Young Ideas From Abroad

By: Mark Fitzgerald For three days in spring, the Capital Hilton in Washington, D.C., is transformed. A spot favored by visiting special-interest advocates due to its proximity to lobbyist row on K Street, the hotel this weekend resembles an international crisis center, its guests engaged in a polyglot frenzy of brainstorming. It isn't terrorism or catastrophic climate change that preoccupies these people, though, but another global phenomenon ? the seemingly unstoppable march of young people away from the newspaper-reading habit.

Nearly 400 attendees from 74 nations are packed into the Hilton for the 7th World Young Readers Conference, a biennial event hosted by the World Association of Newspapers (WAN), in partnership with the Newspaper Association of America (NAA) and the Norwegian newsprint maker Norske Skog.

In formal conference sessions, attendees knit their brows as interpreters speak Spanish, French, German, and English into their earpieces. The conversations continue just as urgently in the halls of the hotel, and during strolls along the National Mall at the height of cherry blossom season. The talk goes on in a dozen or more languages. A teenager from Zambia speaks Bemba and Nyanja. There are three publishers from Mongolia.

Some end the night at The Trolley, a divey bar across the street from the hotel. The bartender, a Maori pattern tattooed around one arm, is familiar with foreign conventioneers stopping in for a nightcap, but she confesses she has a hard time guessing where these newspaper people come from. "You guys Dutch?" she asks three customers on a Monday night.

They're actually Norwegian, from the small-circulation daily Aura Avis in the southwestern town of Sunndal. Think of its owner, A-Pressen, as the CNHI of Norway. Like Community Newspaper Holdings Inc., its papers are typically 15,000 to 20,000 in circulation ? the biggest property sells just 60,000 copies daily ? and editorially, it maintains a sharp focus on local news.

The Norwegians are in Washington hoping to learn how to close a maddening gap in their readership. The very young read their papers, thanks to a strong Newspaper In Education (NIE) program, and they have very loyal older readers. But the twenty- and early thirtysomethings just aren't picking up the newspaper any longer.

"Everybody says, 'When you get them young, you get them forever.' No, not necessarily," Aura Avis Projects Manager Anne K. Jacobsen says in a more formal interview the next day.

Things are tough all over
Newspaper publishers, editors, NIE specialists, industry researchers, and academics attending the conference quickly realize that for all their differences in language and culture, they are all in the same boat. Kids are kids all over the world.

And as newspapers would learn over the next few days, that can be good news. Research shows that even kids who don't read them still feel pretty good about newspapers ? for typically complicated reasons ? and that print and online papers have their advantages over competing media.

Perhaps most important, especially for U.S. publishers, some experiments by newspapers in all corners of the world are paying off with increased readership.

NIE, for instance, was first used in America in Des Moines, Iowa, as a method of getting young students hooked on newspaper reading. But in recent years, European, Asian, and Latin American newspapers have been more aggressive in courting the new generation, says Jim Abbott, vice president of the NAA Foundation, which coordinates American NIE initiatives: "U.S. papers haven't really caught up yet."

Newspapers began to wake up internationally in recent years when they began to experience the same slump in young readers that U.S. papers encountered when the baby boomers came of age.

Consider Germany, the biggest market for newspapers in Europe and the fifth-largest in the world. Germany's 334 newspapers have a combined circulation of 21.2 million ? and a healthy readership of 73.3% of all people aged 14 and over, says Anja Pasquay, press officer for the German newspaper publishers association known as BDZV. (The most recent statistics put U.S. daily readership at 54.1% of adults.)

German papers make special efforts to cultivate the young. NIE has been in the country for more than 30 years, and roughly two-thirds of all dailies sponsor high school programs. About 70% of German papers have editorial content aimed at 8- to 12-year-olds, and 86% offer content, most often a weekly section, for readers aged 14 to 25.

