Desperately seeking youth

Get 'em while they're young. It works for cars, it works for toothpaste, and it would probably work for newspapers. Not only do consumers remain more loyal to brands they adopt in the carefree years, but if you don't replace aging...

Get ‘em while they’re young. It works for cars, it works for toothpaste, and it would probably work for newspapers. Not only do consumers remain more loyal to brands they adopt in the carefree years, but if you don’t replace aging users with the young ‘uns, eventually you’ll run out of customers altogether.

For newspapers, the need to appeal to youth is even more crucial, thanks to erosion in overall readership coupled with the fact that competition from new mediums, such as the Internet, is most intense for the younger demo.

‘If newspapers are going to survive as any kind of a mass medium, they gotta get younger,’ sums up Nicholas Hirst, editor of the Winnipeg Free Press.

Mid-sized papers like the Free Press, Calgary Herald, Hamilton Spectator and Ottawa Citizen are in a unique position in this regard. According to the Canadian News-paper Association, these four papers occupy positions seven through 10 in Canada by broadsheet circulation. This makes them regional but big, meaning they have both more opportunities to connect with local youth than the nationals, and more competition for youth than the community papers.

According to NADbank’s latest figures, a healthy 55% of Canadians ages 18 to 24 said they had read a daily the day before. However, none of the larger mid-tier papers can lay claim to such high youth readership figures (see accompanying chart on this page), as the larger urban centres also have the most competitive markets.

‘In the Hamilton market, you’d be hard-pressed to find a street corner in this city that doesn’t have the three largest newspapers in the country,’ says Dana Robbins, editor-in-chief of the Spectator. ‘It’s a staggeringly competitive environment, particularly for that age group.’

One way to break through and appeal to a younger demographic is to prevent the so-called ‘greying’ of the newsroom. Nancy Burt, associate director of the School of Media Studies at Humber College, has noticed that newspapers are pursuing younger reporters and columnists. ‘Just in terms of awards and scholarships, these guys are coming to us now, instead of us begging them,’ she says.

The presence of younger writers allows editors to keep in touch with relevant issues, and lends credibility to certain subjects. ‘Perceptually to young people, how attractive is it to have a 50-year-old music critic?’ asks Peter Menzies, editor-in-chief at the Calgary Herald.

The Free Press’ Hirst feels that publicizing such shifts in newsroom composition is important. ‘We have deliberately put our younger reporters up in the outdoor that we’ve done,’ he says. In addition, the paper has promoted itself through a series of computer-generated TV ads that prominently feature young staffers in the newsroom, a conscious attempt he says, ‘to show we’re not just a bunch of old farts.’

But while marketing is important, many feel that content is the key issue in reaching this target. ‘Are you publishing material that is relevant to them or interesting to them?’ asks Robbins. ‘If you’re not, you’re never going to bring them on board.’

The paths taken toward this goal can vary. While the Spectator has found success with its biweekly alt.spec section produced by teens for teens, Menzies scrapped the Herald’s teen page about two years ago, deeming it ‘paternalistic.’

‘I think you’re better to build the coverage right through your paper,’ Menzies says. To this end, the paper has expanded its high school and college sports coverage, merged entertainment, food and living content into a new section called Arts and Style, and expanded the e-commerce component of their business section to meet the demands of Calgary’s growing white-collar workforce.

Similarities across all four papers include a skewing of entertainment content towards a younger demographic. ‘Pop culture is really important, disproportionately so [compared] to people in the other age groups,’ says Robbins.

And every one of the papers spoken to has sought to update its design through colour, modern fonts, more pictures and increased interaction between printed material and the Web site.

Throughout this, each paper is struggling to appeal to different demos without alienating any one group. ‘We’re a marketing paradox,’ says James Orban, VP of sales and marketing for the Ottawa Citizen. ‘On the one hand, we want to appeal to everybody, which in most marketing circles is seen as a very unsafe direction. On the other hand, we try to target certain demographics.’

According to Orban, those aged 18 to 29 only comprise 20% of the paper’s total audience, and more than two-thirds of the group earns less than $30,000 a year, so it’s important to put that in perspective when assessing any changes. But while their overall income may be lower, Patricia McGregor, VP and general manager of Genesis Media, notes that, ‘The youth end of the adult demographic has the highest amount of disposable income, and the least financial responsibility.’ She adds that for most media planners ‘the demographic is a desirable one.’

The big challenge, then, is to pursue youth without losing the mature core readership. ‘Especially for the old established papers like ourselves, the fact is the community thinks of you as an institution,’ says the Herald’s Menzies. ‘You have to serve the entire market.’

He espouses a broadening of focus which he admits is a financial and logistical challenge. For example, the Herald has expanded its coverage of adventure travel and extreme sports, without sacrificing the fishing and hunting columns traditionally found in outdoors content.

Complicating the matter further are the peculiarities of each market. For example, the influx of thousands of young adults to Calgary in the last decade is a generally positive development for the Herald. ‘They have no preconceptions and they also have a thirst for knowledge about their new community,’ says Menzies. The Spectator, on the other hand, faces the opposite situation. Despite the presence of a university and college, Hamilton is statistically older than the Ontario average.

When it comes to sponsorships and promotions geared to the 18-to-24 demographic, the attitude of all four papers can be best summed up in the words of Orban, who declares, ‘We basically sponsor anything that moves in this city.’ He says the Citizen is involved in everything from career and recruitment events, to university business competitions, to the Ottawa 67′s hockey team.

Meanwhile, Julia Kamula, VP of advertising sales at the Spectator, says her paper is increasingly turning to cross-promotional tie-ins with other media. ‘We want to help create events that will draw more of a youth market,’ she says. She points to a weekly promotion with local radio station Y95 in which a mystery artist is printed in the paper. The winning caller receives a trip to see that band in any North American city.

In many of the papers, the investment starts even earlier than age 18. The Spectator, for instance, has a Newspapers in Education program that prompts teachers to incorporate the paper into their curriculum, as well as a Spectator Kids section.

Whether these changes make dailies more attractive to advertisers, who tend to turn to TV, radio, and outdoor when they have their hearts set on teens and young adults, is a thorny issue.

Hirst says he see a kind of bipolar attitude when it comes to reaching the young through the newspaper medium. While many planners say they perceive papers as an ‘older’ medium, he also sees whacks of ads for economy cars, cell phones and clothing aimed at the younger set in newsprint.

Meanwhile, Genesis’ McGregor could see the medium itself putting off advertising types who want to aim young, as it might not seem like the right setting for humour and irony. ‘I think most copywriters would tell you that edginess is harder to get across in a print ad,’ she says.

As for the future, most don’t foresee the competing interests of converged media companies adversely affecting the youth issue in the local market. ‘There’s a need and desire on behalf of everybody to attract those younger listeners, viewers or readers,’ says Kamula. Orban echoes that sentiment, adding that as part of a highly converged CanWest-Southam group, the Citizen is a more attractive partner than, say, a Chum or Rawlco radio station.

Robbins feels that the panic touched off by circulation losses a decade ago has gradually subsided to a considered cool-headedness, which has resulted in better strategies to deal with several important issues, including the younger readership question. ‘There’s been much clearer thinking about investing in journalism, and investing in the product that has made newspapers more attractive, period.’

Orban, like the rest, is banking on the young people of today becoming the adult readers of tomorrow. ‘We’re just hoping when they move on to their careers that there’s a place in their life for the daily newspaper.’