December 12, 2005

EXTRA! EXTRA!

Aiming at Younger Audiences

New tabloid breed is more than screaming headlines but could they be blueprint to the future?

Aiming at Younger Audiences

A major aspect of new free tabloids, according to their own descriptions, was their orientation toward youth. Newspaper readership, like much news consumption, skews old. The average age of a newspaper reader is 53, according to the Carnegie Corporation of New York. (7) The only place people under age 30 gravitate to acquire news in numbers similar to their elders is online. (8) Philip Meyer, the Knight chair and professor of journalism at the University of North Carolina, has calculated, only half facetiously, that with aging demographics and even older people buying the paper less often (a few times a week rather than every day) the rate of daily circulation was such that the last 7-day-a-week buyer of the paper would die in 2044. (9)

So to what degree do the tabloids aim their work at younger audiences compared to the traditional or old fashioned broadsheets? Clearly they do in look and format, but what about in the stories themselves?

To gauge this, we examined two elements of the news stories. First we looked at the age-range of the principal newsmaker. Then we looked for any kind of explicit reference to the impact of this story on the young demographic (considered roughly 18-35 year-olds).

Based on these two measurements, the new free, commuter tabloids appeared only slightly more geared to the young reader than the broadsheets. The bigger difference seemed to be in their choice of who to highlight.

In all, 16% of the free tabloid stories focused on someone roughly between the ages of 18 and 35. This was true of 10% of the broadsheet stories. (A majority of the stories in both formats, 52% for tabs and 58% for broadsheets, did not center the story around any single person but rather on an issue, event or institution.) In the tabloids most of these 18-35 year-old newsmakers are celebrities such as pop star Justin Timberlake, Comedy Central’s Dave Chappelle and singer Amerie. While the broadsheets have their share of young stars featured on their Style or Culture page-front, they offered more serious youth news. Consider, for example, the front page of the business section in the Dallas Morning News on May 25 2005, which carried a story about two local college-aged entrepreneurs who created a wireless fetal heart device that monitors babies during birth.

Principal Newsmaker Age Group–All Stories
 
Youth-Tabloids
The Examiner
Broad-sheets
Total
Child (Under 18)
2%
3%
5%
3%
Young Adult (18-35)
16
15
10
14
Middle Age (36-60)
19
15
18
17
Elderly (61 or older)
7
7
6
7
Don't Know
5
3
3
4
None
52
57
58
55

Broadsheets even went a little younger. They were more likely to write a story around a child under 18—5% versus 2% for the newspaper tabloids—such as the Boston Globe’s story on local mid-teens who spend their summer evenings on the streets watching neighborhood drug addicts rather than taking part in organized programs.

Beyond just highlighting youth in the news, we looked at the extent to which the papers also tried to make some explicit connection about why the story might matter to 18-35 year old readers. Here the free tabloids and the broadsheets were similar, with neither offering much direct connection at all. Just 8% of these tabloids and 9% of broadsheet stories clearly tied the story to youth.

Youth Impact
 
Youth-Tabloids
The Examiner
Broad-sheets
Total
Youth Impact Explicit
8%
2%
9%
7%
Youth Impact Implied
7
7
5
6
No Youth Impact
85
92
85
87

In other words, despite the birth of the new commuter tabloids as a way to make readers out of the young, the content, at least of the papers in Boston, Washington, DC and Dallas, suggests the differences may be more in design than in the way the news itself is covered. There is little effort to explain what various news events—be it a Supreme Court nomination, the local education bill or even technology advancements—mean for young people.

This may have other implications. Since the tabloids appear to be staffed largely by editors who are taking wire copy and trimming it down, they may be in a limited position to explore other ways to attract new readers. They may not have the capacity to experiment with what other kinds of news the traditional sources are not covering; to expand the type of sources referenced in stories; to assign, and craft stories in a way that explores the implications of the news on younger readers. In short, they may be doing less than they might otherwise to experiment with ways in which narrative structure, language or other narrative elements might attract younger readers.

This may explain the Scarborough findings that rather than attract new readers or especially young ones, the commuter tabloids are adding something to the experience of existing readers.

Footnotes

(7) “Carnegie Reporter,” Carnegie Corporation of New York, Volume 3/No. 2, Spring 2005)

(8) Pew Research Center for The People & The Press, “Pew Research Biennial News Consumption Survey,” June 8, 2004

(9) “A Bright Future for Newspapers,” Paul Farhi, American Journalism Review, June/July 2005.