The numbers speak for themselves. During the past 20 years, total newspaper readership has declined, and the younger the reader, the faster the decline. At newspapers, executives are working to keep their products relevant and meaningful to their potential audiences. But even though newspapers provide a huge variety of news, advertising and information, often they do so while speaking relatively the same way to all readers. To increase our value to young adults—for purposes of this article, those between the ages of 18 and 24—we will need to speak to them differently. By speak, I am talking about finding different ways to present our news, advertising and information to them. Spend time with young people today and you’ll know what I mean.

In cities and communities across this country, new approaches are being tried to attract young adults to newspapers. In Chicago, each of the major papers now publishes a subway tabloid: RedEye from the Tribune, Red Streak, the product of the Sun-Times.

There is Trib pm in Pittsburgh, Express in D.C., and other serious efforts. ESPN, The Magazine has a median reader age of 30.7, while at Sports Illustrated (SI) the comparable figure is 38.1. Realizing this, in the fall SI began the weekly SI on Campus that has become part of college student newspapers throughout the country. And ESPN2 is joining the weekday morning show competition with Cold Pizza, aimed at young male sports fans.

University Readership Program

Six years ago Graham Spanier, president of Pennsylvania State University, pioneered what has become the model university newspaper readership program. In dorms and from racks around the campus, students can pick up The New York Times, USA Today, and the Centre (Penn.) Daily Times every weekday. The cost to students is discounted by the newspapers and paid for as a part of every student’s tuition. Independent researchRELATED WEB LINK
Student Newspaper Readership Program
 has shown that students find the program valuable and, not surprisingly, it turns out that accessibility, proximity and a low price are the major factors affecting readership.

On an average weekday, students usually pick up 2,300 copies of the Centre Daily Times, 2,400 copies of The New York Times, and 3,300 copies of USA Today. And this reading has not stopped them from also reading their college newspaper, The Daily Collegian, which has a press run of about 18,000 copies. So much for young adults not reading newspapers!

It is important to place this effort in the context of our region’s demographics and our newspaper’s history and mission. Centre County has a population of 140,000; 32 percent of the county’s adults and 44 percent of State College’s 42,000 adults are 18 to 24, compared with the national average of 13 percent. We know that about 55 percent of adults in the county read our newspaper each weekday, while just 21 percent of those between the ages of 18 and 24 do.

These young non-newspaper readers present us with a great challenge and opportunity. The Centre Daily Times has a 25,000 daily readership (34,000 on Sunday) and has been named the best of the state’s newspaper of its size for six consecutive years. Last year it was named Newspaper of the Year by the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association Foundation. At about this same time, we engaged Urban & Associates to help us do some strategic planning. Our key initiative: to create content tailored to the 18 to 34 age group, primarily at those between the ages of 18 to 24, and improve our paper’s accessibility to that age group  as well.  Dan Cotter, Urban’s COO, provided strong guidance to us during our exploration.

The university readership program had shown us that this age group had an interest in our newspaper. Then, using our own independent research, we learned that students regarded our paper as the best source for finding a job, a place to live, and buying a car. No other publication came close on those measures, and we were rated number one in other key areas as well. Learning this made us feel it was important that we continue to reach them through our newspaper, but we thought it was also important not to make changes to our core product and possibly endanger our strong existing relationship with current readers.

The Newspaper’s New Approach

What had brought us success was wrapping our newspaper with a section about football content on Penn State game days. We also had wrapped welcoming content around newspapers for those staying at participating hotels. Both were traditional broadsheet wraps. And we’d had success with a weekly entertainment tabloid called Weekender and More. So as we considered what we’d do next, the idea surfaced of combining the best of each of these in a colorful tabloid section that we would wrap around the core newspaper.

We also appreciated that this new section had to be available to our target audience at all the places they were—which meant providing it off-campus, too. Initially we decided on selling the papers (with the wrap-around section) at single copy locations located downtown, across the street from campus, in and near apartment complexes, and along bus routes. While geographic zoning happens routinely in larger markets, our strategy involved creating a combined geo-demographic product.

