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The Campus Beat #7: Reflections on Student Media

By Chris Justice

There’s nothing new about the news.

Dispatches of doom and gloom about the newspaper industry and its failure to attract young readers in the 18-30-year-old age group are rampant. Consider these headlines: “Newspapers Should Really Worry,” “Young Adults Are Giving Newspapers Scant Notice,” and “Goodbye to Newspapers?”.

Photograph by Zioluc (at Flickr)

A new wave of related articles recently surfaced due to a mid-July report released by The Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. According to The New York Times coverage of that survey, “The results were especially grim for newspapers. Only 16 percent of the young adults surveyed aged 18 to 30 said that they read a newspaper every day and 9 percent of teenagers said that they did. That compared with 35 percent of adults over 30. Furthermore, despite the popular belief that young people are flocking to the Internet, the survey found that teenagers and young adults were twice as likely to get daily news from television than from the Web.”

Is this really news? And more importantly, what does it mean? I sometimes teach journalism courses, and I don’t read a newspaper daily, but I do consume lots of news daily. According to these numbers, only one-third of the adults surveyed read a newspaper daily. That seems exponentially more disturbing and revealing and speaks volumes about the newspapers themselves, not today’s youth. Reports like these also carry a condescending tone that suggests younger people are, subsequently, becoming more illiterate, and that since younger people don’t read newspapers, they probably don’t read much at all. The problem with these claims is that they’re horribly false, and these surveys appear as subjective and arbitrary as some of today’s reporters.

For example, according to this USA Today article, which cited a Newspaper Association of America study and was published when the Harvard study’s data was being compiled, “The average number of monthly visitors to U.S. newspaper websites rose by nearly a third in the first half of 2006…Overall, newspaper websites helped drive a 15-percent increase in the total newspaper audience for 25- to 34-year olds and a 10-percent increase for 18- to 24-year olds.” The Seattle-Post Intelligencer reported in March 2007 that not only are teens nationwide reading more, but the books they’re reading are more sophisticated.

Sure, it’s not a newsflash that younger people are reading fewer print newspapers. That is a nationwide trend consistent with most populations. However, to report the whole story, one must acknowledge the many streams of data indicating that younger people are consuming news and reading more diverse texts including Websites, graphic novels, and blogs. The type of news they’re consuming is changing, but they are consuming it.

Considering that enrollment in the nation’s journalism schools during the past several years continues to grow, one reason why fewer young people are consuming traditional news products is probably because they’re too busy managing and producing their own. And one reason why more 20-somethings are studying journalism is because they’re tired of the status quo in today’s old media: stale technologies; backdoor partisan slants; boring writing; limited minority and female voices, especially in board rooms; and an increasingly more troublesome neglect of youthful topics.

Commenting on that Harvard study, Larry Atkins in The Christian Science Monitor wrote “Hungry for younger readers, newspapers should embrace their voices,” an editorial that begins with this important question: “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?” Atkins urges, “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.” Bravo Larry!

More combatively but no less poignant, John Naughton last November scalped the newspaper industry at a Society of Editors conference for dissin’ today’s youth. In that speech, he stated, “But what one hears - still - from the newspaper industry is that there's something wrong with the customers. And what one finds, on closer examination, is that the industry seems determined either to insult or to ignore them.” The Observer published this excerpt of his speech.

If newspaper editors spent more time engaging youth instead of counting how many are ignoring their products, those doom and gloom reports would change direction and carry the optimism of a spring bloom. If I’ve learned anything as a college professor, it’s this: if you want to connect with college students, you don’t talk at, to, or over them; you talk with them. And if you want something new about the news these days, ask today’s youth: they’re more than ready to have their voices heard.

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Chris Justice is the Director of Expository Writing at The University of Baltimore.

Photograph is by Zioluc. Published at Flickr under a Creative Commons Licence.

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