The Myth of Youth Readership Initiatives

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By: Maegan Carberry

“I?ve got a great idea: Let?s assemble a team of innovative people and research new ways to attract young readers! We?ll ask Kate from the Calendar section to lead it; I?m pretty sure she has a Facebook page.” Raise your hand if you?ve been roped into that one before. In my experience, such project teams are the beginning of the road to the bureaucratic newspaper cemetery where good opportunities go to die.

The fact is: Kate is paying lip service to your project while she?s logged on to mediabistro.com looking for her next job in online media on company time. Not only does the crusty old guy with the police beat and Star Wars action figures on his desk creep her out, but why would any intelligent, ambitious storyteller train in print journalism anymore unless she aspired to put Barbara Ehrenreich?s ?Nickled and Dimed? poverty to shame with her first-person account of being laid off and homeless?

On the eve of this month’s American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) convention, where the requisite panel on young readers will be held for the umpteenth time, perhaps it’s appropriate to re-evaluate whether the newspaper industry?s efforts to hip-ify itself for the kiddos has actually been productive.

The answer is no, because the premise is based on a fallacy. There is no magic editorial strategy that will lure in unsuspecting 22-year-olds once they?ve shut off Guitar Hero and are suddenly jonesing to analyze General Petraeus? big report on the surge.

The Young Reader situation is a packaging and distribution problem. Whether it?s a 30-inch snore of a story with a jump to A32 that no one is going to make or a screeching fuschia headline in WAR font over a picture of Lauren Conrad, smart people of all ages are not going to seek out spurious information in a format that is not user-friendly or insults their intelligence. (We do want the smart people, right?)

Likewise, as is typical of the industry, innovation is so incremental its negligible or just plain too late. Consider the redesigns that take months to execute with moderate return on investment. (?Look, Bob! They went with the sans serif on the logo. We?ve got to subscribe!?) Or picture the founders of Apartments.com, Monster.com, and Cars.com clinking champagne glasses with Sergey & Larry, Matt Drudge, and my old boss Arianna Huffington as they rake in ad revenue by aggregating newspaper reporters? hard work and dilute your brands. Good thing those music critics are podcasting!

The lesson is that we who love the pursuit of objectivity, truth, and storytelling and don?t want to see the fourth branch of government fall into the hands of unwieldy citizen journalists ?reporting? on hyperlocal knitting circles all need to get more nimble. Young journalists are inherently great at this, but when they finally secure those tough-to-get jobs in newsrooms they often wind up disillusioned by the collision of unseasoned enthusiasm vs. cynical veterans and a culture framed by losing and lackluster leadership.

As an ex-Tribune employee in both the editorial and advertising departments, I recall sitting on folding chairs in many sardine-packed utility rooms listening to Dennis FitzSimons proclaim that he read four newspapers each day, yet still he was not able to articulate a vision for the future of the company?s various print products.

Even returning to my cubicle at RedEye, where I worked in a comparatively innovative environment, I could feel the weight of every article about circulation decline, loss of ad revenue and the possibility of cutbacks on my just-graduated-from-Medill-small-fish-in-a-big-pond shoulders. Coupled with the beige walls and scowls in the elevator from weathered reporters who didn?t appreciate my ?This Butt?s for You? story on the growing popularity of butt implants (even though they totally read it on their bathroom breaks!), I knew immediately that I needed to reinvent myself. Fast.

I decided to dive off a cliff straight into the blogosphere. I?m sure my old supervisors might attribute my defection to cockiness and restlessness, and they?d have a solid point. But I bailed on the newspaper industry because I don?t want to train in a skill set that?s going out of style; I?d rather be a trendsetter in the uncharted future of multi-media news and opinions.

And let?s face it: Cuddling with the New York Times Sunday paper is still pretty badass, but new media storytelling is a far more dynamic and compelling platform that -? at least for now while regulation remains murky -? favors and rewards the judgment and discretion of individuals.

We?re not courting young readers. We?re building a new approach to journalism and the dissemination of information in our global society. It?s not a committee or a font or an A1 story about ?American Idol.? It?s a shift in the way we view ourselves and the news business initiated by leaders who instill the attitude as a virtue among their team members. It?s blowing up that thing you hold in your hands and trying something drastically different with a sense of urgency. It?s the building of multi-media communities where social networking tools will bring us away from the speculation of editors at desks reading wire stories and closer to a model where users organically define what is newsworthy and technology will deliver it in the packaging that makes sense.

The transition will be forged by everyone from editors-in-chief to 22-year-old copy desk interns, but the task before us will be the same as it always has been: to deliver fair and accurate accounts of the relevant news and analysis of our time. And maybe let those precocious little millennial twerps show you how Twitter works.

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