News Agencies Mull How to Up Youth Interest

They drive the market in movies, clothing and digital entertainment, but when it comes to consuming media, young people just don't seem as savvy.

According to an overwhelming majority of the 109 high school students who spoke with, that's not their fault.

"The mainstream media and the 'Entertainment Tonight' media have kind of converged. My generation's biggest icons aren't politicians — they're rappers and rock stars," said Luke Rampersad, a junior at Gunn High School in Palo Alto, Calif.

Students interviewed said they were interested in the news, but wanted more stories focused on day-to-day life in countries outside the United States. More than half also said they want fewer talking heads and more analysis.

[Editor's Note: This is the second in a two-part series on young people's interest (or lack thereof) in keeping up with the news.]

For newspapers just trying to stay afloat amid declining circulation numbers, expanding foreign bureaus and beefing up coverage may not be a realistic option. Still, many news organizations are aware that their young audiences are dwindling, and they are trying to find ways to counter that trend.

MTV News is one of a handful of outlets that targets young people. Ocean MacAdams, the 34-year-old vice president of MTV News, said that while "young people do have a lot on their plate," they definitely have room in their lives for serious news. Under MacAdams' watch, MTV News' coverage of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, the Iraq war and the tsunami disaster (search) has drawn the attention of more so-called grown-up news outlets.

Recently, MTV News tackled President Bush's proposed changes to Social Security (search), a plan that can confound even the most news-literate adult.

"Social Security is one of those issues that, in our polling, young people are interested in. It's not at the forefront of their minds, but they do feel like the issue is an important one for them," MacAdams said. "The challenge is how do you break that down to be able to explain it in a news piece."

MacAdams denies he has a magic wand that makes young viewers interested in serious topics, but he does know a trick or two: "We speak the language of our audience ... it's in the way you tell stories."

Several newspapers across the country are trying to grab on-the-go, younger readers with thinner editions, in which stories are shortened and more young celebrities are featured. A recent edition of RedEye, the Chicago Tribune's youth-oriented "commuter" version of the newspaper, has Tom Cruise muse Katie Holmes on the cover and asks of Scientology, "What's the deal?"

The Associated Press, America's biggest news wire service, is at work taking its own stab at the MTV crowd. Its new product will take a more lively and energetic approach to packaging news, but without dumbing it down, promised Kathleen Carroll, AP's senior vice president and executive editor.

"There's a tradition in journalism of being fair and accurate, but no tradition of being dull," Carroll told, criticizing what she dubbed the "castor oil/spinach" approach to news. "There's no Committee of Reporters for the Defense of Dullness.

"I don't accept the either/or argument: It's not between right or fun, accurate or interesting, fabricated or true or dull," she said.

The new AP service, which still does not have a name, features more options for multimedia and allows readers to easily access background information or facts about new stories.

Many of the students who spoke with said they wished for more context to better understand the significance of news events.

"I wish the media while covering the politicians who were grandstanding and trying to save [Terri Schiavo's (search)] life, they would have also pointed out, well, they're also cutting Medicaid or Medicare, and how many people won't be given proper care and because of that how many people were going to die," said Susannah Fishman, a senior at Philadelphia's Central High School.

"I wish the media would make those sort of distinctions, if you would explain these are the politics behind the actions," she said.

While photos of celebrities like Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan occasionally figure into teasers for the AP service, themed photo essays and reporters' notebooks also carry a big gee-whiz factor while being informative.

In a prototype shown to, a photo essay on street foods from around the world showcased colorful images of roasted sheep's head in Kabul and pig's nose in Mexico. A reporter's notebook detailed the panic a White House correspondent felt while witnessing a bike-riding mishap involving Bush.

Rick Spratling, a director at AP who is working on the project, said the key to reaching younger readers is simple.

"If you have an audience not getting news in a traditional medium, you go to where they are," he said.

Denver Post editor Gregory Moore agreed that traditional media outlets like newspapers may have to rethink the way they deliver news.

"We have to stop writing our paper exclusively in a baby boomer's voice ... we have to end the 'us-versus-them' voice," Moore said, referring to what he thinks is the attitude the industry sometimes takes toward younger people.

"From time to time, if we can do stories that get their attention it will get them into the habit of looking into newspapers for information. We may have to make different choices in what we put on page one," Moore said. He added that the sports, arts and entertainment sections of newspapers may be useful in luring young readers into the habit of picking up the paper.

Some experts say they believe that the problem of uninformed youth is so serious that schools ought to require some form of civics or journalism education.

"It's not just a news problem," said David T.Z. Mindich, chair of the journalism department at St. Michael’s College in Vermont and author of “Tuned Out: Why Americans Under 40 Don’t Follow the News.”

"We need to insist classrooms and schools teach civics and insist students follow the news and current events," Mindich said. "We ask all college-bound seniors to do community service; we can also insist that they follow the news and understand civics, and that they become politically engaged."

Noreen Andrews, assistant principal of academics at Union Catholic Regional High School in Scotch Plains, N.J., agreed.

"I absolutely feel educators should encourage current events. I’m appalled at the lack of memorized knowledge [among students] — it’s not a part of academics in today’s world. Teaching them how to differentiate media sources, validity — that is the new tool, that’s the new knowledge."

Another educator said that news literacy is not just good for society, but has real-life benefits for students.

"If you want jobs, a future — we have kids come out and they're like test-tube babies, they just know what they're supposed to know but they don’t know what's going on around them," said Barry O'Rourke, a 32-year teaching veteran at Pueblo Magnet High School in Tucson, Ariz.

O'Rourke blamed pressures to meet standardized testing requirements on colleagues' reluctance to introduce students to current events. He said Channel One, the Peabody Award-winning news service his students watch for eight minutes a day, should be mandatory in all public school classrooms.

"They're spending billions of dollars on teachers teaching American history and American government because we can't relate to history with what's going on in the newspaper," O'Rourke said. "I'd rather have them know what's going on in Congress or the Supreme Court than the Articles of Confederation."

Most of the students who spoke with said they intended to become daily news consumers upon graduation from high school or college, leaving news media to decide whether they are bellyaching over nothing.

But Mindich said that the alarm bells are worth sounding. During his research, he found that parents have a heavy influence over their children's news consumption. In other words, though the problem of "tuning out" the news has gotten worse with this generation of kids, it actually began with their parents.

Fewer than half the students responding to the questions posed by said their parents have a newspaper delivered to their home. Very few of those who responded otherwise said they sought out a newspaper on their own.

One exception, 11th-grader Rampersad, said he flips through the two newspapers his parents receive — The New York Times and San Jose Mercury News — every day before and after school. But like most of his peers, Rampersad admitted he doesn't keep up enough with current events, though he was among the majority that expected to become a daily news consumer as an adult.

"We just seem to care more about what's going on on cable TV than what's going on in the world, but I don't think things will remain that way. When my generation gets older, we're going to care more about the world," he predicted.

Most studies, including those conducted by Mindich, found that people pick up the news habit by their early 20s or never at all.

"What we're seeing is almost two generations of young people who haven't picked it up and have no prospect of doing so," he said. "You see news consumption is down in all media, but then you can also look at how much people know."

According to Mindich, the answer is "not much." He cited a 2004 Pew Research Center poll that found that only 12 percent of Americans under 50 knew that Gen. Wesley Clark (now a FOX News contributor) was a candidate for the Democratic nomination for president.

Still, some in the media argue that the problem of uninformed youth may be overblown.

"If there's one thing that has never changed, it's the older generation's complaints about the younger generation not taking things seriously," MTV's MacAdams said. "It's just the natural order of things."