Thursday, December 4, 2003

What Do Those Young People Want?

The news industry obsesses about people like me. Or so I gather.

The whims of "youth" seemingly occupy news executives. Commuter-oriented tabloids have popped up. Broadsheets ask: "How can we attract them?" Tabloids ask: "How much more titillation do you want?" Advertisers ask: "Will you please give us money?"

An older generation -- the boomers' parents -- is passing on, and with it some of the most dedicated print readers. As the boomers move into geezerhood, an obsession with finding the next audience is natural.

Everyone should calm down. Listen carefully to one of those youthful people you crave. Those under the age of 30 will read a paper.

How do you make them do that? Give them a quality product. Every newspaper that thirsts after younger readers should devote serious space to quality news and photography, and ensure that it has the resources to cover news effectively. Not just local news, but national and international news as well.

My university had a newspaper readership program. Copies of the Lawrence Journal-World, The Kansas City Star, USA Today and The New York Times were shipped in Monday through Friday. If you had a student ID card, you could get a free copy of each paper.

Guess which paper was read the most. Hint: It wasn't one of the first three.

University kids (who had access to a weekly alternative tabloid and the campus newspaper along with all those others) chose the Times. And not because they all love William Safire.

They read it because it's a great newspaper, featuring interesting articles and quality writing. It helps put the world in perspective. It did not feature reviews of local bands. It didn't print a sex advice column. It did tell the news. Well.

Young people will read newspapers if they think the newspapers are worth their time and energy. It really is that simple. A clumsy piece of pandering won't help, especially if it bulges with the same tired wire copy you can find on a dozen Web sites.

Make it good. Make it fresh. Make it relevant.

Guess what -- young readers won't be the only ones who respond to that. Everyone will.