Hungry for younger readers, newspapers should embrace their voices

Declining newspaper readership, especially among the young, is forcing editors to reexamine their focus.

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Why is it that every time an issue concerning young people arises, the newspaper op-eds commenting on those issues are almost always written by people in their 40s, 50s, or 60s? Whether it's a columnist or a parent talking about their child's college graduation or how kids in the 1950s settled disputes with their fists instead of guns, it's a tired old paradigm.

If newspapers want to reach out to younger readers, they need to include their voices.

For the past few years, many people and publishers have lamented that young adults tend not to read newspapers.

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A report released July 10 by the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University showed that young people do not follow the news closely. Only 16 percent of 18- to 30-year-olds surveyed in the study said that they read a newspaper every day and 9 percent of teenagers said that they did.

Circulation is declining for most major American daily newspapers, including 8 percent for the Los Angeles Times, 6.7 percent for The Boston Globe, and 5.3 percent for the San Francisco Chronicle, according to the semiannual Audit Bureau of Circulations' Fall 2006 report.

The declines in newspaper readership are greatest among young adults and the younger segment of baby boomers, reports the Columbia Journalism Review.

Most young people tend to get their news from the Internet or television shows such as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. I teach journalism as an adjunct professor at Arcadia University in Glenside, Pa., and Temple University in Philadelphia. Each semester, when I go around the room to see where my students get their news, hardly anyone mentions daily newspapers.

In the past few years, some newspapers have attempted to reach out to this younger group. In November 2002, The Chicago Tribune started a special tabloid 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, which is written by teens.

In Philadelphia, I notice that the two major newspapers, the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News, rarely print op-eds by young writers. On average, they seem to run two or three op-eds a year by people under 21. Even for issues concerning young people, the op-eds almost always are by people in their 40s and 50s. Nationally, almost every syndicated columnist is over 30.

When I started teaching the editorial writing class at Temple in 2003, I had low expectations. I expected the students' op-eds to have the depth and complexity of a saltine cracker. I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of writing. I was exposed to subjects not covered much in the mainstream press, such as the tough job market for graduates, university admissions policies, heroin abuse in the suburbs, and voter apathy among college students.

Many of the papers gave fresh insights on local, national, and international issues. For each of my seven writing assignments, I would receive several articles that were good enough to run in major newspapers. During the semester, six of my students had their op-eds published. My experience convinced me that there are many talented young writers who should be harvested by newspaper editors.

If newspapers want younger people to read their papers, op-ed editors should actively reach out to college journalism programs and try to develop voices that have the perspective of younger people. One approach would be to have several editors of local college newspapers act as regular op-ed contributors.

Newspapers also need to focus more on issues that young people are concerned about. For instance, high school students are well-equipped to talk about student loans, school shootings, binge drinking, and substance abuse.

It's important to engage young people in newspaper reading since they will be the next thinkers, leaders, and voters. Also, there is a great difference between the quick information you can get on the Internet and television and the in-depth articles you read in the newspaper.

If newspapers can address relevant topics and include younger voices, it's possible that young people might conclude that newspapers aren't just for their parents and grandparents.

Larry Atkins teaches journalism at Arcadia University and Temple University.

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