Have you seen any 18 to 34-year-olds out there? More to the point, have you seen any 18 to 34-year-olds reading a newspaper -- this one or any other?
That's a problem in the newspaper business, as the longtime newspaper business analyst John Morton wrote in the latest issue of the American Journalism Review. Morton was commenting on the publication of two new tabloid newspapers in Chicago: The RedEye, launched last fall by the Chicago Tribune, and the Red Streak, started up a few days later by the Tribune's fierce rival, the Chicago Sun-Times. As Morton wrote:
"These are not your father's newspapers. Stories are short and never jump to an inside page. The layout is splashy and content is heavily (well, maybe lightly is a better word) oriented toward, you guessed it, entertainment, celebrities, sports, and the blood-and-gore stuff that dominates local television coverage . . . They are designed to entice young people into a newspaper-reading habit."
When Morton speaks, I always listen. At my first job in professional journalism, as a summer reporter for the Binghamton, New York, Evening Press in the late 1960s, John Morton -- then known as Jack Morton -- was the assistant city editor. He gave me my most memorable lesson in deadlines. I was laboring over a late-breaking story. The piece was in the typewriter and I was searching for some elusive word. Morton stood over my desk, watched the second hand of the clock hit the 12, and then announced "time's up."
"No, I'm not finished," I argued.
"Yes, you are," he replied, as he yanked the unfinished piece out of the carriage. Morton promptly put it into his typewriter, clacked out another sentence or so, and sent the copy on its way to the typesetting room.
So when I read Morton's 2003 assertion that the percentage of people 21 to 25 who read a newspaper every day has dropped by more than half since 1972, I paid attention and went back to an editorial query I had just received. The letter was from a 30-something California-based writer named Amy Alkon: "Hi there -- one of my alternative weekly readers (from Pittsburgh) moved to your area and asked me to try to get into your paper. Please check my column out. A lot of people pick up papers just to read my column. Enjoy."
Along with the note were samples of Alkon's column, called "Ask the Advice Goddess," which she says is being printed in nearly 100 papers around the country. What caught my attention was a promotional flyer beginning with this headline: "Seeking readers who won't be dead in five years? Read on. . ."
So I read on. There was a letter called "The Sum of all Leers:"
I'm a happily married man. I've been with my wife for three years. We have a problem: I look at other women. My wife can't bear it . . . How can I stop my wandering eyes?
The Advice Goddess's advice: There's a reason Botticelli painted "Birth of Venus," not "Peasant Girl With Missing Teeth And A Zit So Big And Hairy The Townspeople Mistook It For A Cat." . . People have always had a thing for beauty. Not just male people. Female people, too. . . Now there are some women who never look at other women. Most of those women are reading this column in Braille.
Judging from Alkon's samples, readers who won't be dead in five years have all sorts of concerns: A guy needs advice on how to get his girlfriend to wear sexy, high-heeled shoes; a young woman worries about her man, who has just taken a new job and who spends lots of solo time with his co-workers, including a particular girl who is "no threat looks-wise" but still causes concern; another woman who has a fantastic relationship with a guy ("and a great time in bed") wonders why he never tells her how he really feels. (A small portion of Alkon's answer: "While men give the impression that they've mastered complex language, their natural vocabulary is more along the lines of `Me hungry. Me horny. Me tired. Where's the remote.")
These 18 to 34-year-olds, I thought, may not read, but they sure do have the gift of gab. Turning back to Morton's column in the American Journalism Review, I was comforted by the fact that the 18 to 34-year-olds don't rank high as spenders, either.
Even though many advertisers worship the younger age group, Morton reports, "people 50 and older, a rapidly growing segment of the population, are responsible for half of all spending on goods and services," according to a recent article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine titled "The Myth of `18 to 34'."
So if you do see an 18 to 34-year-old reading this newspaper, take note. You might have discovered a young person who does not need an Advice Goddess to get ahead.