Yet, Pasquay says, German papers are losing circulation at a rate of about 2.2% a year, and are rapidly losing readership among adolescents and young adults. In 1986, 72.6% of Germans aged 14 through 19 read the paper. By last year, that percentage had plunged to 47.6%. (A similar statistic from Scarborough Research puts U.S. readership at 40% for those 18 to 24.) "Today, for a 15-year-old in Germany, reading a newspaper is not cool," Pasquay says ruefully.

It's those kinds of statistics that have industry leaders warning colleagues that they're running out of time to fix the young reader problem.

Wrangling the 'grazers'
Youth readership specialists might be expected to be the most pessimistic of all newspaper people. Yet studies are showing that newspapers have a built-in appeal for the young that provides big openings for readership gains.

Perhaps most encouraging, youths believe following the news is something that helps them in the most vexing of adolescent tasks: fitting in. "They see it helps them socially," says Robert Barnard, founder of the Canadian research firm D-Code. Even better, he adds: "Youths see reading the newspaper as adult behavior, and they think that's a good thing." Barnard says these are the initial findings of a study of 14- to 25-year-olds in 10 countries.

This new generation effortlessly juggles multiple media, and they don't think of going to a newspaper Web site first for news, adds Michael Smith, executive director of the Media Management Center and Readership Institute at Northwestern University. Aggregators like Google, AOL, and Yahoo, he says, "are just as trusted as newspaper sites."

Young people are "grazers," according to a recent Readership Institute study, who don't go looking for news, but will stop to read "if it catches my eye," or if they "bump into something." That's a newspaper-friendly characteristic, Smith argues: "They are placing enormous value on something newspapers hold dear ? the value of serendipity, of reading stories we don't know we're interested in until we see them."

And yet, he adds, it's the portals who are meeting that need ? not newspapers.

As it happens, teenagers also like to find those surprising moments during one stop, and this too should favor newspapers. "The news sites that teens most value are like the newspaper: a handy package with everything in one place," Smith says.

Stockholm syndrome
That's how the Swedish national daily Aftonbladet, the biggest paper in Scandinavia, is attracting youngsters. Its home portal,, is kind of a Web version of the Berliner format. It scrolls on and on, and all of its content is there.

"It's the No. 1 Internet site for us," says Sonja Magdalenic, a high-school-aged Swede. "The fact that this site is so easy to overview is the main reason that I and my friends view this site several times daily."

For another Swedish daily, G?tesborgs-Posten, the challenge was designing a Web and print combination that appeals to that savvy group while fending off the sudden competition from three free dailies. "All the free sheets had a strategy to attract youth," says Assistant News Editor Anders Goliger.

But G?tesborgs-Posten ? Sweden's largest paper, with a circulation of 250,000 ? has a head start. Ten years ago, it created three age-targeted products that run both in print and online. "Graffiti" is aimed at 10- to 14-year-olds; "Attityd" for 15- to 19-year-olds; and "Aveny" for what Goliger calls "club kids." Four "youth editors" have recruited some 20 reporters every year to produce content for print and online, and readers are encouraged to post content.

But for all their electronic media, Goliger says, "Young readers are more likely to come to your Web site if they think it could wind up in the paper."

The strategy has lured young people back to G?tesborgs-Posten. Surveys show the paper is the No. 1 media choice for young people, reaching 45% of those aged 15 to 24. "Attityd" has 150,000 readers daily, and its Web traffic is up 57% from last year. Goliger adds, "What is very good about this is that we know that 67% of those who read the paper when they are growing up go on to become subscribers as adults."

Strategies for starting young
What's the best target age for newspapers to attract ? and keep ? young readers? The short answer is that the experts disagree, even at the young reader conference. Some, like the NAA Foundation's Abbott, say, "We've got to get the adolescents, 13 to 19, because if we don't get them now, the newspaper industry is in big trouble."

What's clear is that there is a point when it's too late. D-Code's Barnard says his research shows that if young people haven't become newspaper readers by age 24, they probably won't ever take up the habit.

But some papers are starting far younger ? before their young readers can even read much. In Germany, the daily Recklinghauser Zeitung targeted preschoolers, offering an NIE guide for a three-week program. "Editors didn't give it a lot of value, and even made fun of him," the German press association's Pasquay says of the NIE director who came up with the idea.

