ASNE Panel: Young Readers Want Very Different Writing, Packaging

By: Andrew Ackerman Young readers want news stories that make them feel informed, give them something to talk about, and remind them that the paper they buy is looking out for their personal and civic interests.

That, in a nutshell, are the findings of two studies conducted by the Minneapolis Star Tribune and The Readership Institute of Northwestern University on how newspapers can reconnect with young readers, released this morning at a panel titled "Reaching Under-30s in the Core Newspaper" at the American Society of Newspaper Editors' convention here.

The studies concluded that readers between the ages of 21 and 29 have abandoned daily papers and prefer to get news online or from television shows like "The Daily Show" and even "The Simpsons." But newspaper staffs can bring young readers back to dailies by dramatically altering the way they write and package stories. The stories have to be short, snappy, and irreverent, the studies said.

"We have to have ways to connect to the readers," said John Lavine, director of Northwestern's Readership Institute, who explained the 20% reduction in readership over the past three years by comparing newspapers to old-fashioned 1950s-style coffee shops, out of touch with modern times and the interests of young people.

"We need to be Starbucks," Lavine said, featuring journalism's equivalent of wireless hotspots, plush chairs, and innovative drinks customers want to buy.

The studies, which together polled 340 twentysomethings, rated respondents' preference for either a front and inside page of an actual Feb. 22 issue of the Star Tribune versus two alternatives that were never printed: an "improved," glitzier front-page made from stories that ran in the print edition; and a second prototype, called an "Experience Paper," comprised of articles selected from anywhere in the Feb. 22 edition. The results showed that participants preferred the third "Experience Paper" prototype over the original and "improved" versions by a 2-to-1 ratio.

"It's a matter of taking news judgment from the editor's point of view and turning it around into how the readers see it," said Anders Gyllenhaal, the editor of the Star Tribune and a member of the panel. "It's a different prism."

Instead of leading with a day-old story about President Bush's trip to Europe, in the third prototype the editors ran only a refer on the front page to an inside story. Instead, the prototype ran a below-the-fold, mug-and-quote feature that polled area residents on exporting democracy. The editors also cut a three-column feature on a woman who has run thousands of miles through the streets of Minneapolis and replaced it with two essays on Texas hold 'em ( "Should Poker be a Crime?" the lead headline asked) and a wire story on identity theft accompanied by picture of Paris Hilton (pop culture sells). There's also a list of five trivia nuggets that will help readers sound smart. (Number 1: "Pitchers and catchers report to spring training.")

When asked if the Star Tribune was shirking its civic duty by eliminating the Bush story from the front page, the panelists defended the move by arguing that the Bush story was old and young readers would have already read about it from other news sources.

"They say, 'Gee, I knew that already,' and that only shows how out of touch we are," said Monica Moses, the Star Tribune's deputy managing editor for visuals.

Moses said editors shouldn't be afraid to inject humor into their stories, use headlines in the form of questions, or alter writing styles. A case in point: the author of a feature on Web logs that was published in the Feb. 22 issue altered it to read like a blog for one of the prototypes.

"We've got to quit being afraid of making a mistake," Moses said. "Publishing the same old boring stuff is a mistake."


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