The young woman sat, chin resting in both hands, at a focus group session for 18- to 24-year-olds from Central Florida. The moderator had asked whether the panel members typically get their news from TV, the Internet, radio or the newspaper, in this case the Orlando Sentinel. “The newspaper is almost, like, outdated,” the woman said, “because there are more entertaining ways to get the same information.”
It was a discouraging and ironic moment, as the journalists watching the focus group recognized the unwanted truth before them: This group of long-shot potential readers generally felt it managed just fine without the paper. Read it online? A slightly better possibility but still a slim one. The panel members said they want their news provided to them while they do other things: multitasking is important. They want their news to reflect their lives more than it does now. They hate the idea of having papers stack up unread. And they want—and expect—their news to be free.
The observing journalists grumbled at the focus group from the other side of the one-way glass, as their reaction moved from resentment to resolve: We have to figure this out. The job of turning the 18 to 34 age group into regular newspaper readers is complex and confounding. But it is in the hands of newspaper people, who are creative, competitive and not easily dissuaded from a task they believe in.
Reaching the 18 to 34 demographic group is a strategic priority for the Sentinel and its corporate parent, The Tribune Co., as circulation numbers at papers nationwide continue to slide. In Orlando, the percentage of people 18 to 24 who read the weekday paper fell 10 percentage points over the past five years and of people 25 to 34 it fell two points. Sunday readership in these age groups showed an even bigger drop over the same period. Yet this age group represents—for newspapers just as for all consumer products—our long-term future. We need them to be customers for what we produce.
The solutions are out there, and I believe they include:
- New publications, sections or features that address increasingly niche interests
- Adding to staff diversity by hiring younger journalists and doing more to incorporate their ideas into our coverage
- New pricing strategies recognizing that, increasingly, people think news should be free
- New delivery methods or formats.
We need to make these kinds of changes while not alienating our habitual readers, who become incensed and vocal when we tamper with the way things are. And we must maintain our standards and integrity to remain the most credible, reliable news source.
Something for Everyone
Attracting younger readers in itself is a challenge: They don’t have the newspaper habit, are more comfortable with other media, and have interests and priorities that newspapers tend to under-cover, possibly because most newspaper decision-makers belong to an older age group.
And what kinds of content do young adult readers want? They tell us through readership surveys and just for the asking that they like writing that has personality and voice. They also want to see their lives reflected in our pages. In fact, they don’t want content targeted to them as a single, like-thinking group, and they don’t want their diversity masked by a label such as Generation Y or Z. They get annoyed if we pigeonhole them as wanting only short and simple stories, emphasizing that they appreciate complex issues, too.
Many of their statements are compatible with what older readers say. Both groups want lively writing and a broad range of topics. They like to be surprised, informed and entertained. Young adult readers as well as older ones count on the newspaper as the most credible source, considering it more thorough than TV or radio and more accurate and reliable than online. As one 18- to 24-year-old focus group participant said, the paper may not have a youthful image, but it has a credible one: “I have an image of a professor. You have a high opinion of him; you know he’s smart—but he kind of dresses funny.”
Newspapers can and should feel safe developing sections or features they know will appeal to young adult readers. Content that generally “skews younger” will also attract older readers. This is simply because older readers have children or grandchildren who are younger or at least because they used to be young themselves and want to keep up with what’s relevant in a changing world. They continue to count on newspapers for this information, as they always have. This wouldn’t necessarily work in reverse—young readers with less life experience are unlikely to have interest in niche content for older readers.
An example at the Sentinel of older reader interest in niche youth content is a weekly page in sports called Rush, which covers extreme or “action” sports. We added the page early this year because of the subject’s growing popularity nationwide and because of its appeal to younger readers. A new feature, its readership probably hasn’t settled yet, however early results show it is doing fine with young readers—but it is most popular with readers ages 55 and older.
Papers should change their content—create new publications, sections or features—to attract younger readers. In fact, we must do this and fast. However, the task only appears to be complicated by a fear of alienating our traditional readers. The opposite is true: They’re counting on us.
A Seat at the Table
Newsrooms sometimes get fat and stodgy about what is news; we cover things we’ve always covered, with many of the same beats and priorities we’ve had for years. Yet as the Readership Institute’s data from a couple years ago told us, readers want to see their lives—regular people’s lives—better reflected in the newspaper. This is true for all readers, including those in the 18 to 34 age group.
An important step toward greater relevance is a more diverse staff of journalists. Most U.S. newsrooms have worked hard to improve their cultural and ethnic diversity to enable us to cover our communities better. The next important step is to include fully our increasingly diverse newsroom staffs in story idea generation and news decision-making. One group that needs to be heard is young journalists.
The Sentinel has tried a couple things to encourage participation.
- All staff members were invited earlier this year to a half-day informational and brainstorming session on attracting younger readers, and approximately 60 people from a staff of 340 showed up, most of them under 35. The group’s most resilient ideas were to write stories with more voice and personality—in other words, narrative accounts and vivid stories told through the experiences of real people. Participants also felt the paper’s front page choices and design should be more vibrant.