The newspaper even wrote a "newspaper song" the class would sing before poring through it. "The overall idea is to be fun, and stay playful," says Pasquay. Students would look at newspaper pictures and invent stories about them. They would talk about the weather with the forecast page. "At least one hour was spent playing with the newspaper."

Parents were involved in the newspaper activities, too ? and in surveys, 92% of them said they liked the program and wanted it to continue. They were also surprised at how much their kids now knew about current affairs.

But that admiration didn't translate into getting the paper into homes, Pasquay concedes: "They got a small bump in home delivery."

To reach the youngest readers, La Prensa in Panama City, Panama, literally sends in the clowns. The paper converted a conference room into a theatre where visiting classes are entertained by Rodrigo Dos Santos and Lisette Medeiros, two Brazilian immigrants to Panama who created a show about a magical place called "Aprendo," or Learning.

"We wanted to show youngsters that newspapers are fun to read," says La Prensa NIE Manager Wendy Tribaldos. Embedded in the frenetic comedy of the clowns ? witnessed on video by conference attendees ? are serious messages about the value of newspapers to learning and society. "There's a lot of emphasis on the value of the work of journalists," Tribaldos adds.

In three years, the paper has hosted about 4,000 students from a little more than 50 schools. The entire program has cost less than $5,000, not only because Tribaldos and her staff of three do much of the work, but because they convinced the milk company Bonlac to sponsor the shows.

La Prensa is tracking how the show affects its brand awareness among kids, something all newspapers should learn from the biggest names in marketing to children, Tribaldos argues. "McDonald's and Wendy's market to the smallest children, and we have to introduce our brand as soon as they do," she says. The young reader must be introduced to newspapers "at the earliest ages. You can't do it at 14, 11, or 9 ? it's too late."

The Catalan government in Spain created the online Diari de l'Escola (School Daily), which is designed to be used by children as young as 4 years old.

These days that includes blogging, says Vincent Partal, director of Vilaweb. More than 120 schools are blogging now, and the education ministry figures to have 200 by the end of the year. gets 300,000 unique visitors each month.

Aggressive measures
In the U.S., NIE departments are usually one-man, or, far more often, one-woman operations. So the Americans in the young reader conference erupt in laughter when Deepti Mehra describes the NIE department she runs for The Times of India. There are 85 business people in nine cities, plus another 40 editorial employees who work on the paper's daily student edition.

This is clearly one of the most ambitious NIE programs on earth, a fact WAN recognized this year by presenting it with one of three Young Readers of the World Awards. (The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk was another winner this year.) It's probably no exaggeration to say, though, that the youth initiative is a make-or-break issue for the Times' future. "This group of 9- to 17-year-olds ... will comprise 50% of the Indian population in 10 years," Mehra notes.

A broadsheet, the student edition looks like the regular newspaper, but it's edited with the Indian teenager in mind. Sections have names such as "Wassup!" and "Kewl Quotient." There's a heavy dose of entertainment content, but the mix of hard news is similar to that of the regular Times. Like other papers around the world with active youth programs, the daily has found kids are very interested in local news.

The youth paper promotes itself relentlessly. It sponsors battles of the bands around the nation, culminating in a big festival. More than 10,000 students entered the contest last year. A "star reporter" signed up 4,000 students who write for the paper. Like the loyalty programs numerous U.S. newspapers offer subscribers, the student edition rewards its readers with discounts on youth-oriented products and entertainment through Times of India "NIE Privileges."

Since its launch for the 2004-05 school year, the student edition has grown in circulation from 300,000 to 445,000. More than 2,000 schools take the paper.

India has only had NIE since 1985, and, like many converts, may be more fervent than older believers. A big problem among newspapers with older NIE programs is a tendency to look at it only as a circulation-booster, says Aralynn McMane, WAN's director of young readership development. "If you treat NIE as a circulation dump, the results will be rubbish," she bluntly tells attendees early in the conference.

