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Getting Young People to Read Newspapers: Three Models Emerge

By Philip M. Stone 

Young people will read the news. Compared with free Internet news sites by the thousands, they just donít see newspapers as good value-for-money and, as for content aimed at the 18-35 year-olds, newspapers are on a different planet. Add to that: Internet sites are so much easier to navigateÖ

But all is not lost. Newspapers are trying to fight back and the possible solutions are falling into three basic models:

Give away a tabloid to the morning commuter: The success of such logos as Metro and 20 Minutes Ė some of them the number one daily circulation newspapers in various European countries -- testifies to how successful this approach is. No subscriptions, no kiosks, just leave the newspapers in boxes to be taken freely at will and have them completely advertiser-supported. Keep the stories short, and make the stories those of most interest to the young and hopefully affluent commuter on his/her way to work.

Some of the biggest names in the European media have decided that if you canít fight the tabloid size then join them. Newspapers like The Times in the UK and Dagens Nyheter in Sweden have turned tabloid, as have many others. But turning tabloid alone will not get the young. While size is important, content is even more important and a broadsheet packaged into a tabloid with the same basic news package as before is not going to entice the young, although it may help stabilize the existing reader-base which does seem to prefer tabloid size.

The German experiment: Newspapers in Germany have tested a new publishing model which from first results appear editorially very promising but whether they make the financial grade is still to be decided. The general thesis seems to be that you canít take the existing broadsheet and turn it in something the young really identify with, so create a new newspaper directed at this demographic, throw out most of the old rules about how to put a newspaper together, and charge a low kiosk price. And it doesnít have to be given away.

Axel Springer, publisher of the national quality broadsheet Die Welt, has started the tabloid Welt Kompakt. It sells for 50 Euro cents Ė some 60% less than Die Welt itself. It has access to news from Die Welt and from the regional Berliner Morgenpost, but very little of the news found in Welt Kompakt is found in its sister newspapers because the target reach is the young, and they want something different Ė less comment and more news, updated late so its not stale in the morning, and a quick read which it tends to be with short stories and only 32 pages per edition.

The newspaper is now sold in eight cities, including the major centers of Frankfurt, Berlin, Munich and Cologne. The good news coming from the experiment, which started in May, is that about half of the readers were not previously reading a newspaper and that more than half the readers are younger than 35. The bad news is that while the company has not announced circulation figures it is thought to be no more than 20,000.

Other German publishers have similar experiments and experiences. In Frankfurt the business broadsheet daily Handelsblatt launched the News tabloid. It, too, takes copy from Handelsblatt and from its sister regional newspaper, Berliner Tagesspiegel, but its target is the young. It encourages SMS messaging Ė it devotes a page to such messages and other correspondence it encourages from Internet web sites. It carries material from magazines that focus on the lifestyle of the 18-30 year-old. Its distribution is around 25,000, but there are no actual sales figures.

Handelsblatt CEO Harald Musse, says that two months after News launched it had daily sales of 5,000 copies. More important, 62% of the readers were under 39 years-of-age and did not previously read a daily newspaper. 

Other German newspapers are tipping their toes into the water, but not all German publishers are convinced this is the right direction. Suddeutsche CEO Klaus Josef Lutz told Die Welt that he believes young people are not looking for a daily newspaper, but rather magazines that cater to their particular interests and therefore his company was pulling back from launching a youth-oriented tabloid..

Free newspapers like Metro and 20 Minutes do not have a foothold in Germany, The results thus far would indicate that with the right product you can gain young readers who had not previously read newspapers but circulation seems very limited. The unanswered question for German publishers is whether a little kiosk charge (50 Euro centimes) is 50 centimes too much.

The Washington Post Solution: If there was a newspaper in the US that should retain its readership it is the Washington Post. In the center of power, it has a highly educated readership. But it has suffered a 10% circulation decline in the past two years and the young donít want to know about the paper. After a self-evaluation meeting including top editors and business executives the Post laid out a plan to remedy the situation. What they do could be an exercise the rest of the industry on both sides of the Atlantic should watch closely.

Within a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) project the Post organized focus groups composed of people under 45 years of age, who had arrived in the area within the past five years and who either dropped their Post subscriptions or never had them.

The Post learned that with the 18-35s the problem couldnít have been much worse. Many of these people said they wouldnít take the Post even it was given away. They just didnít want thick old newspapers sitting around the house. They were also sensitive on the environment front to all that paper waste. The lesson was clear Ė the newspaper was too big, there were too many sections and too much material to get through in one day. What these people wanted was a user-friendly newspaper without all those stories that no one reads anyway.

Itís not, however, that these people donít like to read daily news. The Post learned that these people are avid news readers Ė but they really donít want to touch paper and they donít want to pay for their news. They are addicted to the Internet. The Post operates the second most popular newspaper web site in the US with more than 100 million page views monthly which means they have many of these people as readers, but they are electronic readers and they donít pay for the privilege. Is it coincidence the page views go up as the paper subscription goes down?

To strengthen the paper product, the focus groups basically said the Post needs to organize itself in a similar manner to a web site. That means a lot of navigational tools (frequent indexes, table of contents etc.) As for the news copy, it needs to be shorter, with more pictures and graphics.

Given a choice of media, only 3% of American 18-34s would read a newspaper whereas 46% would go on the Internet, according to the Online Publisherís Association. In Europe, Jupiter Research found similar trends -- that 27% of the general public have increased their use of the Internet over the past year at the expense of other media, and the trend is continuing.

The Post plans to keep its web site free. Itís strategy is to make its paper product look like, and operate like, a web site (or many web sites) so items of interest to each readership grouping can be easily found, encouraging the internet reader to spend money on the paper product too.

If the Postís strategy doesnít work, and the young flock to the Internet and stay there as they get older, then the age span for trees around the world is likely to greatly increase.

(Editors note: Since the above was written in December, 2004, a fourth model has emerged: The New York Times Company buying into Metro Boston to support its Boston Globe unit. For details, click here.)  

© Philip M. Stone of  Stone & Associates, a partner in followthemedia.com

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