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Publishers of newspapers and magazines like to corral readers when they're young. If you can shape kids' info-seeking habits when they're in their teens or twenties, so the thinking goes, you'll nab them for life Because brand loyalty isn't just about offering the best product for the best price, as it is with, say, minivans or socket wrenches. It's also about image: Are you a New York Times guy or a Washington Post aficionado? Do you read The Wall Street Journal, The Economist or Fortune? Do you subscribe to Newsweek or Time? Is Wired more than the way you feel after a double espresso at Starbucks? Your choice says a lot about you.
From the perspective of publishers, the 18- to 34-year-old demographic is highly prized by advertisers - the people who make writing, editing and working at a newspaper or magazine a vocation, not just an avocation (like it is for most bloggers.) But there is trouble afoot. The seeds have been planted for a tremendous upheaval in the material world of publishing.
Young people just aren't interested in reading newspapers and print magazines. In fact, according to Washington City Paper http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/archives/media/2004/media1001.html, The Washington Post organized a series of six focus groups in September to determine why the paper was having so much trouble attracting younger readers. You see, daily circulation, which had been holding firm at 770,000 subscribers for the last few years, fell more than 6 percent to about 720,100 by June 2004, with the paper losing 4,000 paying subscribers every month.
Imagine what higher-ups at the Post must have thought when focus-group participants declared they wouldn't accept a Washington Post subscription even if it were free. The main reason (and I'm not making this up): They didn't like the idea of old newspapers piling up in their houses.
Don't think for a minute that young people don't read. On the contrary, they do, many of them voraciously. But having grown up under the credo that information should be free, they see no reason to pay for news. Instead they access The Washington Post website or surf Google News, where they select from literally thousands of information sources. They receive RSS feeds on their PDAs or visit bloggers whose views mesh with their own. In short, they customize their news-gathering experience in a way a single paper publication could never do. And their hands never get dirty from newsprint.
The Post experience merely mirrors the results of a September study http://www.online-publishers.org/pdf/opa_generational_study_sep04.pdf (.pdf) by the Online Publishers Association, which found that 18- to 34-year-olds are far more apt to log on to the internet (46 percent) than watch TV (35 percent), read a book (7 percent), turn on a radio (3 percent), read a newspaper (also 3 percent) or flip through a magazine (less than 1 percent).
And when young people go online, they tend to browse for news in much the same way they window-shop for jeans or sneakers: sampling a headline here, a blog entry there, a snippet of a story there, until their news cravings are satisfied.
For instance, Patrick Reed, a 27-year-old disc jockey, sound designer and record store manager in Manhattan, clicks to america.blogspot.com http://america.blogspot.com/ "for indie politics, Slashdot http://slashdot.org/ for geekery," as well as daily fixes of CNN.com http://www.cnn.com/ and Google News http://google.com/news - "probably five to 10 times a day," he said. Reed is afflicted with digital wanderlust and enjoys getting "different perspectives from around the world."
John Athayade, also 27, a web designer who works in Washington, D.C., buys a newspaper once every "two to three months," usually "because someone I know has a picture in the events section or something." Instead, he views news as "packets of distributed information," and uses NetNewsWire http://ranchero.com/netnewswire to aggregate about 70 news sources, including several blogs. "I typically will read entire stories within the news aggregator, bypassing all design (and) advertising" to get "to the content."
Twenty-four-year-old Max Fenton makes websites for fashion designers and tutors celebrities on how to use a Mac. He did his "best to stay confused about RSS until the last phase of this election cycle, when the news just started coming from too many sources." He reads the liberal bloggers of Pandagon http://www.pandagon.net/ religiously, because "they're anchormen" and "human aggregators of news" and "voices I trust."
Blogger Waldo Jaquith, also in his twenties, souped up his laptop with Wi-Fi so that he's almost never without internet access. Between classes at Virginia Tech, he reloads various RSS subscriptions and spends a half-hour reading stories or blogging his own, "so that people who use me as a content aggregator can get their news fix." He believes that "as news-reader (programs) improve and become more widely used, adding the sort of auto-filtering and smart-sorting capabilities of a decent e-mail client, their popularity will snowball."
He also predicts that print media, which he says his generation has largely rejected in favor of digital dissemination of news, will die off within 30 years, "when the dead-tree readers will die off."
What this world will look like is anyone's guess, but it probably won't include The Washington Post thudding on anyone's doorstep at 5 in the morning.
- "Newspapers Should Really Worry," Adam L. Penenberg http://www.penenberg.com/, Wired.com http://www.wired.com/, November 24, 2004 http://www.wired.com/news/culture/0,1284,65813,00.html
Adam L. Penenberg is an assistant professor at New York University and the assistant director of the business and economic reporting program in the department of journalism.