a local financial planner offered advice to a 27-year-old engineer; 10 tips for smart shopping were given, showing how families can trim $100 a month from their grocery bills, and Nine to Five featured workplace issues that included advice on “real life resumé mistakes to avoid.”

The News also has a deep local Web site with extensive coverage and information on where to go and what to do throughout the area and in Michigan.

Jill Fredel, assistant managing editor at The News Journal in Wilmington, believes strongly in the need for a hard news approach on Page One and the first page of local news. But she emphasizes that: “trend stories and sophisticated news features improve our mix and also help us appeal to readers of all age groups, including 25 to 34’s. On Page One, that can mean a look at Sixers’ fever during the NBA finals. Or it can be a story about the growing number of single homeowners, referring back to a package in Life & Leisure.”

In The Idaho Statesman newsroom, editors have a new term—alternative presentation—for incorporating compelling design techniques into routine coverage. This is shorthand for breaking large passages of text into readable blocks. The emphasis on interesting, lively pages is a priority for a newsroom group of 25- to 34-year-olds who meet regularly to discuss coverage. Young adult readers “want deep local news, and they expect hard-hitting investigative coverage, but they say the more serious and complex stories get, the harder we should work to break them up,” notes Executive Editor Carolyn Washburn. “We’re aggressively turning sidebars into graphics,” she said. For example, a recent front-page breaking news story on a local Boise business was augmented by a package of shorter breakouts with clear labels, color screens, photos and bar charts.

Learning Never Stops

Our ability to continue to attract younger audiences means we cannot stop learning about them and their media preferences. That is why our 25 to 34 task force report was soon followed, in December 2001, by The X Manual. This 300-page manual highlighted research on young adult readers and displayed extensive examples from every section of Gannett newspapers. A recurring theme was that young adults expect relevant, hard-hitting local coverage from newspapers, including sophisticated coverage of their lives and lifestyles. The manual went to all Gannett newsrooms and was posted on a special company Web site.

Within a year after The X Manual was issued, Gannett conducted a company-wide, in-depth review of print and online coverage appealing to RELATED ARTICLE
“Targeting Young Women as Newspaper Readers”
– Nicole Carroll
25- to 34-year-olds. Young adult editors joined others in examining content and presentation. Particular focus was given to the question of whether newspapers include coverage of issues of interest to young readers in their pages and on their Web sites. Five newspapers were given cash awards, and examples of their work were distributed throughout the company. Editors from these papers led companywide online training sessions to share best practices in print and online. Similar online training sessions also targeted young readers.

Since the fall of 2002, free weeklies aimed at young adults have been launched in several Gannett newspapers, with prototypes of others in the works. The key to these launches has been more research into the needs, wants, interests and lifestyles of young adults. In focus group comments, 25-to 34-year-olds reminded editors that most of them were beyond college and that many had started families and careers. What they want: Lively presentation, irreverence, photos and perspectives of people their age, information about places to go and things to do. They also said they wanted authoritative content and depth.

The accompanying website to a free weekly in Lansing, Michigan.

Rich Ramhoff, the 36-year-old editor and general manager of Noise, a free lifestyle and entertainment weekly in Lansing, Michigan, offers readers relevant content by ensuring that his young staff (aged 23 to 29 years old) stays tuned into what young people are doing in that city. “Creating a magazine that caters to people in their 20’s and 30’s, who are diverse in everything but geography, is a hard mission,” Ramhoff said. Noise is produced separately from the Lansing State Journal newsroom, and it maintains a separate Web site ( with a colorful magazine-like feel. Noise has done stories on how to undo tattoos and about bands with ties to a famous local guitar store, as well as regional travel and music profiles. Each edition contains ratings for best videos, books, music, DVD’s, trends and new products, and invites readers to weigh in with their choices. An election-week edition included an in-depth look at young reader views on local and state issues. “Our greatest challenge has been to balance the interests of readers who want a quick, fun publication with those who want a more in-depth look at issues,” Ramhoff said.

A free weekly in Boise, Idaho.

Bridget Lux is the 30-year-old editor of the free weekly THR!VE in Boise, Idaho, and her experiences echo many of those in Lansing. “While short stories, briefs and at-a-glance information are all great, some stories need more depth,” Lux said. THR!VE has published stories about environmental issues, such as fallout from chemicals used to kill mosquitoes and a clash over snowmobile rules in Yellowstone National Park. But it also has plenty of stories about places for young people to go and things to do. It is written in a conversational style and is presented with colorful, high-impact layouts. It is intensely local and packed with names and faces of young residents. “We continually discuss readers’ suggestions and have implemented standing features—such as a bar review and movie picks and pans, because of their suggestions.”

The ongoing challenge for the publications is to continue to evolve. In Boise and in Lansing, staff constantly brainstorm and seek improvements. Said Lux: “The challenge now is to keep innovating, keep challenging ourselves and keep listening, so we can evolve to keep up with what young readers want.”

Jennifer Carroll is the director of news development at Gannett Co., Inc. She served as mentor on Gannett’s Gen X Task Force, directed the publication of The X Manual, conducted the 25- to 34-year-old Reader Review, and is a consultant for Gannett’s free weeklies targeted at young adults. Previously, she was managing editor of The Detroit News from 1997-1999, executive editor of the Burlington (Vermont) Free Press from 1994-1997, and managing editor of the Lansing (Michigan) State Journal from 1990-1994.

Most popular articles from Nieman Reports

Show comments / Leave a comment