‘Wash. Post’ Focus Group Reveals a Shocker: Young People Prefer Newspapers Online

By: Jesse Oxfeld

The Washington City Paper published a fascinating — and, for newspaper publishers, one presumes, terrifying — article last week.

In his “Dept. of Media” column for the capital’s well-respected alt-weekly, Editor Erik Wemple recounted what happened at some focus-group sessions The Washington Post recently conducted with young prospective subscribers in the area, and he speculated that Post news execs are “haunted” by one particular man.

“He’s a youngish man, a recent law school graduate,” Wemple wrote. “When presented with a copy of the Post, this fellow fumbled with it, according to sources. He professed he didn’t know how it was organized. And the kicker: He expressed wonderment at the spread known as the editorial/op-ed pages.”

Was this man simply a head-in-the-sand young professional, concerned only with career and social life? Not at all. “He reads the Post constantly on its Web site,” Wemple reported, “‘sometimes for a few minutes, sometimes for a few hours,’ according to a source.” And therein lies the problem — for all newspapers, not just the Post.

Of course, you can’t fault this Young Washington Lawyer for spending time at washingtonpost.com. The site teems with all the top-notch reporting from the print Post, augmented with a great deal of online-only content, well-organized and easy to read. It has long been my favorite newspaper news site. And it’s right there on his desk, just a click away, for free. And that’s the rub: For readers — and especially for young readers — there’s increasingly little reason to pick up a print copy of the newspaper.

Statistics in the 2004 Facts About Newspapers report, compiled by the Newspaper Association of America, bears this out. Among those 65 and older, 71% read the daily paper and 75% read the Sunday paper. Among Young Lawyer’s presumed cohort — those aged 25 to 34 — it’s 41% during the week and 52% on Sundays.

Young Lawyer’s cohort is mine, too. And my dark secret is that I’m as bad as he is. I might even be worse: Though I’m probably not as demographically desirable — Young Editor, one must assume, has less disposable income than Young Lawyer — I should, by all rights, be an easy mark for the circulation department at my local paper. I’m a news junkie and always have been. By high school, I was reading The New York Times cover to cover at my parents’ kitchen table. I virtually lived at my college newspaper’s office. I’ve spent most of the past five years — at Brill’s Content, at Inside.com, most recently at mediabistro.com, and, starting two weeks ago, at E&P — reporting, writing, and thinking about the media business.

Frankly, I surprise even myself that I don’t read the paper. But I can’t remember the last time I plunked down my 50 cents — is that still what it costs? — for The New York Times.

This doesn’t mean I’m uninformed. Rather, like Young Lawyer, nearly all my daily news consumption has shifted online. I’m a religious reader of Slate’s indispensable “Today’s Papers,” which provides a smart, often fact-checked, somewhat mediacrit-like summary of each day’s New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today, delivered to my e-mail inbox. (Disclosure: Eric Umansky, the “Today’s Papers” columnist, is a close friend — but I’ve been a regular reader of the column for much longer than I’ve known him or he’s been writing it.) I read a good chunk of the Times online, especially on Sundays. I read the New York Post online, for its media coverage. I read parts of the New York Daily News, politics and media in The Washington Post, and bits of the USA Today and Los Angeles Times and Boston Globe and Chicago Tribune. And, of course, I always read whatever Jim Romenesko tells me to.

By reading all of this online, I consume much more news, from many more sources, than I could find at any newsstand south of Hotaling’s, that Manhattan shrine to newspapers that used to be up by Times Square. Better yet, I don’t pay anything for it, I don’t get my hands inky, and I don’t clutter my apartment with old papers. And, as papers keep adding more sections in an attempt to be all things to all advertisers, I can read what I want to in the Times without so much as a glance at World Business, Escapes, or Job Market. (“There are basically two choices,” my father has said for the last several years. “You can either read The New York Times every day, or you can live the rest of your life.”)

I’ve always thought my don’t-get-my-hands-dirty and don’t-clutter-the-house concerns were unique to me, the product of my copious neuroses and OCD tendencies. Turns out, though, I’m not alone. In the Washington City Paper, Wemple reported that Posties learned the paper’s non-subscribers were baffled at why they might want so much newspaper. They were concerned for environmental reasons — all those trees! — and they were concerned for practical ones, too: The focus groupers said they didn’t want a bunch of newspapers “piling up” around the house. And they also liked the convenience. For younger readers, online is the natural, convenient, and efficient way to get news.

That’s why there’s little question that online newspapers — and especially well-done online papers, like washingtonpost.com — are a boon for news consumers. We have access to much more information, much less expensively, and with the ability to access only the information we need producing a much lower signal-to-noise ratio. (Plus we get to keep our hands clean.)

But this is not good news for newspaper companies. Circulation is falling, advertisers aren’t getting their eyeballs, and the business model is threatened. Conventional wisdom insists online subscriptions are still a tough sell (with the Wall Street Journal exception proving the rule) and that online advertising revenue can’t support an extensive Web-only reporting and editing staff, equivalent to the Post’s.

So what are newspapers to do? As my generation slowly stops paying for their product, becoming online free riders instead, can they start charging for content?

Who knows? The Post is thinking about the issue, but Executive Editor Len Downie avoids that big question. “That’s a very complicated issue, and I don’t have a position on it,” he told the City Paper. “I am focused on the newspaper.” But, soon enough, he’ll have to focus on this, too. Other at the Post clearly are, as are others elsewhere. Now that I’m covering newspapers’ online efforts for E&P, I look forward to watching them find an answer.

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