Emerson College Students Offer Advice on How to Rethink Print for Younger Generations

The Emerson College Journalism 612 class: (from left) Melody Keilig, Nyan Lynn, Mukala Kabongo, Deborah Cardoso, Catherine Trudell, Alexandra Venancio, Corallys Plasencia, Xiangqiong Liu, Temi-Tope Adeleye, Vishakha Mathur, adjunct professor Mark Micheli, Dalinda Ifill, and Mario Zepeda.

Editor’s Note: Last year, we had the idea to assign a project to journalism students at Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant, Mich. We received such a great response that we decided to assign another school with a new question. This year, students in Mark Micheli’s advanced multimedia class at Boston’s Emerson College were tasked with answering the question, “If you could reintroduce the print newspaper to younger readers, how would you do it?” See what they have to say below.—NY

“Transforming Newspapers” Illustration by Tony O. Champagne

So, if we could reintroduce the print newspaper to younger readers, how would we do it? Our first thought was, “We wouldn’t. Millennials don’t need print.”

But with further investigation we realized there might be a successful way to do this if publishers are willing to take chances and rethink everything they know about print.

Editor & Publisher challenged our advanced multimedia class at Emerson College to answer that question with 18-25-year-olds in mind. We held many brainstorming sessions throughout the spring semester, individually conducted research, and created a short survey for our peers to help us come up with some creative and smart ways to rethink print for a younger audience.

We don’t have all the answers. In fact, in our search to provide solutions we realized it’s also important to ask the right questions. We provide some of those questions along with some advice from this target audience.

  1. Print is a Tough Sell But There May Be Opportunities

Circulation and advertising revenue have fallen steadily since at least 2003, according to the latest Pew Research Center report.  From 2014 to 2015, “weekday circulation fell 7 percent and Sunday circulation fell 4 percent, both showing their greatest declines since 2010. At the same time, advertising revenue experienced its greatest drop since 2009, falling nearly 8 percent from 2014 to 2015…And overall, the industry continues to shrink, with Editor & Publisher’s DataBook listing 126 fewer daily papers in 2014 than in 2004.”

Student Nyan Lynn discusses the project with his classmates. (Photo by Mario Zepeda)

It’s unlikely that younger audiences will save the print industry. Only 16 percent of millennials pay for a print newspaper subscription and 21 percent for a print magazine, according to the Media Insight Project, a collaboration of the American Press Institute and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

However, there is some hope as that same study showed that “this generation of American adults is anything but newsless, passive, or civically uninterested.”  The research found that 85 percent of millennials say keeping up with the news is at least somewhat important to them and 69 percent get news daily. And our own unscientific survey of 100 people (nearly all of which were between the ages of 18-30) showed that 53 percent of our respondents get some of their news from print.

So with that in mind, a smart print publisher may be able to tap into this generation’s strong desire for information and here’s how they might do that:

  1. Exclusive/Niche Content Needed

When asked what would influence them to buy a print publication, several young readers who answered our survey mentioned exclusive content they couldn’t get online.

“I’d expect better researched, detailed articles, expert analysis and exclusive features as the news is already out on the web before the print edition. No stale news,” said one respondent.

And when asked what type of content they may be willing to buy in print, niche content—such as health and food/spirits—beat out traditional newspaper content such as national/global news, politics, sports, and local news. And while many news publishers are cutting back on arts coverage, art/culture was also high on the list of niche topics our respondents said they would be willing to buy in print.

It’s clear that readers aren’t looking to print for breaking news. We’d take this one step further. They are looking for more niche topics: don’t try to cover all of the news, the internet already does that. Instead focus on one topic and cover it deeply and creatively so that people within that circle of interest respect it and seek you out.

Ethics is also important. During our class discussions, students emphasized that the information presented in print must be trusted and free of opinions, unless clearly marked as an opinion piece, or if the business model warrants, as an “advertorial.”

  1. Writing Style/Young Reporters

Ideally, a publication that targets young readers would have more young reporters and editors than older journalists. Older journalists would have a harder time figuring out what young readers want but would be helpful in controlling the quality of reporting and editing.

Vice , a website and monthly magazine focused on arts, culture and news, is a good example of this. It targets younger audiences by presenting content in creative ways but at the same time hires experienced journalists with good credentials.

And BuzzFeed, although some now question its credibility, specifically targeted younger audiences by catering to their online needs. A good example of this is the Top 10 List which caters to short attention spans online.

In this same vein, print publishers should target younger audiences by catering to their print needs. So instead of creating something for short attention spans, print publishers may want to create something more in-depth, as the print medium is a better medium to deliver in-depth reports.

However, we’d recommend presenting that in-depth information by breaking it up into bite-size, attractive pieces, using images and simple, colorful infographics as younger audiences are more receptive to visual forms of communication.

Writing style is also important. With 3.5 million subscribers, the Skimm—a daily digital newsletter created by two female NBC news producers in their 20s—uses a funky writing style that is easy to read or skim, as that’s what online audiences do: they skim content rather than read every word. Print publishers shouldn’t merely copy this writing style. They need to figure out what writing style is suited to attract a younger audience in print.  Maybe the language and tone of the print article needs to be direct but also quirky and conversational.

