Give Young Readers ‘Something to Talk About’

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By: Nekoro Gomes

Last March, the Minneapolis newspaper, the Star Tribune, along with the Readership Institute at Northwestern University?s Media Management Center, asked 340 Twin Cities-area young adults to evaluate three different versions of the newspaper?s Feb. 22 front page.

The first was what might be called the standard version (about as cold to young adult readers as a dip in Lake Minnetonka). The second: an ?improved? version that was edited with the sort of angles thought to especially appeal to young people (getting warmer). The third version gave editors the sort of leeway to choose any news content from any section in the newspaper?s budget that best spoke to and engaged young adult readers, and was presented in such a way that would spark discussion or feedback (ding, ding, ding).

This third approach to presenting the news, entitled ?editing for experience,? was preferred to the original and improved formats by nearly two-thirds of the study?s respondents. The experience version also scored significantly higher on those all-important indices: getting and keeping a reader?s attention; presenting information that is likely to get the reader to visit the newspaper?s website or mention a story to friends; and allowing the reader to be generally surprised, even amused at news content, instead of being the grave, earnest deliverer of ?need to know? information.

Mary Nesbitt, the managing director of the Readership Institute, told me this week she believes that consistently offering the unexpected is a good way to increase a newspaper?s appeal to readers of all ages: ?I think that institutional stories are off-putting for a lot of readers. Really only devotees are into [institutional] stories and will consume that kind of content.?

The results of the study, and the general lack of most traditional newspapers willing to even approach the revolutionary idea that young adults are (gasp) active and engaged thinkers rather than attention-deficient, IPod-addled flight risks, reminds me of that day in 5th grade when my social studies class was taught to ?read? the newspaper for the first time.

As we messily unpacked our copies of my hometown newspaper, The Democrat & Chronicle in Rochester, N.Y., our social studies teacher clucked at our inability to properly navigate the many different headings. How were we supposed to know the difference between the ?Local? section of the newspaper and the ?Our Towns? supplement that only comes out on Wednesday? Or that the ?Business? section can only be found on the other side of the ?Sports? section (unless it?s Sunday when an ?Outdoors? section replaces it).

?Silly rabbits,? our newspaper seemed to taunt collectively, ?Don?t you know that us rags are for your dads? Why don?t you pick us up when you have a mortgage to pay.?

Today, I cannot help but express some vindication in the frantic attempts of the Fourth Estate to woo my frenetic generation, be it through streamlined youth-oriented newspapers like the Chicago Tribune?s Redeye or through non-traditional online formats that do more than just transfer text from hard copy to the computer screen (offering such thing as audio slide shows and podcasts).

Newspapers once dared young adults to understand news and information without them, exhorting us to eat our proverbial broccoli because it was good for us, and not to mind how bad it might taste to today?s increasingly techno-savvy, on-the-go and unmarried young adult. We managed to get our vitamins all the same, and now newspapers find themselves backpedaling to court that ever-elusive youth demographic, a heretofore-untapped reserve with enough disposable income to make any advertiser salivate.

?Even if a different platform for presenting the news becomes popular [in the future],? says Mary Nesbitt, ?news organizations are still going to have to understand the experiences that matter to young adult readers.?

Newspapers can expect their readerships to decline across all age groups if they continue to edit for the form of how a traditional newspaper is supposed to look as opposed to the function of what it gives to the reader. News companies can fail to incorporate such engaging devices as pro-and-con sidebars or surprising youth-angle takes on hard-edged news stories at their own peril.

?Whether 21 or 61,? the Star-Tribune study concluded, ?readers are motivated to read when a newspaper purposefully works to ?make me smarter,? ?look out for my interests,? or ?give me something to talk about.??

It?s been a long time since 5th grade, but it?s nice to see someone is finally listening to us after all.

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