Papers to Tackle Youth Readership Puzzle At Big Conference

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By: Mark Fitzgerald

Beginning Sunday, March 25, some 400 publishers, editors, journalists and experts from 74 countries will meet in Washington, D.C., to confront a global problem: how to get young people to read a newspaper.

This year?s World Young Reader Conference is the seventh put on by the World Association of Newspapers (WAN), the Paris-based global industry group representing 18,000 newspapers and 76 national newspaper association. The conference is sponsored by the foundation established by the largest U.S. association, the Newspaper Association of America (NAA), as well as some big American chains, including Schurz Communications Inc.; Landmark Communications Inc.; The Washington Post; Cox Newspapers Inc.; and Gannett Company Inc.

?What they?re going to be looking at is sharing information about what works in different places,? said Jim Abbott, vice president of the NAA Foundation.

The conference is likely to dramatize just how far ahead of the United States are newspapers in Europe and Latin America are in reaching young readers. In France, for instance, Play Bac Presse publishes dailies aimed at four age segments start with 5- to 6-year-olds, and ranging up to teenagers 14 and up. The four Quotidien, or Daily, papers have a combined circulation of about 200,000. (In the U.S., an online-only version of a Play Bac paper for 10-year-olds was launched last November by New York City-based 5W Mignon-Media.)

Very young readers are also targeted with daily print papers in Bolivia, Mexico, Panama, and Ecuador.

?U.S. papers haven?t really caught up yet,? Abbott said. ?For a long time we’ve believed, as far as NIE (Newspaper In Education) that we were largest and the best.? American NIE programs are still the largest in terms of the number of papers they get into classrooms, he added, but U.S. publishers have not been as aggressive or innovative as those in other nations.

For this young readers conference, WAN is adding a panel discussion that the NAA Foundation has used successfully in several past NIE meetings.

?We introduced the idea of having teenagers come in, and actually talk to us,? Abbott said. ?After all, this is the market that everyone is trying to reach. So Tuesday afternoon, at the end of the conference, we have a program called ?Straight From the Source,? where the teens lay it on the line, and tell us what needs to be done if we want to reach that market.?

At past NIE programs, Abbott said, teenagers have sounded common themes: Don?t talk down to us. Show teenagers in the paper. Don?t ?ghetto-ize? us with separate sections.

In Washington, the young people will come from seven nations. In addition, WAN and the NAA Foundation created for this conference a ?young ambassadors program? of six teams each of U.S. and international students, who will spend some days in advance of the conference working on ideas to attract young readers to print newspapers.

One session will be devoted to ideas for including youth-oriented material in every part of the newspaper. At one foreign paper cited by Abbott, for instance, section editors are mandated to publish something aimed at young people on every single page. The mandate is enforced with scorecards. ?If you’re a sports editor, and you don’t have something on every page for someone under 25, you’re going to be marked down,? Abbott said. ?Get marked down enough, and you can even lose salary — that’s how serious they are taking it.?

The conference will also be looking outside the newspaper industry to learn lessons from other media in attracting the young.

One of the speakers will be Paul Farrell, whom the Irish Times hired away from O2 Ireland, the mobile phone company for which he was marketing director.

“Young customers are much more flirtatious in their relationships with brands now than ever before, which on occasion borders on cynicism and rejection,” Farrell, now the Irish Times group marketing director, said in a statement released through WAN. “The days of brands taking young customers on their own terms are long gone, brands must operate more as hosts than teachers.”

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