Beckoning to the Lost Generation

It began for us with Dad reading our favorite comic strip out loud on Sunday morning. Soon we could handle the comics by ourself and quickly we moved into sports. Much much later, about the time we set off for college, we started reading the news.

These days, a lot of kids never take step one. As they grow up, the daily paper stays a stranger. “If you look back to when you were six, what did TV mean in your life then?” said Glenn Guzzo, a Knight-Ridder executive, reflecting on this ominous phenomenon. “TV was black-and-white, a novelty.” (Our house didn’t even have one.) “Your kids don’t have the same family traditions that you have. The chain is broken.”

And American newspapers are preoccupied with repairing it. Ebbing interest in the papers imperils the industry. A 1967 survey found that 73 percent of American adults said they read a newspaper every day. The 1990 figure is 50 percent, down 23 percent in 23 years. Little kids aren’t interested; neither are their big brothers and sisters or even their parents’ friends.

“Newspapers have always had a problem with young readers,” Guzzo told us. “Usually when they start having families and laying down roots, that’s when they become newspaper readers on a regular basis. But the baby boom generation–never knowing what it was like to be without TV and, more importantly, being the generation that postponed getting married, having kids, buying the house–don’t have the same stake in their communities and in the issues newspapers traditionally have covered as staples–education, taxes, the pretty basic newspaper issues.

“Our challenge is to reverse that decline.”

The Knight-Ridder chain’s response is famous in the industry. It’s the 25/43 Project, an R&D crusade launched in 1989 to recover that lost generation. Knight-Ridder worked up flashy prototypes of special sections that stressed graphics and brevity; a 25/43 newsletter to employees was laced with the kind of injunctions that make traditionalists tremble: “Tone should be insiderish, passionate, emphatic.” “Advertising must be treated as content.” Think of the target audience as “potential users, rather than readers.”

In an interview with Editor & Publisher, project director Lou Heldman conceded the bloodlines to USA Today. “USA Today has become a generic description of the microwave newspaper,” said Heldman. “We’re trying to create the second and third generation of the microwave newspaper.”

The arena for the 25/43 Project has shifted to Knight-Ridder’s Boca Raton News, where, Guzzo told us, “dramatic changes” will show up this fall. The most important difference, he said, will not be the paper’s new look, although that will certainly come, but its organization. One of the ’89 prototypes was a four-page four-color “wrapper” that was a quilt of refers, briefs, promos, and indexes. Even the ads were indexed. “A key factor in two-income households is that there’s nobody at home with time to relax with the newspaper,” said Guzzo, and anyone too busy to browse needs a table of contents. “It permits people who are scanners to find right away what’s interesting. The key word is “information’: they have to be able to find what’s useful.”

If you read the Chicago Tribune at all attentively, you’ve noticed the same sort of concerns being worked out there. It’s all happening in a much lower key. But page two now carries a “Young Reader’s Guide” directing an audience that scarcely used to know page two existed to such treasures farther in as (to choose a back issue at random) a report on prom dresses, a Bob Greene column about grade-schoolers visiting Washington, and a preview of a TV show on Bugs Bunny’s 50th birthday.

Sports has “Preps Plus,” which has tripled the Tribune’s high school sports coverage. “There’s a fair amount of evidence that sports is a principal entry point for teens and younger than teens, especially males,” Guzzo told us. “Prep sports is as much a sell to parents as to teens. It’s a real good way to improve readership.”

The movie and pop-music features in the Friday section have been packaged into a separate pullout, Take Two. And a star has even emerged from the Tribune’s stable of teen movie critics. Caitlin Creevy of Evanston Township High has acquired something resembling cult status.

“She moved up from Mississippi a year and a half ago and she comes off as a southern belle in her writing,” Friday editor Randy Curwen told us. There’s an off-the- wall spin to her reviews that’s pure box office, like her rumination in the Pretty Woman take: “But what will this movie trigger? A prostitution epidemic? . . . I myself toyed with the notion of joining the ranks of the ladies of the evening. . .”

“Your perspective is very unique,” wrote the proofreading department of a local law firm. “We are thinking of starting a Caitlin Creevy fan club.”