Carlos Watson, the CEO and co-founder of the millennial news site, Ozy, told Wired magazine that the secret to attracting millennials is simple, make it smart and sexy. He said that millennials want stylish design, flavorful writing, and “clever, make-you-smile headlines.”  Although he was talking about online platforms, the same might apply to print. It has to be stylish, trendy, and attractive as it is smart, in-depth, and informative.

And maybe print has a draw that online doesn’t. Just as millennials flock to older mediums such as vinyl records, and to a lesser degree, film, could print become the next retro-hip must-have if done right?

There’s a lot to explore here and building partnerships with journalism schools to do further research, as well as for soliciting material and distributing it, could prove beneficial.

  1. Design is Key

Most publications look the same as they did when they first launched more than a century ago. Newspapers underestimate the power of design in attracting younger audiences. This is a visual generation with apps like Instagram and selfies being the norm.

Student Deborah Cardoso designs a print front cover for a younger audience.

Print publishers should make their publications so visually appealing that they can’t help but pick it up.  Ironically, this is one area where print may have an advantage over digital. Print is physical and tangible and can arouse more senses than merely sight.

Print publishers should use it to their advantage. Arouse all of the senses. Make the colors jump and the cover photos captivating. Make it feel great, with a conscious paper choice (In our survey, 56 percent said paper quality would influence their decision to buy print.) Heck, make it smell great! Make the experience of navigating through the print material a creative and stimulating journey.

At the very least, we’d suggest more white space and larger color photos. Think about making the entire publication easier to navigate. Is there a way to eliminate or limit stories jumping from one section to the next? Would a table of contents and/or icons help readers find content easier?

Student Alex Venancio also designs a print front cover for a younger audience.

Focusing on a general design aesthetic for a target group may also be a good marketing technique. This might apply even geographically. For instance, a publication for hip, Brooklyn, New York may look different than one designed for a college town where the aesthetic is more preppy.

Print publishers will also have to decide on the size of the publication and shouldn’t be limited to just tabloid, magazine, or broadsheet. Teen Vogue, which has been innovative and somewhat successful in its print approach, changed the dimensions of its magazine to be slightly bigger than an iPhone. And this year, they changed from being a monthly publication to a quarterly journal.

  1. Timeliness

Since print publishers should avoid news that’s already online there’s probably little reason to publish on a daily basis: unless they could somehow create a daily print publication that supplements online reports in a compelling way or unless they focus on niche content that isn’t reported online.

Publishing less often will not only save money, but it will allow for more thoughtful, in-depth reporting: something we believe millennials might seek out from a print publication.  Publishing less often could create demand and more hype for the publication too.

Delayed Gratification magazine, based in the United Kingdom, publishes just four times a year. It bills itself as part of the “slow journalism” movement, the opposite of breaking news.

“Like the other Slow movements, we take time to do things properly,” a statement on its website says. “(We) wait for three months to pass before returning to the news, picking out what really mattered and returning to events with the benefit of hindsight so we can give you the final analysis rather than the first, kneejerk reaction.”

  1. Don’t Ignore Online, Use It To Connect To The Real World

Just because the content is exclusively available online doesn’t mean print publishers can afford to ignore online platforms. These platforms are a good place to promote the print content, since that’s where younger audiences are already.

Grab their attention online and then steer them into the physical world to buy the publication. Use social influencers and social media platforms to create hype around the exclusive content.

Think of creative ways to link the online world with the physical world where they can find the publication. This could include offering online coupons to coffee shops, micro-breweries, and bike shops where young people gather and then completing the connection to the physical world by distributing the publication in those places.

It could also include places where people have to wait and are more apt to pick up a print publication: doctor’s offices, hair salons, auto repair shops.

Just as digital publications try to connect with a younger audience by going where they are online, such as Snapchat and Instagram, print publications should try to connect with a younger audience by going where they are in the physical world. We mentioned a few places. Where else would be smart to offer a print publication?

Social media can also be used to connect an audience in the real world, thereby building brand and loyalty.

Periodically create meetings about hot topics the publication covers at coffee shops or brew pubs. Topics for these “meetups” are unlimited. Some examples include: introducing a new piece of technology for the group to play with; an excursion run by a staff photographer on how to take the best smartphone photos and/or selfies; a discussion on candidates for an upcoming election; or simply a place to hear from readers about what they like and don’t like about the publication.

Delayed Gratification does this by periodically offering “Slow journalism nights,” and classes on how to create infographics. Some of these events charge a fee but are usually free to subscribers.

  1. Make Print High-Tech Again

When Gutenberg’s press ushered in the print era around 1440, it was cutting edge technology. No longer did people have to get their news by word of mouth. And this altered storytelling forever.

Today, storytelling is being reinvented again through digital means but this doesn’t mean print has to sit on the sidelines. Using augmented and virtual reality, print publications can create multimedia stories connected to their print counterparts.

