Why younger people don’t read the newspaper

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A girl holds The Washington Post of Monday, Ju...

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Three things happened within the last week or so that led me to write this post.

  1. The New York Times website alerted me that I had only 4 articles left to read until I was kicked out behind the pay wall for the rest of the month.
  2. The PIPA and SOPA legislations attracted a lot of attention at the hands of Google, Wikipedia, and others, if only momentary, for internet freedom.
  3. My autumn 2011 copy of Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly arrived in the mail and includes an article about why young people have stopped reading the newspaper.

The bulk of this post will focus on a review of that article in the spirit of looking at journalism and mass communication through eyes seeking its advancement rather than its demise. For all the scholars out there, this is the article to which I’m referring:

Zerba, A. (2011). Young adults’ reasons behind avoidances of daily print newspapers and their ideas for change. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly 88(3), 597-614.

What initially sets this study apart from others is its qualitative nature. Zerba sites several studies that addressed the phenomenon of, as she terms them, “nonuses,” from a uses and gratifications (U & G) approach. Because both U & G research and studies of newspaper use and nonuse have been rather prevalent since the advent of journalism research, the focus group method employed is able to better unpack in detail the nonuse findings of other generations. These include lack of time; availability of other media choices; access; and possible bias, to name a few. As the author states, she aims “to get at the underlying meaning of nonuse” (p. 597).

Possibly of greater importance, focus groups enable the researcher to capture a small slice of one of the primary news-reading audiences highly affected by the current shift from print to digital. And in an age where the internet has become a concept of legal upheaval, a study of print media is extremely relevant.

Zerba puts forth two research questions:

  1. What are the most popular reasons for not using a daily newspaper?
  2. What would your ideal print newspaper include?

Focus groups were formed using research companies in three major cities – Chicago, San Antonio, and Dallas. Sixty four adults between the ages of 18 and 29 were assembled in total (an error in San Antonio resulted in eight groups for evaluation, rather than the anticipated six). The discussions had among the groups revealed results that were both predictable based on previous research and worthy of reflection with respect to today’s somewhat tumultuous media environment.

In sum, adults 29 and under viewed newspapers as

  1. Difficult and inconvenient to access and use
  2. Environmentally unfriendly
  3. Slow to report the news and redundant
  4. Difficult to multitask with
  5. Drag on one’s time
  6. Irrelevant to the age group
  7. Boring
  8. Biased

When given the opportunity to design their own daily print newspaper, respondents decided that the perfect paper would be:

  1. Brief with only the fact
  2. Local in focus
  3. Inclusive of diverse perspectives
  4. Simply formatted and aesthetically pleasing with color, pictures, and a table of contents
  5. Easily accessible
  6. More entertainment content
  7. Topically specialized
  8. With slightly less negative news and summation of leading news items
Front page of the first issue of The New York ...

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In sum, young people want a newspaper that is easily accessible and up-to-date, aesthetically pleasing, and convenient for their multitask, on-the-go lifestyles. In essence, young people want the internet.

In today’s world, to describe why people choose not to use a newspaper, even though they call themselves news aficionados, is to describe why people do use the internet. The real question for practitioners in the news world coming out of this study might not be, “How can we make our print product more accessible to the younger demographic of readers,” but, “How can we make our online product more accessible to everyone?”

Look at the New York Times online. It doesn’t look all that different from the company’s print product. Look at the Washington Post online. Stunning images, fonts, headlines, and masthead all there. Purchase digital subscriptions and customize your own news on your mobile device.

The only way for a print enterprise to save its print product from extinction is to dramatically change the content offered through its online medium. This is why I am in favor of paywalls, especially when a particular newspaper, say a local one, does not have the human resources to produce new electronic content that will add value to its overall product.

I love this article because of its methodology and because of what it says about individuals of my age. I like to live in my bubble and believe that most people are like me. But they are not. And my close-minded perspective is selfish and unjustified. This does not, however, stop me from hoping that a more literate cohort of twentysomethings will rise up and work as hard to “save” journalism as the generations before us did to build it.

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