- Out of that exercise we created a Young Readers Task Force, which observed focus groups, did reporting in the community, and collected best practices from newspapers and other media around the country. This group’s most influential ideas were to add a beat specifically for this age group’s interests, to cover our colleges better, and to revamp our weekend Calendar section. They said we should write more stories that reflect the lives of younger adults, such as practical information for first-time experiences (apartments, cars, marriages, children, home-ownership). These sections and features are in the works. A yet-to-be-completed recommendation is to add a younger metro columnist. The task force also recommended adding at least one younger journalist at each morning’s news meeting to contribute ideas for coverage or specific stories. That participation was begun in November.
- This follows a guest editor program we initiated in 2002 to rotate staff members into the afternoon Page One news meeting for two-week periods. The guest editor contributed ideas for the Page One story list and led a daily critique of the paper. About one-third of the participants in the first year of the program were between 18 and 34 years old. Their specific interests were as diverse as the participants, but generally they thought our front page should be less predictable and our writing much more lively.
Those main points are consistent with what readers of all ages have been telling us. Again, we can take these steps recommended by and for younger people without fearing an exodus by older ones. This younger age group has the capacity and capability of enhancing our coverage, and it is in the staff and readers’ best interest for editors to tap this expertise.
Can News Be Free?
Content ideas that are purely newsroom-based are easiest for editors to nurture or implement. Grander ideas come to fruition through collaboration with other newspaper departments. One idea that would require newspaperwide—or industrywide—exploration is an analysis of papers’ pricing structures: Can we give readers the paper for free? Should we return to that newspaper financial model with which we began in the 1700’s?
“The Washington Post Reaches Out to Young Readers”
– Steve Coll
“Drawing Young Urban Commuters to a New Tabloid”
– Joe KnowlesI heard this expectation loudest and clearest from those 18-to 24-year-old focus group participants, but it was consistent with the informal reporting by the Sentinel’s Young Readers Task Force. I wonder if it’s an expectation that will take hold in other age groups or if it will spread, over time, as these younger readers age. The Tribune Company’s new paper aimed at young commuters in New York City, amNewYork, is free, as is The Washington Post’s Express, called a paper for “local residents on the go.” RedEye. published in Chicago by the Chicago Tribune and designed for younger adult readers, costs 25 cents, as does the competing Red Streak, published by the Chicago Sun-Times.
People in this age group most frequently get their news and information from electronic media. They tune in radio while they’re driving or getting ready in the morning, or they watch TV while they’re folding wash or catching dinner. They consider this news to be free—they don’t factor in monthly cable bills or the cost of a new TV. They also get their news and information online, at home or at work, and they also consider that free, without counting the cost of Internet service providers or a computer. Then there’s the Sentinel, which costs 50 cents daily or $1.50 on Sunday. This feels like real money, particularly to people ages 18 to 24. That’s the cost of a few beers a week. This group is happy to read the paper when they can find one sitting around, and they like feeling informed. As one focus group participant said: “It gives you something to talk about. Then things that are related to it, you start talking about. You start talking about one thing and then it changes.”
But they don’t want to buy the paper, so they read pass-along copies at work, at school, or at the coffee shop. “I’ve never bought the Orlando Sentinel or any other paper,” a focus group participant said, “unless I needed it for a school project.”
The cost isn’t that high, they acknowledge, but if they can get it free, why bother paying for it? “You can generally hear information from somebody else. If it’s really important, you will find out,” a woman in an 18 to 24 focus group said. The paper’s Web site, www.orlandosentinel.com, now requires registration, but is free and offers nearly all the newspaper’s coverage. Use of the Internet site is growing rapidly.
Newspapers, I suspect, will have to figure out how to deliver a newspaper for free but also will have to get a lot better with other delivery channels as they become more portable and affordable.
First, people want to multitask. One man between 25 and 34 said he likes listening to news on the radio. “I can’t lay sod and read the newspaper while I’m laying sod.” A younger woman said, “A daily Sentinel TV show would be good.” Guess she hasn’t seen the 24-hour local news station the paper co-owns.
Second, people are really irritated about all the paper going into the trash. Of course they recycle, but the whole idea of papers piling up bugs them. They feel particularly bad if they paid for the newspaper, didn’t have much time and then had to toss it away, unread. “Every day would just be too much,” a young male reader said. “It would just be piling up.”
This sense of overload and waste is something we’ve heard from readers of other ages as well, particularly from the groups who have children, aging parents, two jobs, and a house. Once again, what the younger readers are saying is in sync with what we have heard from their older compatriots. But the younger readers don’t have the habit of newspaper readership and will need a lot of targeted content to attract them. The additional news and information designed for the niche interests of diverse readers is the first step and in some ways will be the easy part, particularly if we successfully tap the thinking of younger reporters and editors. The harder parts will be new delivery methods that fit into readers’ lives and a cost structure these readers can accept. But it all starts with reliable, credible, engaging stories, photographs and graphics. Without the content, the rest won’t matter.
Elaine Kramer is managing editor of the Orlando Sentinel. During 2003, she headed up the paper’s Young Readers Task Force, whose mission was to make recommendations to help improve the Sentinel’s readership among young adults.