If young people can read 870 pages of Harry Potter, why can’t they pick up and read a newspaper?
For the past few years, many people and newspaper publishers have lamented that younger people tend not to read newspapers.
Average daily circulation of the 836 newspapers reporting to the Audit Bureau declined 0.1 percent in 2004, according to the Newspaper Association of America, and only 37 percent of those newspapers reported circulation gains.
According to the Columbia Journalism Review, the declines in newspaper readership are greatest among young adults and the younger segment of the baby boom generation. With many papers losing circulation, many wonder where the next generation of newspaper readers will come from.
Most young people tend to get their news from the Internet or television. I teach journalism as an adjunct professor at Arcadia University in Glenside, Penn., and Temple University in Philadelphia. Each semester, when I go around the room to see where my students get their news, hardly anyone ever mentions daily newspapers.
Kids of this generation are more likely to name Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart as a primary source of news rather than The New York Times.
In the last few years, some newspapers have made specific attempts to reach out to this younger demographic group. In November 2002, the Chicago Tribune started publishing a special tabloid newspaper geared toward younger readers called RedEye, which has 280,000 daily readers. Newsday has a weekly “New Voices” feature, which encourages college, high school and middle school students to submit op-eds. The Boston Globe just started a teen publication called Boston Teens in Print, or TiP, that is written by teens. Youth-oriented newspapers also have been launched recently in Dallas and Washington, D.C.
In Philadelphia, I had noticed that the two major newspapers, the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News, rarely printed op-eds by young writers. Even for issues concerning young people, the op-eds almost always were written by people in their 40s and 50s.
When I started teaching the editorial writing class at Temple for the first time last year, I was somewhat skeptical. I expected the students to write papers that ended every other sentence with “dude” and that their op-eds would have the depth and complexity of a saltine cracker. I really didn’t expect them to have anything interesting to say.
I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of writing of most of the students in my class. I was exposed to subjects that I didn’t read about too much in the mainstream press, such as the tough job market for graduating students, admissions policies of the university, housing problems for a traditionally commuter school to a residential school and voter apathy among college students.
Many of the papers gave fresh insights on current local, national and international issues. For each of my seven writing assignments, I would receive several papers that I felt would be good enough to run in major newspapers. During the semester, six of my students had their op-eds published. My experience last semester convinced me that there are many talented young writers who are like acres of diamonds that should be harvested by newspaper editors.
In March 2004, John Timpane, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s commentary page editor, was a guest speaker for my class. One of my students voiced his disappointment that the Inquirer was soliciting letters and commentary about the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education only from older people who had gone to school during the 1950s.
He asked Timpane why he wasn’t soliciting opinions from today’s students. An impassioned debate ensued in which three of my students argued about the validity of kids segregating themselves at the school cafeteria lunch tables. In May, the Inquirer printed op-eds on that subject by those three students. A month earlier, the Inquirer had published an op-ed by one of my students on the anniversary of the Columbine shootings.
If newspapers want younger people to read their papers, they should reach out to young people to be part of the paper’s community discussions. Op-ed editors should actively reach out to college journalism programs and try to develop voices that have the perspective of younger people. They also need to focus more on issues that young people are concerned about.
Why is it so important to engage Generation Next in newspaper reading?
Because they will be the next thinkers, leaders and voters. Also, there is a great deal of difference between the quick information you can get on the Internet and television compared to the in-depth information you can get by reading the newspaper.
If newspapers can address relevant topics and include younger voices, it’s possible that young people might reach the conclusion that newspapers aren’t just for their parents and grandparents.
Larry Atkins, a lawyer and writer, has written more than 250 op-eds, articles and essays for major publications across the country. He teaches journalism at Arcadia University and Temple University. His e-mail address is email@example.com