Magazine article Editor & Publisher

The Real Problem with Print: Why Digital Natives Hate Newspapers

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

The Real Problem with Print: Why Digital Natives Hate Newspapers

Article excerpt

Several years ago, The Washington Post convened a series of focus groups to learn why most people younger than 45 did not subscribe to the newspaper--a problem persisting to this day throughout the overwhelmingly print-centric industry.

It's not that people didn't like the Post, reported the American Journalism Review in a 2005 article describing the research project. The problem was that the respondents--many of whom happily consumed news on digital devices--drew the line at piles of old newspapers cluttering up their lives. According to a Post executive quoted by the A JR, more than one respondent declared: "I don't want that hulking thing in my house."

Although the 50 percent-plus drop in advertising sales since 2005 has involuntarily slimmed down the Post and most other newspapers, the print product remains broadly unappealing to people younger than 45.

If publishers intend to make good on their long-stated pledge to pivot from print to digital products, it is important for them to understand the profound difference between the consumers they have and the consumers they wish they had. That's what we'll do in a moment. First, a few facts:

* Print newspaper readership ranged from 16 percent of 40-somethings to only 6 percent of those in their 20s, according to a survey last year by the Pew Research Center. In contrast, Pew found that 30 percent of Americans ages 50 to 64 and 48 percent of those older than 65 had read a newspaper the previous day.

* The repudiation of the print delivery system by young people is probably the single greatest factor in the sharp decline Pew detected in newspaper readership in the last decade. Pew found that only 29 percent of the American population read a newspaper in 2012, compared with 56 percent in 1991--the first time researchers asked the question.

* When I compared newspaper readership against the age distribution of the general U.S. population, I found that approximately three-quarters of the audience at the typical newspaper is 45 years of age or older, even though individuals in this cohort represent only 40 percent of the entire population. Attesting to the rapid shift in news consumption patterns, only half of newspaper readers were older than 45 when I ran the same numbers in 2010.

* The mature skew of the newspaper audience is a clear and present danger to publishers, because the sale of print advertising and subscriptions generates 80 to 90 percent of the revenue at a typical newspaper. The industry's dependence on print is a particular problem, because geezers are not only undesirable to many advertisers but also can't be expected to live forever.

In light of the above, any serious effort on the part of publishers to migrate to digital publishing requires an understanding of digital natives, the Generation Xers and Millenials who grew up in front of all kinds of screens: televisions, computers, Xboxes, iPods, Razrs, and, today, Androids and tablets. …

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