Youth Must Be Served — But Will Newspapers Still Do It?

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By: Samuel Chamberlain

History was made Tuesday night, and I missed it. I know you?re asking, how could I, an employee of the great American media, miss out on the most significant political event of my generation? Very simply, I came home from work, read a book and listened to baseball on the radio, secure in the knowledge that a whole bevy of Obama headlines would be waiting for me in the morning.

And lo, the newspapers obliged, with a series of news stories that ranged from the straightforward (?Obama clinches nomination?) to the speculative (?How will he contend with McCain??). But amidst all the written words about last night?s events, this quote from a 14-year-old girl in the St. Paul Pioneer Press stood out.

“I didn’t used to be interested in politics,? said young Lucy Orenstein. ?But now I’m reading the newspapers, and I want to be more involved.” One had to wonder (these days): Did she mean in print or online?

In any event, I can already hear parents across the land saying, ?Wow, Obama can get teenagers to read the newspaper! I wonder if he can get my kid to eat his vegetables??

Now, it?s not nice to question the fervor for democracy in a 14-year-old, so I won?t. But it seems to me that if young Miss Orenstein really wants to get involved (especially considering she won?t be able to vote yet), she shouldn?t just read the newspapers.

Newspapers are wonderful things, providers of news and information to a free society, and by and large they fully deserve all the accolades they receive. I?ve been around newspapers all my life, due to family connections, and will defend the profession, and the industry to the death.

But if young Miss Orenstein, or any of her peers, were to try to make a habit to sit down with the paper every day, hoping for a full and complete picture of world events, they might find themselves a little discouraged.

To take an example, I came into work Wednesday with two newspapers, one broadsheet (The New York Times) and one a tabloid (The New York Daily News).

Other than the Obama news, the tabloid apparently had little news outside the Tri-State area to speak of, except for a Ted Kennedy update, a space shuttle update, and a Richard (“Survivor”) Hatch update. None of these stories could have been more than 50 words long. International news consisted of two stories: a wire piece about the China earthquake, and a small story about Syria barring UN nuclear inspectors (tastefully located next to a 413-word piece about a sex toy shop opening in Park Slope).

The Times fared a little better under my scrutiny, but their international section was only seven pages long (six if you discount the full page ad on page A7), and most of those stories were wrapped around three-quarter page adverts. The Times national section, or as I like to call it, the Theater of the Obscure, gave preference to stories about elk-feeding and colon cancer.

Perhaps young Lucy Orenstein would find this fascinating. But I?d wager that a good deal of her peers would not, and would thus, one by one, fall away from being regular readers — that is if they read the print version at all.

So what is to be done? Of course, the local newspaper should be embraced. The local knowledge it contains is too valuable to communities of this country to be left to rot. But the knowledge from there must be — and is being — augmented with the kind of information that can only come from Web sites, who have a broad reach across the globe. CNN, the BBC, European newspaper Web sites, sites like the Times of India, or African newspaper Web sites, must be used to create a fuller picture of the world.

The Internet has potential to be a greater learning tool than newspaper, radio or television could ever hope to be. If Miss Orenstein and her peers really have seen the light, and really want to be involved in the world, they must turn to all four. Newspapers just have to make sure they remain one of the four.

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