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Newspaper Web Sites Struggle to Attract Younger Readers

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Online editors who have managed to attract the elusive younger set make it sound so simple: Give them content they'll want to read and forums online where they can meet and discuss things that matter to them

Ever since Mike Noe got to the Rocky Mountain News in 1999, he?s noticed the youth readership numbers getting worse.

"All the market research shows that the readership is skewing older," said Noe, the paper?s Internet news editor.

Surveys show that about half of 20 to 29 year olds read the newspaper every day in 1972; by 1998, just 20 percent of twenty somethings read the paper every day.

"The younger audience is not subscribing to the newspapers. This is a major concern for us," said Noe. "But we also know where they are -- they?re on the Internet. We?re just trying to get them to look at our site."

But for many papers, getting young readers to look at newspaper Web sites is even more difficult than getting them to pick up a printed paper. The problem? Many news sites don?t offer the kind of features younger readers are looking for online, like instant messaging, games and music downloads. 

And even when younger readers go looking for things online that newspapers do provide -- studies show they?re deeply interested in classifieds, movie times and entertainment listings, for example -- they?re likely to look to eBayFandango, Yahoo and Monster, not the paper's Web site.

"Yahoo is a 500-pound gorilla," said Noe. "They?re a huge Web site, and it?s difficult to come up against them and try to gain back our local audience."

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Efforts to win over the younger online audience are not going well: According to a study by Dallas-based Belden Associates, 13 percent of U.S. print newspaper readers are between 18 and 24, but only 9 percent of online newspaper readers are in that age range.

The survey, conducted last spring, found online news sites did better in the 25-to-34 age range, which makes up more than 25 percent of online newspapers' audience. Belden surveyed 8,000 online newspaper readers in five markets for the study this spring, and 25,000 print readers in 47 markets over the last three years.

A similar study by Minnesota Opinion Research Inc. (MORI) confirmed those findings, showing that 11 percent of online newspaper readers are between 18 and 25.

According to Gary Meo, executive vice president at New York-based Scarborough Research, the expected increase in online youth readership hasn?t shown up yet in Scarborough?s multi-market database of 200,000 telephone surveys.

"Intuitively, I would expect 18-to-24 year olds reading print less and reading online more," he said. Instead, data from the past three years shows little movement in either direction. Youths were more than four times as likely to read a print paper than to read it online, the data showed.

So how can online newspapers get better at attracting the young reader?

Those who have managed to build a large and loyal readership among the younger set make it sound simple: Provide content they want to read, give them forums where they can meet and discuss their interests, let them contribute to your reports about their activities.

"My advice is look for communities of young people who feel ignored by the print product," then write to their issues and give them a forum where they can discuss their issues, said Jon Donley, editor at New Orleans-based Nola.com, the online presence of The Times-Picayune. (Q&A with Jon Donley)

Some 29 percent of Nola.com readers are between 18 and 24 -- compared to just 12 percent of the print publication. 

"The goal is to capture that youth audience.  What we?re trying to do with our Web sites is grab them and show them that even though they may not like the Rocky Mountain News in print, we offer them information online that they may be interested in." -- Mike Noe, Internet news editor at Rocky Mountain News

"Any newspaper editor who deals with the public has a pile of complaints in his inbox from groups that feel they're getting passed over. These complaints are often valid ... such groups are the victim of small news holes and staffing limitations," Donley said.

Online papers should give overlooked community events --like high school sports teams and high schools bands -- "their turf online. If possible, let them build the content day to day."

Donley?s other key piece of advice: "Keep it local. Pre-packaged youth content has never worked for us . . . there are just too many much better niche sites out there on the Internet. What we can do better than anyone else is provide a local online community, in context of local content."

Noe, at the Rocky Mountain News, agreed that online newspapers can get better at attracting readers -- young and old -- by focusing on local coverage. Online, he said, it?s too easy to switch to USA Today or the New York Times for national and international stories. Online newspapers, he added, need to set themselves apart with robust local coverage.

The Rocky Mountain News offers plenty of youth-oriented content, including MP3 downloads submitted by local musicians and an interactive "Colorado Sexy Singles" section, where readers can vote on how attractive singles are.

The site is undergoing a redesign this fall to incorporate beefed-up local entertainment coverage and hipper content, like bar and club reviews and announcements for underground raves, Noe said.

"The goal is to capture that youth audience," he said. "What we're trying to do with our Web sites is grab them and show them that even though they may not like the Rocky Mountain News in print, we offer them information online that they may be interested in."

Get your game on

Some sites, like OregonLive.com, have tried to attract younger readers by offering games, but many have concluded that they can?t compete successfully with the sites that specialize in gaming, said Kevin Cosgrove, editor in chief of OregonLive.com.

