We will talk about coverage of the Columbia disaster this weekend on Fox News Watch. Every other TV news program has talked about it all week. Every print journalist has written about it all week. Every American has thought about it all week.
I do not underestimate its importance.But I need a break. Perhaps you do, too. Allow me to change the subject.
And to change it most appropriately, to news on the Internet. It seems that this brand of electronic journalism has become the medium of choice for many young Americans, men and women who want to find out what is happening in the world according to their own timetable, not according to the timetables of a newspaper, which can be stale a few hours after it is delivered, or a TV program, which might be covering topic A at the precise instant when a young American is most curious about topic B.
Precise instant. That is an important consideration to people like Meghan Attreed, an 18-year-old student at Hofstra University. Attreed was quoted recently on Newsday.com as saying the following: “Young people, like me, are used to things going fast because we were brought up in the technology age. Why sift through the entire newspaper when I can just go online and get it [a news story] in 30 seconds.”
The desire for speed among the young seems matched, at least in some cases, by a desire for superficiality. Says journalism professor John K. Hartman of Central Michigan University, young people “want the headlines but not the details. They haven’t been brought up with the idea they need to be fully informed.”
As a result, they prefer stories that are short, punchy, and perhaps even Saturday Night Live-like in their wit. A youth-oriented paper in Chicago recently told of a proposal for a smoking ban in restaurants. The headline read: “Kiss Your Ash Goodbye.”
The traditional journalistic outlets competing best against the Internet so far are the all-news cable networks, Fox News Channel especially. But the average age of an FNC viewer, as well as that of viewers for CNN and MSNBC, is much higher than the average age of an Internet news junkie.
As reported in this column a few months ago, the average age of the Brokaw, Jennings and Rather fan is, respectively, 56, 59 and 61.
But it is print journalism that suffers most from the Internet invasion; television is, after all, almost as immediate as the Internet and much more interesting to look at.
According to Newsday.com, which gets its information from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, only one out of three American families whose head of household was between the ages of 25 and 34 bought a daily newspaper in 2001. The figure in 1985 was almost two out of three. The average age of a newspaper reader is 53.
Further, says Newsday.com: “Between 1986 and 2002, the share of newsweekly readers under the age of 35 shrank from 44 percent to 28 percent.”
Newspapers and magazines are fighting back, but seem to be fighting against sound journalistic standards as much as for younger readers. They are doing more reports than ever before on rock and roll, movies, night clubs and gossip. They are doing more reports than ever before on college life and the social issues that most affect younger viewers--abortion more than capital gains tax rates.
But the Internet keeps gaining. It seems to have, for a majority of young Americans, the appeal of a frontier town in the mid-19th Century: it is brash, lively, risky, uncharted and titillating. If it can one day add reliable, accurate and thorough to its list of adjectives, it may make the traditional newspaper something of a ghost town.
Eric Burns is the host of Fox News Watch which airs Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT and Sundays at 1:30 a.m. ET/10:30 p.m. PT, 6:30 a.m. ET/3:30 a.m. PT, and 11 p.. ET/8 p.m. PT .