To develop ideas for the wraparound’s news and information, a task force was created and then, a while later, a new staff was brought together to make these ideas happen. Research tells us that entertainment and sports are related to high readership among this age group, and we knew their interest in local news. Our newspaper’s vice president and executive editor, Bob Heisse, has been instrumental in making this a reality. Because we knew involvement of young people is critical to its success, Heisse hired very talented staff members in their 20’s to produce content for what would be called Blue (Penn State’s color). The editor of Blue is in her mid-20’s and most of the other staff members are in their early 20’s. Heisse continues to be the seasoned top editor who these young people need, as he provides leadership and guidance required to publish a daily section. And he does this while still overseeing the rest of the newspaper.

In our planning process, we envisioned that out of our newspaper’s local news coverage would emerge the top local issue of the day, as seen from young adults’ perspectives, with reference made to other local coverage inside the Centre Daily Times. A standard feature of our prototype wraparound was that it referred readers inside to our core product. On the entertainment beat, we planned on featuring an “around town guide” to let students know what’s going on that night and the next, as well as other related features. Sports was designed to include information about Penn State athletes and athletics. And we developed partnerships with The Philadelphia Inquirer and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to get daily sports commentary from them. This served to link students to hometown news; the majority of Penn State students are from Pennsylvania and follow their hometown sports, especially pro sports.

Once a prototype was developed, we held a series of focus groups. We were somewhat surprised. Practically every young adult was enthusiastic about Blue and its tabloid size. They were most interested in the “around town guide” and the hometown news features, which includes two pages of short articles from towns around the state. These focus group participants also let us know that they didn’t like being stereotyped as only caring about sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll. Though interested in those things, that didn’t define all of their interests. For us to do so felt patronizing to them.

Comments made during the focus groups also revealed that they liked coupons and any information that would help them to identify where good deals could be found. They also said that information about jobs was important to them, not just jobs for careers but also jobs to earn money while they were in school. Because of our research, we knew that more than half of Penn State’s students are employed, so hearing these comments, as well, made us decide to have a job page theme two times each week.

They also told us they didn’t want the tabloid cover to appear in the vertical “portrait” format because that’s not the way it sat in the rack. They preferred a horizontal “landscape” format, so that is what we use. They also said they wouldn’t read the student newspaper any less if Blue was published. They felt that the two products were different enough—and each of value to them—that they’d still want to get their campus news.

A cover of Blue, the Centre (Penn.) Daily Times’s wraparound.

A Blue cover image.

Lessons Learned

Once Blue got going, we learned quickly how good its cover needs to be. Along with how our inside references are presented and if they adequately portray the benefits for readers to move inside, Blue’s cover is a critical piece. We received some helpful tutoring from a designer for the Philadelphia Daily News. But we also learned that our cover’s look needs a different feel from the tone of most newspaper pages. We’re now getting feedback from publications like Maxim so that we can better understand the formula they use to attract readers.

Another big lesson is in marketing and awareness. It’s not enough to put Blue on the street and expect the audience to know what’s inside and pick it up. The marketing of something new or different is expensive and time consuming. I won’t venture too far astray into the business side, including advertising, but without a solid business plan a newspaper is not going to make something like this work in the long run. We’ve spent as much time on all of these marketing issues as we have on developing its content. Along the way we discovered, for example, that some home delivery customers were upset that they couldn’t get it. And our downtown single copy sales have gone so well that we plan to distribute the section in almost all single copy locations in the two zip codes closest to campus. We’re not sure what is going to happen, but we believe it’s worth a solid try.

Challenges Ahead

While I believe our news staff will continue to provide strong content, and our covers are improving, my biggest concern remains our ability to generate greater awareness for this venture’s benefits. It’s an expensive enterprise that requires a business plan in which the revenues exceed its costs. Another important consideration with our younger readers is the transient nature of their lives. This means that we continuously need to find ways to remind our potential audience about the value of our product and this section and do so more than needs to be done in an average, less transient, market.

Despite the challenges we face, I’m quite optimistic. So far this semester the pickup rate for the Centre Daily Times is up 10 percent from before Blue was with our newspaper. The New York Times  is  up slightly and USA Today is now down in double digits. Young adults who read Blue offer positive feedback and advertisers are starting to catch on. It’s also been invigorating to see a young, talented news staff that is so enthusiastic about its work. It will require that kind of sustained passion if we’re going to succeed. That is just one of the things that can make newspapers such fun and fulfilling places to work.

Henry B. Haitz III, president and publisher of the Centre (Penn.) Daily Times, is to become president and publisher of the Bradenton (Fla.) Herald in January 2004.

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