Editorial: Youths Need Not Apply

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America’s increasingly clueless newspapers might as well make it official and adopt a new industry slogan. Make it something familiar to what remains of the audience, a W.C. Fields reference that will go right over the heads of young people: “Go away, kid, you bother me!”

That’s the unmistakable message the industry is sending these days to any aspiring young reporters and editors who were not already dissuaded from entering the business by dreadful salaries, hit-or-miss career training that recalls Middle Ages apprenticeships, and the near-certainty of seeing themselves or their colleagues dismissed from the newsroom if their employer’s margins fall below a level many times higher than the margins enjoyed by supermarket chains.

In recent weeks, some of the nation’s biggest newspaper chains moved beyond laying off or buying out their employees and began effectively shedding potential young journalists as well.

The Los Angeles Times, following Tribune Co.’s chainwide edict to cut and cut again, dropped its Student Journalism Program aimed at high school and college students. The program awarded grants and conducted a contest for excellence in school papers. The Times also provided scholarships through its “Saturday at the Times” real-world training for high school and college students, and its annual Jim Murray Sports Writing Workshop.

That announcement followed, by just a week, news that Knight Ridder was canceling its 2006 Minority Scholars Program for high school students.

You have to marvel at an industry with a shrinking and rapidly aging customer base that can nevertheless conclude that programs to encourage young people to pursue newspaper careers are expendable luxuries.

And then there’s the old news about young people and newspapers: the Newspaper In Education programs folded, the kid-friendly comics dropped, and the youth-oriented editorial content that rarely appears. Put aside the laudable youth paper experiments of RedEye in Chicago and Quick in Dallas, and about the only thing papers have done in recent times to attract young people is add Sudoku to their funny pages.

Newspapers are already paying the readership price for their neglect. Back in 1971, fully 73.1% of young adults aged 18 to 24 read a newspaper daily, according to the Newspaper Association of America. This year, in the top 50 markets surveyed by Scarborough Research, the percentage was just 38.4%.

Now it appears that newspapers are willing to shut down the pipelines for their future employees, too. Law firms compete for graduates with big salaries to compensate for the drudgery of a new associate’s workload. Internet businesses recruit talented new graduates with a mix of decent wages and workplace accommodations of Gen Y lifestyles. Newspapers, meanwhile, seem intent on turning their newsrooms into gated communities for “Active Adults” that feature pagination terminals and wire services instead of shuffleboard and golf.

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