The New Yorker magazine did this in its May 16, 2016 interactive print edition. Readers downloaded an app and held a camera up to the magazine to experience the journey of a train through New York City off the printed page.

What other ways can print use technology to become relevant to a younger audience? Are there high tech papers that could be used or that have yet to be developed? Are there compelling reasons to connect the real physical world of a print publication with a virtual, digital world?

  1. Business Models

All of these ideas are only good if you can financially support them. We have no solid winning solutions here. If we did, we would have dropped out of school and started our own print publication. All we have are some suggestions on where to look for those solutions.

Advertising alone is probably not enough. Print advertising revenue has been falling for years.  Pew Research statistics show that from 2014 to 2015 advertising revenue fell another 8 percent for newspapers.

But before we ignore advertising all together, maybe there’s a way to improve it. Is there a form of advertising that can improve the user experience? Old fashioned coupons do this and maybe more money can be wrung out of them by offering coupons for things younger people buy: coupon codes for free song downloads or a cheat-sheet for the hottest video game.

To charge or how much to charge for the publication is something else to consider. Millennials are said to be civic minded and environmentally conscious.  Would they be willing to subscribe to a print publication if a portion of the proceeds went to a cause they believed in? And could the publication keep its editorial integrity if it donated to that cause?

Providing student discounts should also attract younger audiences. And network marketing, such as offering free or discounted subscriptions to readers who refer others to subscribe, should help bring in more circulation revenue.

A key part of any business model also intersects with the editorial focus. Know who your audience is and don’t stray from that.  If a publication’s focus is a younger audience, then it should try its best to cater to that audience. Look for ways to connect with them, both online and in the physical world, as well as through issues they care about.

Advanced multimedia students at Emerson College rethink the print product for younger generations. (Photo by Catherine Trudell)

13 Takeaways For New and Existing Print Publications

  1. Tap into this generation’s strong desire for unbiased news and information.
  2. Give them something they can’t get online. Consider niche content.
  3. Hire young reporters that can best speak to this audience.
  4. Don’t mimic what’s being done online. Just as successful online publishers cater to this generation’s online needs, use the print medium to do what it does best.
  5. Break up stories into bite-size, visually attractive pieces.
  6. Don’t take writing style for granted. Figure out what writing style works best to attract your particular audience to print.
  7. Consider partnering with journalism schools to do further research as well as for soliciting material and distributing it.
  8. Don’t be afraid to make bold changes to traditional designs. Make it so visually appealing that your audience can’t help but buy it.
  9. Reconsider the publication schedule. Since we don’t recommend covering breaking news, when does it make sense to publish in print? Publishing less often may save costs, but what does that do to advertising and circulation revenue?
  10. Experiment with different revenue streams. Print ads still generate more money than online ads per advertisement so take advantage of that. However, the trend in advertising shows the overall revenue from print ads is declining. This is easier said than done, but look for other revenue sources beyond advertising and circulation. Be creative and experiment.
  11. Bring your print publication to your audience. Don’t expect them to find it on their own. This means using online, social media, and mobile platforms to promote your publication. It means making connections between the online world and physical world. It means rethinking distribution so that your publication is available for purchase at places (in both the online world and physical world) where your audience is and where they are most likely to want to read a print publication.
  12. Consider your print brand. Do you want your publication to be retro-hip or high-tech cool? There may be opportunities to be both. Are there any opportunities here that will generate rather than bleed money? Or maybe it’s money well spent as a way for marketing the print publication?
  13. And lastly: Be true to your audience. This applies to both online and print publications. Identify your audience, cater to its information needs in print, and always be authentic.
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3 thoughts on “Emerson College Students Offer Advice on How to Rethink Print for Younger Generations

  • June 1, 2017 at 4:54 am

    Great article. I have millennial children and I see them on websites such as BuzzFeed and Tumblr. They consume a lot of news. This article rang true in my experience. Most discouraging is the lack of a business model to support this. I don’t have the answer either.

  • June 1, 2017 at 8:54 am

    I’m a millennial in the newspaper industry, & I prefer print over digital. Print receives my full attention, while online publications battle various pop-up notifications, hyperlinks to related stories & more. However, I also prefer ink-free fingertips & clothing, so I find myself printing online articles to read.
    Then there’s the conflict of making time to scan through the news, whether in print or online. The read-aloud option is a must for me. It allows me to get the news in the nooks and crannies of my quiet times, such as while getting ready in the morning or during my commute to work.

  • June 1, 2017 at 10:07 am

    Headline writing is high art. Leave fancy time consuming prose to novelists. Get the point across in the first sentence. Condense what you have to say so the reader can decide if they want to read the evidence, facts, or background. Coffee table books get in the way. The internet has already put a lot of paper manufactuerers out of business, saving a lot of forests. In order to preserve the immense amount of data being generated the internet data bases need hardening against hacking, and EMP’s. Plus we all need to download our own most important data to shielded thumb drives. Distributed hardened data storage will ensure that if data disaster strikes, we can eventually get it back.


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