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Aug. 19, 2010, 11 a.m.

The kids are alright, part 2: What news organizations can do to attract, and keep, young consumers

[Christopher Sopher is a senior at the University of North Carolina, where he is a Morehead-Cain Scholar and a Truman Scholar. He has been a multimedia editor of the Daily Tar Heel and has worked for the Knight Foundation. His studies have focused on young people's consumption of news and participation in civic lifewhich have resulted in both a formal report and an ongoing blog, Younger Thinking.

We asked Chris to adapt some of his most relevant findings for the Lab, which he kindly agreed to do. We posted Part 1 yesterday; below is Part 2. Ed.]

Now that I have exhorted all of you to care about young people and their relationship with the news media, it’s worth examining a few of the most pertinent ideas about getting more of my peers engaged: the gap between young people’s reported interested in issues and their interest in news, the need for tools to help organize the information flow, and the crucial role of news in schools and news literacy.

A gap between interest and news consumption

The data seem to suggest that young people are simultaneously interested and uninterested in the world around them. For example, a 2007 Pew survey [pdf] found that 85 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds reported being interested in “keeping up with national affairs” — a significant increase from 1999. Yet in a 2008 study [pdf], just 33 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds (and 47 percent of people aged 25 to 34) said they enjoyed keeping up with news “a lot.” Young people also tend to score lower on surveys of political knowledge — all of which suggests that their information habits are not matching their reported interests.

There are a few compelling explanations for this apparent contradiction (beyond people’s general desire to provide socially agreeable responses). The first is that many young people may not see a consistent connection between regularly “getting the news” and staying informed about the issues that interest them. If we accept that most young people get their news at random intervals (and the overwhelming body of evidence suggests that this is the case), it’s easy to see how reading a particular day’s New York Times story about health care reform, for example, might be rather confusing if you haven’t been following the coverage regularly.

Many young people also report feelings of monotony with day-to-day issue coverage and a distaste for the process focus of most politics coverage. Some share the sentiments (about which Gina Chen has written here at the Lab) of the now-famous, if anonymous, college student who said, “If the news is that important, it will find me.” The cumulative effect of these trends is that young people go elsewhere to “keep up”: to Wikipedia articles, to friends and family, to individual pieces of particularly helpful content shared through social networks.

The “too much information” problem

Several studies have highlighted the fact that many young people feel overwhelmed by the deluge of information presented on news sites. (My two favorite pieces on this are both from the Media Management Center, found here and here here [pdf].)

This sentiment is understandable: On one day I counted, the New York Times’ homepage offered 28 stories across four columns above the scroll cutoff and another 95 below it — for a total of 123 stories, along with 66 navigation links on the lefthand bar. CNN.com also had 28 stories on top and 127 total, along with 15 navigation links. Imagine a newspaper with that many choices.

The point is that news sites need to be designed to help users manage and restrict the wealth of information, rather than presenting them with all of it at once. People can and are doing the work of “curation” on their own, of course, through iGoogle, Twitter, RSS, and social networks both online and off — but those efforts leave behind the vast majority of news outlets. Better design allows news organizations to include the kind of context and background and explanation — not to mention personalization features — that younger audiences find helpful. That idea isn’t new, but its importance for young people cannot be overstated.

Schools, news, and news literacy

News organizations need to learn from soda and snack producers and systematically infiltrate schools across the country with their products. There’s strong evidence that news-based, experiential, and interactive course design [pdf] — as well as the use of news in classrooms and the presence of strong student-produced publications — can both increase the likelihood that students will continue to seek news regularly in the future.

Many teachers are already using news [pdf] in their classrooms, but face the pressures of standardization and an apparent lack of support from administrations. A 2007 Carnegie-Knight Task Force study [pdf] also found that most teachers who do use news content in their curricula direct their students to online national outlets (such as CNN or NYTimes.com) rather than local sites, which suggests that local news organizations need to focus on building a web-based presence in schools. The Times Learning Network is an excellent model.

And when news media finally fill school halls like so much Pepsi (or, now, fruit juice), young people themselves will also need help to navigate content and become savvy consumers, which is where news literacy programs become important. The Lab’s own Megan Garber has explained their value eloquently in a piece for the Columbia Journalism Review: “The bottom line: news organizations need to make a point of seeking out young people — and of explaining to them what they do and, perhaps even more importantly, why they do it. News literacy offers news organizations the opportunity to essentially re-brand themselves.” The News Literacy Project, started by a Pulitzer-winning former Los Angeles Times reporter, is a leading example.

The point of these ideas is that there are significant but entirely surmountable obstacles to getting more young people engaged with news media — a goal with nearly universal benefits that has received far too little attention from news organizations.

I’ll conclude with a quote from NYU professor Jay Rosen, buried inside the 2005 book Tuned Out: “Student’s don’t grow up with the religion of journalism, they don’t imbibe it in the same way that students used to. Some do, but a lot don’t.” Changing that is the difficult but urgent challenge. I don’t want to be that guy who says “_____ will save journalism,” so I’ll just say this: It’s really, really, really important.

And I should probably mention that there are hundreds of recent journalism school graduates who would be more than willing to help.

Image by Paul Mayne, used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Aug. 19, 2010, 11 a.m.
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