Look who’s reading now
Special sections such as the Edmonton Journal's ed are designed to capture younger audiences. But as readers age, will they make the jump from hot flicks to politics?
If there were a People’s Choice Award for Canadian newspapers, the ed magazine office would have a shelf lined with trophies. Currently, though, the only way to win awards in the print industry is to produce articles that are accurate, analytical, well-researched, and timely. With headlines and teasers such as “Whaddya call the gym bunny?” and “You’ll laugh all the way to the Buddha bank,” ed doesn’t exactly fit the bill. Falling out of the Edmonton Journal every Saturday, ed’s a little goofy, often funny, and always ageist. But given its goal – to convince 18- to 34-year-olds that newspapers ought to be a part of their daily lives – it should be.
It’s Thursday afternoon and editorial assistant Lily Nguyen and photographer Shaughn Butts are on a typical edassignment – they’re prowling the University of Alberta campus, searching for students with creative T-shirts. Their task is trickier than it sounds; it’s another crisp, snowy day in the provincial capital, and most students are in long sleeves and winter coats. Finally, Nguyen spots someone, a student with “SICK” written in bold white letters across his chest. While the student relates his tale about buying the shirt in Australia and how he gets a kick out of the fact that so few people clue in to its message – he says “sick” is snowboarder-speak for “cool” – I talk to his friend, Tory Lalonde, a 20-year-old English major and, as it turns out, an avid reader of ed. “I like that it’s aimed at my age and has funny things to read,” she says. But she’s quick to point out its flaws. “It could have more articles about politics and less pop culture.”
Pop culture is a staple of the ed mix. So are tips on fashion, websites, and profiles of young Edmontonians. While ed’s columnists touch on domestic politics, and, even less frequently, on business or world affairs, most of its coverage falls on the soft side. It’s not what you’d think of as “great journalism,” but in the world of youth sections, that’s okay. In fact, it’s essential. ed and its kind aren’t out there to bust open stories and win awards; they’re there to serve as entry points into the rest of the papers in which they’re found, where the stories are more in-depth.
News junkies may scoff, but youth sections are meant for a slice of society that sees newspapers as irrelevant and dull – people who grew up with fast and flashy media options, from playing Xbox, to reading and writing blogs. The newspaper industry’s long-term survival stands or falls on capturing that techno-savvy generation. “Readership habits are established early in life,” says Mary Nesbitt, the managing director of the Readership Institute at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. In short, if you don’t hook them now, you may lose them forever.
Papers have been losing readers since the 1970s. But readership, explains Nesbitt, “is most in decline for younger adults.” In 1994, 64 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds surveyed had read a paper the day before, according to the Newspaper Audience Databank Inc. (NADbank), a Toronto-based industry-tracking association. By 2003, that proportion had slipped to 45 per cent. And south of the border, the Newspaper Association of America reports that the average weekday readership for the same age group dipped from 53 to 39 per cent between 1990 and 2004.
The explosion of new media shoulders some responsibility. While many point a finger at the Internet, the Journal’s research indicates the biggest competitor is the good old TV set. Still, to blame technology is to ignore more complex cultural issues at play. There’s a “growing cynicism” among today’s young adults, says Shari Graydon, an author and former president of Media Watch. They’re less likely than previous generations to trust politicians and the news media – one reason, perhaps, that a 2004 survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that a growing number of those under 30 turn to satirical programming like The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and Saturday Night Live for news.
Then there’s the question of relevancy: “Young people don’t feel newspapers speak to them,” says Bruce Wark, an associate professor of journalism at the University of King’s College in Halifax. “They think they’re aimed at and cater to baby boomers and their political needs and interests.” Young people may have a point. When Giles Gherson took over as the Journal’s editor-in-chief in the fall of 2000, the paper, he says, “struck me as rather old, as mature and silver-minded. If you were in your 20s, it would feel like it was worthy, but not very interesting.”
