Kendra Hurley

Can Teens Save the Newspaper Business?

Early last year I attended a conference, hosted by the Time Warner Foundation, for adults who help teens produce their own media. One of the writers I'd worked with, 20-year-old Miguel, came with me. He listened intently when a panel of editors and producers from mainstream media outlets mentioned their desire to appeal to a younger audience. It's a hot topic, as newspapers and television news have steadily lost young readers and viewers for the last two decades.

Miguel sensed that he might be part of the solution. His articles for Represent, the magazine by teens in foster care, which I edited, were among the most popular with its young readership. Miguel asked how he might get one of his stories reprinted in a glossy publication. One editor politely explained that magazines like hers do not reprint stories--they want original material--but Miguel was welcome to pitch a story to the magazine directly. If they liked his pitch, Miguel could write it on assignment.

Miguel looked at me with an exasperation I understood. We both knew that his writing an article independently would likely be impossible. Sure, Miguel was one of the star writers at Represent, but he was also one of the trickiest kids I'd worked with. Some of Miguel's stories took him eight months to write, and I spent much of that time coaching him through them. For every 10 minutes Miguel sat at his computer working, he spent 30 doing something he wasn't supposed to--interrupting the other teens at computers, arguing loudly on the phone with the staff at his group home, hopping outside for cigarette breaks. Miguel required constant nagging and attention. My boss often remarked that each teen-written story we developed cost the organization $2,500, when he included staff salaries, overhead, and equipment. By that estimation, I thought Miguel's stories must be twice as expensive. But they were worth it.

His personal narratives gave unusually intimate views of struggling with mental illness, homelessness, and life in the foster care system. He also wrote first-person stories about more topical issues, like struggling with obesity, or bullying, from the perspective of the bully. Some of his stories had been picked up by listservs or other alternative publications, but often it seemed unfortunate that his work didn't find a wider audience in the mainstream media.

I knew why. As the editor at the conference had said, mainstream glossies and most large newspapers rarely reprint stories. They want original work. It makes their publication look better, and it gives them more control over content. But traditional newsrooms are not set up to provide the ongoing support many young writers require. Unless the mainstream press rethinks their reprint policy, or considers collaborating with professionals already working with teens, it's unlikely that a voice like Miguel's will appear in the publications read by most of the country.

The last few months have brought a flurry of articles about print media's losing battle to attract young readers. Now is an opportune time for the mainstream press to explore how the radio industry, online publications, and some innovative local newspapers have already begun adding the youth voice to their usual fare.

While many news outlets are losing young audiences, the newspaper industry is doing so at an especially alarming clip. Less than a fifth of 18-to-34-year-olds rank newspapers as their primary source of news, a recent study by the Carnegie Corporation found, and 12% of the young people surveyed said they "never" read a paper to get news. More significant, the average age of newspaper readers is 53, according to the Los Angeles Times. Studies show that teens aren't uninterested in the world: 44% of young adults surveyed visited a web news portal every day, according to the Carnegie study, and another 44% of online Americans aged 18-29 read blogs often, the Economist reported in April. Young people who are used to blogging, podcasting, and citizen journalism--where just about everyone is a potential reporter--"don't want to rely on a god-like figure from above to tell them what's important."

Rupert Murdoch, head of News Corporation, one of the world's largest media companies, suggested to the American Society of Newspaper Editors in April that newspapers have lost young readers in part because they have not sufficiently adapted to reaching them. Teens, twenty-somethings, and even thirty-somethings who are used to blogging, podcasting, and citizen journalism--where just about everyone is a potential reporter--"don't want to rely on a god-like figure from above to tell them what's important," the Economist quoted Murdoch, "and they certainly don't want news presented as gospel." And Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. told the Washington City Paper that research shows teens are "suspicious of adults trying to produce something that is of particular interest to them."

As a Nieman Reports study found last year, readers want to be part of the news dialogue, and young people in particular like attitude and strong beliefs mixed with their news. These qualities--spunk and analysis, news interpreted by a peer instead of an expert--abound in the radio spots, articles, and videos created by teens. And there's some proof that young people really do respond to this type of media. One study indicated that while the traditional newspaper industry steadily loses young readers, youth (as well as ethnic) media was "all the rage in 2004," reported. Circulation of youth and ethnic media papers had risen steadily over the previous four years and was expected to continue growing.

Understanding the appeal and importance of adding a youth voice to its mix, the radio industry has pioneered partnerships with youth media organizations. National Public Radio and its local affiliates regularly run spots produced by young people at organizations like Blunt Radio in Maine, Radio Rookies in New York City, Radio Arte in Chicago, and Youth Radio in the San Francisco Bay Area. The Public Radio Exchange, which lets public and community radio find and air work from other stations, has recently launched Generation PRX, which connects youth-made radio to stations nationwide.

Some online publications and news services have also taken admirable measures to spotlight teen-written material. Alternet houses the youth-written WireTap. Scripps Howard News Service wires stories produced at Children's PressLine, and Pacific News Service posts articles from its many teen-written publications alongside those by adults. Many glossy teen magazines have also produced blogs to get the voices of actual teens on their sites.

But in the print industry, collaborations between youth media and the mainstream press are comparatively rare. (To be fair, dozens of local newspapers have begun producing their own youth-written pages with mixed results. Not surprisingly, the best of these are overseen by adult editors who work full-time on the pages and manage, in person, a teen staff.) But few magazines and few larger newspapers--for which circulation figures have dropped most dramatically--regularly run teen-written stories. Yet, asks Barbara Allen, editor of the Tulsa World's teen-written pages, "what better way to draw in a demographic than to draw in the people you want to reach and let them do the writing themselves?"

The National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture's conference, "Taking Liberties: Freedom, Creativity and Risk in the Media Arts," represents one key opportunity for conversations about getting a youth voice into the mainstream press. Held in Philadelphia on September 28-October 2, the conference provides a rare occasion when members of the youth media field come together to share ideas, find commonalities, argue over the nuances of the work, and showcase the kind of media teens can produce. It could be an important opportunity for editors of all sorts of publications to see how other media outlets have benefited from bringing in a youth voice, and how it might help them appeal to a young audience.

In his April speech, Rupert Murdoch implied that newspaper editors must find new ways to lure back young readers. No one knows yet what that will entail, but if they come to the conference, they may glimpse the future.