Too Young to Read?  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   October/November 2003

Too Young to Read?   

A twentysomething journalist is underwhelmed by the efforts of newspapers to attract that coveted and elusive 18-to-34 demographic.

By Rachel Smolkin

To judge from the recent moves of several major dailies, we 18-to-34-year-olds are a coveted but hopelessly stupid segment of the population.

I have an unsettling vision of newspaper executives in rumpled suits, poring over demographics and the sort of focus groups the media skewered Bill Clinton for craving. To attract young readers, these middle-age business types conclude they should launch a tabloid. It will cost 25 cents or less. It will have short, inane entertainment pieces. It will be thrust at potential young readers who scurry to the Metro or the "L."

These are the types of executives who have heard of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" but believe it was just another horror show about vampires. They conclude that if we relished bad reviews about "Gigli," then we can't possibly care about the mounting deficit. If we grew up with--horrors!--MTV, then we cannot and will not read. They forget that the men and women serving and dying in Iraq are our age, not theirs. They overlook the reality that college graduates confront a bleak economy and that many young professionals have embarked on marriages and mortgages.

Like many misguided newspaper efforts, this one appears likely to spread before slinking into oblivion. First we have the Red Race to the Bottom. The Chicago Tribune launched its tabloid, RedEye, last fall; the Chicago Sun-Times countered with Red Streak. Initially handed out for free, the truncated news and fluff now cost a quarter.

In April, the Washington Post brought us the Sunday Source, a self-consciously "hip" weekly section that shuns stories longer than four paragraphs. Four months later, the Post debuted its free tabloid, Express, which makes USA Today look ponderous. It offers wire-service news and entertainment briefs to assuage my generation's visceral aversion to the printed word.

Is this really the way the newspaper industry plans to ensure its survival? If tykes are willing to savor an 870-page Harry Potter tome, then surely we in the Gen X and Y crowds can slog through an 800-word newspaper story.

Fortunately, a few editors do seem to grasp that youth and intelligence are not mutually exclusive. The Wall Street Journal excels at substantive, youth-oriented articles, particularly in its "Personal Journal" section. A March 13 story examined "repercussions of a sudden plunge in alumni giving." An August 5 story offered "A Guide to the Guidebooks"--an analysis I particularly appreciated because I'd just returned from Ireland, where several of the restaurants, pubs and markets featured in our Frommer's 2003 guide had moved, shuttered or changed into fern bars. A story the same day in the Journal's "Marketplace" section deftly explored obstacles that even Ivy Leaguers confront in securing competitive public-service sector jobs. But these gems are rare.

Contempt for young journalists infiltrated coverage of Jayson Blair's transgressions. "Twenty-seven-year-old Jayson Blair" began to seem like his actual name. Without a mentor, the coverage implied, the unenlightened youngster could not separate Right from Wrong.

If only Blair had reached his 28th birthday before arriving at the New York Times, perhaps he could have experienced that magical moment when we wake up and say, "Eureka!"--No, sorry, I forgot, we're flummoxed by polysyllabic words--we say, "Like, oh my God, plagiarizing and making up stuff is wrong!"

Jennifer Sergent, a sagacious 34-year-old reporter and editor at Scripps Howard News Service, recently expressed bewilderment at Blair's transgressions. "Journalism has basic rules," she said. "They're not complicated."

Indeed, they are quite simple, and young journalists understand them. Failure to follow them cannot be ascribed to youth despite the infamous fabrications of Blair, the Washington Post's Janet Cooke, then 26, or The New Republic's Stephen Glass, then 25. Boston Globe columnists Mike Barnicle and Patricia Smith were 54 and 42, respectively, when their paper forced them out over fabrications. Yet nobody asked whether midlife crises had induced sloppy journalism, and many articles didn't even mention their ages.

Newspapers would do themselves a favor by recognizing that their own stables of young writers can provide far better insights about enticing the 18-to-34 crowd than stale consultants. Editors also should follow the Wall Street Journal's lead. Beside those stories about elderly Americans searching for cheaper prescription drugs, we need more pieces about cash-strapped young people gambling that they are healthy enough to forgo insurance, more examinations of companies that still don't cover birth-control pills but do cover Viagra.

There is no reason why a robust mix of youth-oriented and elderly-oriented stories cannot peacefully coexist. Are older readers really too stodgy to chuckle at Joel Achenbach's August 13 Washington Post essay asking why we delight in the misfortunes of "Bennifer"?

We should put the new tabloids in the trash where they belong and focus on improving our newspapers. Despite the success of cable news and the Internet, newspapers--with their varied stories, editorials, columns and letters to the editor--remain a staple of democracy, a forum that exposes us, however briefly, to ideas and viewpoints that we would mute on cable or ignore the links to online. If we concede that America's young people are sentient, then we must accept that there is a shrewder way to awaken their love for newspapers.

That, I know, is idealistic--a flaw of youth.