Deciding a re-branding was in order, Gherson, who is now The Toronto Star’s editor-in-chief, pushed to scrap the successful Saturday Living section in the Journal for a risky venture into a younger demographic. “When we started looking at this idea,” says ed’s first editor Kerry Powell, “we couldn’t find a model for what we were trying to do.” On December 8, 2001, the first issue of ed hit the stands. Today, along with it, there are dozens of youth-oriented sections across North America and Europe.
ed’s debut was low-key and free of any marketing or publicity. But as with any change made to a newspaper, reader reactions were anything but quiet. “We were getting dozens of angry, pissed-off emails, voicemails, etc.,” says Powell. Many of the responses targeted her personally. “What an immoral person you must be to have created this,” wrote one reader. While some directed their rage at the weak attempt at a sex column, others took exception to ed’s tabloid format and the fact that when you pick up the Journal, it literally falls out. Despite the fury, which resulted in a handful of cancelled subscriptions, Gherson and the rest of management stood behind ed. “You could view the angry letters as a testament to our success,” he says. “They proved we were doing something different.”
Three years and one dropped sex column later, readers have grown accustomed to ed. “Initially, people responded to the concept largely in a negative way. But then they began to respond to the content,” explains Powell. “To me, that says readers have accepted this as part of their newspaper.”
Powell left ed in March 2004, turning the role over to her editorial assistant, Therese Kehler. A former night-desk editor, Kehler says she was drawn to the magazine because of its entertaining and lighthearted approach. A quick look around ed’s office space, separated from the newsroom by two glass walls and a hallway, confirms this. For one thing, it’s the only place in the building that you’ll find a leopard-print thong pinned to the wall.
But a youth section shouldn’t just be a fun and fast read, a trap into which many American efforts have fallen. Jack Shafer, New York-based media critic for the online magazine Slate, has kept a close eye on the growing U.S. trend. A number of major dailies, such as the Chicago Tribune, have launched commuter tabloids, papers mainly consumed by young adults. Shafer has little respect for the abbreviated content of these pop culture and sports-heavy papers. “There’s nothing in them that speaks to excellence or imagination or newspaper enterprise,” he says. “They’re supposed to be good enough to read for 15 minutes, but never good enough to replace the mother ship.”
Youth sections perform a delicate balancing act. Even Gherson acknowledges ed didn’t always get it right. Originally, he pictured a product that was entertaining, yet also able to explore weighty issues with depth and analysis. However, he now says, “I felt we were never quite successful at getting a 25-year-old’s perspective on serious issues.” He’s right – ed is hardly a source of youth intellectualism. Still, Gherson’s not losing a lot of sleep over that. After all, he points out, ed isn’t supposed to be the front section redesigned for the under-35 set; it’s simply out to prove that a newspaper can be relevant to young people’s lives.
ed pumps out soft, entertaining coverage because that’s what its target audience demands. The most popular items are a weekly profile of someone doing something original or outlandish, a what’s-happening-around-town column, and the Style and Shopping page – all content that makes news junkies and those who favour the tradition of “great journalism” wince. When ed does take on newsier issues, it often uses unorthodox methods. In late 2003, driving while under the influence of drugs was a hot provincial topic. ed explored the issue with an experiment involving a computer-based driving program and two stoned volunteers. It was clearly a stunt, but it was also a fresh and, most significantly, an engaging look at a major topic.
ed’s political coverage tends to rely on humour, typically at the expense of Ralph Klein’s Progressive Conservative government. For example, a Christmas piece on what’s available at the Alberta legislature gift shop includes the “Miracle of the Ralph Wall Calendar,” a takeoff on the Anne Geddes and Céline Dion “Miracle” calendar celebrating birth and renewal. The cover image is manipulated so that Klein’s chubby-cheeked face is superimposed on the face of the baby resting in Dion’s arms. Not exactly deep and probing stuff, but its message should prompt readers to think about Klein’s lengthy tenure as head of their province.
Whatever its limitations, the ed formula seems to be working. NADbank numbers show that Saturday readership of the Journal among 18- to 34-year-olds rose six points between 2001 and 2002. “We can’t say absolutely that ed is the reason for the increase, but we didn’t do anything else that would increase those numbers,” says Barb Wilkinson, the paper’s deputy editor of readership and features. According to a 2003 survey conducted by the Journal on Edmonton’s three campuses, nearly 60 per cent of respondents read at least one copy of ed per month, while 95 per cent of readers flip through or read other sections as well.
