Read up on the sturm und drang in the news business and you'll find plenty of pundits predicting the death of print journalism in the next five minutes or so, along with a few (like myself) who think newspapers have still have some life left in them. Whichever side you're on, the debate seems to mostly focus on delivery systems and business models - print vs. digital, display ads vs. pay-per-click, and so on.
But all the geek-speak loses sight of a more fundamental problem: With each passing year, young people grow less interested in the news, regardless of how it's delivered.
Statistics bear this out. Both newspaper circulation and network newscast ratings have long been in decline, and the audience that remains grows ever older. (Even morning news shows, once thought immune to such trends, are now losing viewers.) A Harvard survey found that only one in 20 teens and one in 12 young adults read a newspaper on close to a daily basis.
Online news fares little better. A recent study found that in 2008, roughly 64 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds said they had viewed a newspaper online within the last year. But by 2009 that had dropped to 54 percent. The figures are even more worrisome when you consider that the study just measured whether a respondent had read online news at all - even once - in the last year.
I teach journalism at a community college in suburban Philadelphia. At the start of every semester I ask my students how many read a newspaper or news website on a daily basis. Typically, maybe a third to one-half raise their hands. And if this is the response in a journalism class, what might it be in say, an art history course?
Why don't young people follow the news more closely? In part, it's difficult for them to see how they're affected by current events. We live in a large, powerful and relatively insulated country, and it's easy to feel immune to the boom-and-bust cycles of the global economy if you're still a student delivering pizzas for Dominos and don't yet have a mortgage or a 401k plan.
Yes, we are at war in two countries, but unlike Vietnam there's no draft (and unlike earlier wars no national sense of shared sacrifice, either). And yes, we were attacked on 9/11 in a way that was once unthinkable, but for an 18-year-old college freshman the twin towers fell half a lifetime ago.
All of this is no excuse. As citizens we have a duty to be informed about the world around us. But if young people don't follow the news I place the blame mostly with those in the news business, and with newspapers especially.
From a Trade to a Profession
For the first half of the 20th century journalism was regarded largely as a trade. Barriers to entry were low - typically just a high school degree was required - and so newsrooms regularly had a healthy influx of young blood.
Then journalism schools - many of them staffed with theoreticians and academics rather than real reporters - sprang up across the country. Journalism became a middle-class job, then a profession. The pay got better. Newspapers, especially large metro dailies, started taking themselves very seriously. No longer could a talented kid just out of college or even one with a few years experience land a job at a paper in New York or Chicago, or even Seattle or Denver. Newsrooms grew older.
By the 1990s and 2000s, newsrooms were increasingly dominated by baby boomers at or approaching middle age. Not surprisingly the tone and content of those papers reflected that mindset, from the news sections to the arts and entertainment pages. If music critics raised on the Beatles and the Rolling Stones struggled to keep up with grunge and hip hop, is it any wonder the news business has been so slow to respond to the Internet revolution going on around it?
Now the news business faces the toughest time in its history. Thousands of journalists have been axed, dozens of papers large and small have closed and still others are bankrupt. The great recession and the transformation of so-called legacy media in the digital age have shaken the industry to its very core.
Yet most of the hand-wringing and analysis still focuses on us, the purveyors of news, and not on the consumers of news. To hear some media pundits tell it, if we just shut down the presses, go all-digital and find a workable business model, readers will follow.
But will they? Will young people suddenly become avid news consumers when the digital transformation is complete? The evidence suggests not. And while solving journalism's logistical problems seems tough but doable, discovering how to capture the attention of a generation that cares little for news in any form is another matter entirely.