Do you know what you will be doing on Friday night? As the father of two kids, ages 13 and 11, I know exactly where I will be and what I will be doing after work Friday. In fact, in my house, when the clock strikes 10 the television announcer might as well say: “It’s 10 o’clock. Do you know where your father is?” My kids always do.
But others of you lead less predictable and more eventful lives away from work. For you, as I understand it, the Friday night question can be a dilemma: Where to go, what to do, and how to avoid the same-old same-old.
Therein may lie the salvation for little publications such as this one. Let me explain by back tracking a week or two to an appearance I made at a College of New Jersey course on magazine journalism. As a visiting lecturer in Professor Kim Pearson’s class, I began my remarks with an historical view of how the imminent death of print media has been exaggerated over the years. I was in the Time-Life Building back in the early 1970s, on the very day that Life Magazine was put to sleep, a victim of network television, we all believed at the time, and the harbinger of many more defunct magazines.
Since then, of course, I have made a living writing for magazines and newspapers that have all sprung up since that dark day in Manhattan more than 30 years ago. I told the story to give heart to the aspiring magazine journalists. And then I asked them: What magazines do they read?
Silence. More silence. The kind of silence that makes you realize how tough a profession teaching is. Finally Pearson helped out. She managed to elicit a few unenthusiastic responses: Scientific American, a few sports magazines, and some women’s books. Daily newspapers? The Trenton Times and New York Times got some mentions, but the sense was that the online edition was more likely than the print version.
Maybe the Internet does now loom over the print media the way that network television once did. A few days later I saw a George Will column in the Trenton Times. Noting the steady decline in the readership of the nation’s daily newspapers, Will painted an even bleaker picture of the future: While older Americans still read daily newspapers — 60 percent of those 60 and older told one poll that they had read at least one newspaper within a day of being asked the question. But the numbers declined with age. Among the 18-29 group, the percentage fell to 23 percent.
So the 15 or so College of New Jersey students I faced were not atypical. Will cited other statistics that showed that 8 to 18-year-olds spend over six hours a day with media in all its forms, but only 43 minutes with print media. “The young are voracious consumers of media,” Will wrote, “but not of journalism.”
So how does the professor teach magazine journalism to students who don’t read all that many magazines. Pearson, a 1978 Princeton alumna with an interest in interactive multimedia, runs a smart classroom, I discovered. By the time I got back to Princeton and checked my E-mail, my visit to Pearson’s classroom was featured on her Internet blog (at http://digigrammar.blogspot.com), complete with links to three of my U.S. 1 columns that I referenced in my talk.
The classroom featured an overhead projector that displayed a computer screen visible to the entire class. And that little feature may have saved my backside on this day. Pearson asked the question: What can the media do to get attract the attention of young people?
Something made me think of the Friday night dilemma. Who here likes to get off campus once in a while and have some fun, I asked. Hands shot up. Where do you go? Katmandu — especially Thursday night, when it’s college night, everyone agreed, referring to the big nightclub on Trenton’s waterfront. What do you do on Friday night? The answers included a few moans. The same-old same-old apparently gets to college students, as well.
With that I went to the lectern and pulled up princetoninfo.com on the screen. A few mouse clicks later I had U.S. 1’s events database on line, and began scrolling through the possibilities. Finally, for a moment, at least, I had the attention of a roomful of college students.
It all reminded me of a time many years ago, when the paper was just starting out and I was sweating blood over every word of every story. I never accepted compliments delivered directly to my face, because I assumed people were just being polite. But one time I overhead two strangers speaking in positive tones about the new paper. And what did they like most, I asked, pretending to be just another reader but hoping that one of my articles would come to mind.
The listings, these readers said immediately, U.S. 1 has the best events listings.
Twenty years later it’s the events listings that manage to catch the eye of the college kids. Now the question is how to hold that audience. I’ll work on that, starting Friday night, until the kids tell me it’s time to go to bed.