NIE advocates say it pays off in the long term. A U.S. study of 18- to 34-year-olds in 2003, for instance, found that those who remembered using the newspaper in the classroom were, by a margin of 62% to 38%, far more likely to become regular newspaper readers than those who didn't.

Changes to the 'core' work, too

El Correo turns 97 this year, but the 122,000-circulation daily in Bilbao, Spain, has never been younger, according to Monerrat Lluis, editor of its "EnlaCe" youth initiative for what she calls "total youth-think."

"EnlaCe" is a part of the newspaper's Web site, as well as a two-page section in the print newspaper that every day publishes news and photos produced by both professional and citizen journalists. Every Sunday, the pages are reserved for content from its youngest readers. Icons alert readers to which articles or photos are from citizen journalists ? and sometimes it's hard to tell, Lluis says.

"EnlaCe" was begun in January 2006, and so far 100,000 separate people have submitted materials. On any given day, Lluis says, 500 people submit material. He argues the key to the initiative's success is that it not only gives many openings for readers to submit material, but it also constantly engages readers.

"Responding is essential," she says. "There is not a single comment, no matter how outlandish it is, that does not get a reply." El Correo, through "EnlaCe," provides many ways for readers to complain or comment about its coverage. The days are gone, Lluis adds, when newspapers can simply make pronouncements, and the only recourse for the reader was to "complain to his partner or to the waiter in the bar where he reads the paper."

In Denmark, the daily Fyens Stiftstidende has undergone the same transformation after much the same epiphany. "The reason young people don't read the newspaper," declares Managing Editor Esben Seerup, "is that they have other options, other media ? and we don't write for them, we don't talk to them."

Fyens Stiftstidende has been around since 1772, and in the last decade or so has begun showing its age. Circulation has been slowly declining. The advent of free newspapers, which have swept Scandinavia, threatened its existence. Its previous youth effort, one page on Saturdays, was often shuffled around in the paper, and neglected by editors, Seerup says. The daily decided it had to change, and that it would, along a series of "platforms."

Among the first was creation of a 25,000-free distribution quick-read daily for commuters. The free paper is a kind of exercise in "controlled cannibalism," Seerup says, but it rapidly achieved its demographic goal: The average age of its reader is 35. The newspaper also launched a radio station aimed at young people, and updated its Web site.

The core edition of Fyens Stiftstidende also underwent some rejuvenation. Student reporters were recruited to report on their schools, and the pages were opened to children to review computer games and other electronics. An "Under-18" team of 22 citizen journalists was assembled to find stories of interest to young people. Originally this was an unpaid corps, but this year they started to see some pay.

Under-18 reporters attend news meetings every Thursday, and makes a "huge difference" in pointing to youth-oriented material, Seerup says. "The dream is that every day we will have a little something for young people on every page."

Become engaging, not 'hip'
Newspapers that want to bring younger readers into their traditional core product must be prepared to make fundamental changes in the way they report the news, many international editors warn. "To get that kid 15 or 17 years old, you have to change even the language you use in the newspaper: You know, 'The president announced today ... ,'" says Alvaro Avila Arietta, his voice trailing off and shrugging his shoulders. "It's boring." Avila Arrieta is co-editor of La Revista, a supplement to the big Mexico City daily El Universal that advertises itself as "journalism in the free zone."

But newspapers cannot try to be too hip, warns Paul Farrell, group marketing manager for The Irish Times: "You can end up looking like a granddad wearing sneakers."

Before coming to Ireland's most venerable newspaper ? a broadsheet as big as a blanket ? Farrell was the marketing director for the big Irish mobile phone company O2, where reaching kids was obviously Job One. He's introduced blogs to the paper, "which is pretty historic in terms of the Irish Times," and recently launched a well-received entertainment print-and-Web package that is much more interactive.

D-Code's Barnard says global research so far shows that young people prefer youth- oriented content that is spread throughout the main paper, and not segregated in a youth section. He suggests that young people think of "teen" sections the way they think of the children's table at big family get- togethers: "They see youth sections as being for much younger people."


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