Not all editors believe relevant youth content needs to be split off from the rest of the paper. Kirk LaPointe, the former editor of The Hamilton Spectator, is also a former advocate of youth sections. In 1999, the Spectator launched alt.spec, a weekly supplement aimed at those in their teens and 20s. The initiative failed to take flight. “We were never terribly clear exactly what age group we were looking at,” admits current Spectator editor Dana Robbins, “and the content tended to reflect that lack of clarity.” Management gave alt.spec just over three years to develop a readership before scrapping it for a single weekly page written by and for local high school students.
LaPointe is currently the managing editor of the Vancouver Sun, which uses frequent coverage of gaming, the Internet, high school sports, and music to attract young readers. He now thinks youth sections risk ghettoizing the issues. “You’re trying to show that the experience of youth is credible,” he says. “The best way to do it is to commingle copy that would be of greater interest to young people all over the paper.”
But there’s no reason why a paper can’t have it both ways. The Star’s weekly youth section, I.D., appeals to readers in their early 20s by focusing on personal journalism and stories of self-discovery. At the same time, more analytical articles relevant to young people – about urban violence or up-and-coming indie bands – can be found throughout the paper. I.D., says Mo Gannon, the Star’s Life section editor, is just one of several entry points for youth. It’s a mix that works; the Star is the No. 1 paper among Toronto’s under-35s.
Papers are courting the youth market because advertisers have stepped up the pressure to bring in a younger audience. In response, explains Shafer, some U.S. dailies have launched commuter tabloids, papers meant to impress advertisers with their high number of young readers. But they aren’t journalistic enterprises, he adds. “They’re basically designed to corral a set of eyes for the advertisers,” says Shafer. The Chicago Tribune’s decision to launch RedEye in the fall of 2002 is a prime example: the impetus was simply to preserve market share in the face of rumours that the commuter-paper chain Metro was expanding into Chicago.
In Canada, the bottom line matters less in the youth section business. But King’s College’s Wark points to at least one news outlet where short-term financial motivations may be trumping quality journalism: Halifax’sHFX, The Daily News’s weekly youth insert. “The things I see in there aren’t apt to make their readers the kind of interested and thoughtful people a newspaper needs,” he says. HFX, he explains, is too receptive to marketing campaigns by companies and industries wanting promotion, and many articles read like rehashed press releases. Wark also faults the section for pushing the conservative values of its parent paper.
As for ed and I.D., the focus is firmly on readership, not ad dollars. Falling under the Life section umbrella, I.D. doesn’t need to worry about paying for itself. Similarly, ed doesn’t pay for itself and is under no pressure to do so. “It would be safe to say that the cost is of no concern, given that the focus is on potential gains in readership and circulation,” says ed editor Kehler.
As for delivering new subscribers and long-term readers, there is no definitive research available that supplies proof. It’s a big jump from laughing over a Ralph Klein parody once a week to reading analytical pieces day after day on the Klein government’s decision to privatize electricity.
Wark, while not impressed by HFX, can see how a youth section could serve as a bridge in developing a new generation of lifelong readers. “If it really tried to have younger people writing for it and deal with political issues that effect them in a hard-hitting way, it would have more chance at success.”
What’s needed is something more along the lines of the Daily Show – a mix of humour, timely information, and insight. While ed is usually funny, it sometimes stumbles when it comes to the latter qualities. With one or two harder stories per issue, it could be held up as an industry model, a non-profit driven publication that combines featherweight items with strong, analytical journalism. Still, there’s enough substance in its current mix that it should create committed readers. Perhaps they won’t develop a thirst for “great journalism,” but they may get used to the feel of newsprint between their fingers, and reach for a morning paper before they flick on their computer or TV.
Back at the University of Alberta, Nguyen and Butts find enough creative T-shirts to complete the assignment, while I learn that ed really is reaching its target audience. Almost all the students I approach not only read ed, but have something good to say about it. They don’t care that edhasn’t won any journalism awards – they’re happy to have a piece of the paper for, and about, themselves.
Stephanie Girardi was a Spring 2015 departments editor of the RRJ.