OregonLive.com -- which gets 15 percent of its audience from the 18-to-24 age group -- gave up on games and now tries instead to attract younger readers with a focus on a different kind of game.

Like Nola.com, OregonLive.com is reaching young readers via high school sports and other youth community events.

"We do a high school Webcast in football season, which is a live Webcast that covers every football game in the state on Friday night," Cosgrove said. The Webcast is made possible by more than 100 community reporters who go out to the games with cell phones.

These volunteer reporters are students, parents, the lady who sells hot dogs, and even one guy who's a local councilman, Cosgrove said. "It's a real cross section of the community."

Students also shoot video for the site, such as at a recent cheerleading competition.

"There's a school here with a video broadcaster's program, and we worked with them on a number of different projects," Cosgrove said. "That's something I'm very interested in. It's good for us, and it also helps the kids because it gives them an experience of working in a professional environment, while we get the voice of youth and the energy that comes with it."

The sports coverage is supplemented with discussion forums, which are heavily used by high school students.

"If we're covering and producing material and content that people are interested in, plus giving people the ability to talk about it and participate in the coverage itself, then there's an energy to the site," he said. "It takes on a life of its own."

DallasNews.com took another approach to games. At Belo Interactive's punchbutton, gamers get a one-stop shop for gaming news.

Eric Butcher, the site's assistant editor, was one of the masterminds behind the punchbutton section, which runs on DallasNews.com as well as sister Belo Interactive sites in Seattle, Providence and Portland.

"We started it to try to attract a younger audience to the sites," said Butcher. So far, there has been no improvement over print readership -- just 9.6 percent of the audience at DallasNews.com is between 18 and 24, about the same as at the printed Dallas Morning News.

Butcher said he hopes that punchbutton will fill a need that younger readers can?t meet elsewhere. There are other places to go for news about new video games, he said, but many of them are too close to advertisers or alienate segments of their potential audience by being too focused on a particular type of game or a male-dominated point of view.

"We had a female gamer who wrote a weekly column for us, and we got a lot of positive feedback," he said. "It's a big chunk of the audience that gets forgotten about."

Butcher said that he's contemplating offering demo versions of upcoming games for visitors to download, but there are no plans to create original games for the site.

"Right now, we're really trying to focus on getting ourselves up to speed with what the other information sites are doing before we start delving into things like that," he said.

Getting interactive

Interactivity -- such as the popular forums at Nola.com and OregonLive.com -- is a big part of many sites' efforts to attract a younger audience.

At Metromix.com, published by Chicago Tribune Interactive, reader-generated restaurant and bar reviews are a big draw, said editor Leigh Behrens.

There are currently about 30,000 reviews on the Chicago-based site, and, aside from cleaning up the language when necessary and checking that the reviews are on topic, they're not edited.

"One of the things that sets us apart is the way we're willing to tell the truth about things," Behrens said. "Our audience has little tolerance for things that are overhyped."

For example, a Creed concert last December generated some 200 negative reviews. It was a viral effect, she said, as the reviews prompted other people to post their opinions as well. A rock critic picked up the story, and eventually the band apologized for the concert.

"[Young people] see themselves reflected on our site.  They're so anti-hype and so anti being marketed that we need to have an authenticity and openness." -- Leigh Behrens, Metromix.com editor

As a result of its strong focus on the local entertainment and dining scene, 40 percent of Metromix?s 300,000 to 325,000 unique visitors a month are 34 and under.

By comparison, only 26 percent of the Chicago Tribune?s print readers are in that age group.

Another interactive component of the site is this summer's Beer Garden Guys, a follow-up to last summer's Margarita Girls. The Guys are chosen from among the site's volunteer reviewers by an online poll, and site visitors also choose which beer garden they will go to next. The Guys are then paid to write reviews of the beer gardens, which are posted online.

According to Behrens, this kind of content brings the audience closer to the site. "They see themselves reflected on our site," she said. "They're so anti-hype and so anti being marketed that we need to have an authenticity and openness." 

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Related Links
Belden Associates
Belo Interactive's punchbutton
Clark, Martire, Bartolomeo and Shulman Inc.
Fandango
MORI Research
Metromix
Monster.com
Newspaper Association of America survey
Nola.com
OregonLive.com
Q&A with Jon Donley
Scarborough Research
The Dallas Morning News
The New York Times
The Rocky Mountain News
USA Today
Yahoo!
eBay
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Leigh Behrens, editor, Metromix.com

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Kevin Cosgrove, editor in chief of OregonLive.com

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