“Most of the response to the teen panel has been from adults, which was a little surprise,” Curwen said, “although as a rule they’re more likely to write.”

Little kids don’t write at all, except at gunpoint to their grandmas after Christmas, so the hundred letters a week that “Spots” is drawing is taken as evidence of another big success.

“Spots” is a token of the industry’s desperation. Used to be, kids routinely began reading the newspaper by reading the comics page. Now the papers need gimmicks even to get kids interested in the comics.

“Spots” showed up last February as a two-page pullout in the Sunday comics section (the Sun-Times has something similar). “We’re not altruists,” says John Lux, the Tribune’s comics editor. “It’s in our best interest to get little kids to read the Tribune as early as possible.”

Spots, the presiding dog, asks for letters. Kids can send in their jokes or questions, which Lux says run along the lines of: How did Big Bird get so big? What are the rings of Saturn made of? And even, how does Spots get to work each day?

“Kids really look at the dog as having a personality,” Lux told us. That’s why an animated Spots is starring in a new Tribune ad campaign.

“One thing about Spots,” said Lux, “is that every kid who writes in gets a postcard back from the dog. It’s a lot of trouble, but it’s the difference between doing a half-ass job and doing a real job.”

The Tribune can’t afford half-assed. “If we’d done as well with baby boomers as we’d done with their parents, our readership would be soaring instead of being flat to drifting down,” Jack Fuller, the Tribune’s editor, told us.

Knight-Ridder may be trying to reinvent the brightly colored wrapper, but it’s hardly a new idea. We reminded Fuller that where we grew up, the Sunday paper came wrapped inside the comics section. “That was true a lot of places,” said Fuller. “I’d forgotten about it.”

Why not try it again? we said. He didn’t think so. It was out of keeping with the Tribune’s image.

Trust us, though. Nothing’s out of the question.

Who Needs Freedom of the Press?

A while back, Washington Post press critic Eleanor Randolph offered her own idea of why kids don’t read the papers anymore: they’re boring. “As newspapers increasingly try to be fair and balanced and worthy,” wrote Randolph, “young readers are wondering how anybody could take offense. Nobody could stay awake long enough to take offense, the young seem to be saying.”

Randolph is probably right. But her notion about the young was precariously extrapolated from a survey she’d received of 1,006 Americans aged 15 to 24 years, “Democracy’s Next Generation.” This was a project done by Peter D. Hart Research Associates for People for the American Way.

The survey’s general conclusions were gloomy–“Young people cherish America’s freedoms without understanding what it takes to preserve them”–and Randolph focused on two questions:

“Suppose a foreign country invaded the United States and tried to take away some of the rights and freedoms we have in America. Which one of the following rights or freedoms would you fight the hardest to keep?” And:

“If you had to trade off just one of these rights or freedoms in order to keep all the others, which one would you be the most willing to give up?”

“Freedom of the press” took a whipping by what Randolph called “a terrifyingly huge margin.” A trifling 1 percent of the young Americans polled gave it as their answer to question one (“freedom of speech” led with 34 percent; among other rights and freedoms that lapped “press” were “religion” with 18 percent, “pick your own career” with 14 percent, “vote” with 12 percent, and “own private property” with 8 percent).

And in question two, “press” turned out to be far and away the most expendable, with 27 percent of the respondents saying they’d pitch it over the side. (Again, “freedom of speech” led, with 2 percent; “vote” was second here with 8 percent).

Randolph said her first reaction to this survey was that it meant “we had a problem educating our young people about the Bill of Rights.” Her second reaction was that the press is so “big and powerful and increasingly nervous about taking on others who are big and powerful” that kids don’t see what needs constitutional protection.

What do we think? We think there’s truth to both of Randolph’s reactions, but that these two queries alone don’t support either one of them. We’ve always viewed freedom of the press as freedom of speech plus a mimeograph; to make it a freedom apart is to enter the dangerous territory of guilds and licenses and priesthoods. So we’d have voted with the kids.

Make us choose between freedom of speech and freedom of the press (and what an unworldly choice that is!) and we’d choose speech in a second. That doesn’t mean we wouldn’t care if the government owned all the printing presses.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.