Monday, February 26, 2007

But where's the news?

One major phenomenon in traditional media's desperate struggle to maintain audiences is the free or cheap tabloid aimed at the 18-34 age group, often published by a daily newspaper that seems unable to reach those people on its own merits.

The latest of these efforts is apparently underway at the San Antonio Express-News, and its characteristics are similar to other publications targeting this age group: Most notably, it intends to cover everything but news. A memo published in the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies describes a content "focus on music, the Web, film, gaming, pop culture and trends in general, the arts, local nightlife and outdoor recreation."

Leaving aside whether the Express-News ought to be covering those topics satisfactorily in its daily paper (it should), we should wonder why so many publications for people under 40 reflexively recoil from the idea that this audience could handle serious subjects. Yes, there are studies showing that this generation of young people is less interested in news than any preceding generation, but news bean counters always seem to place the blame for this with the people, instead of the news.

What if, instead of assuming that young people avoid the news because they're dumb and apathetic, we assume they're uninterested in news coverage because it seems to ignore them, talk above them, dwell on political style over issue-oriented substance, and foster a sense of helplessness by refusing to demonstrate the vital role regular citizens play in the democratic process? What if, instead of targeting young people with pandering escapism, we tried harder to engage them in important matters that affect their lives every day?

Those what-ifs are hard to answer, because nobody's trying it. My guess is that if we showed younger people their stake in the news through compelling, meaningful coverage that addressed them as citizens instead of commodities, we could start building some credibility and maybe an audience. It's not just a guess, either: The Readership Institute has done research showing that young people appreciate news coverage that makes them feel smarter and looks out for their civic interests.

What news decisionmakers have to get their heads around is that, just because research shows people don't like the news they get, it doesn't mean they don't like the news they COULD get. Let's, for a minute, stop assuming that apathy is about them and consider that it might be about us.

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