When we think about the average reader of a newspaper – the actual paper kind – the profile tends to be older, more educated and more affluent compared to a non-newspaper reader.
Combine that with the stereotypical image of a college student – younger and less affluent with their eyes and fingers glued to a screen – and you might think there’s little chance of ever turning a 20-something into someone who sips their coffee over the morning paper.
It might not all be a lost cause, however.
Marketing agencies are increasingly studying the emergence of “Generation Z,” those born between the mid-1990s and the early 2010s.
A white paper put out by MNI Targeted Media in 2018 suggests Gen Z isn’t as print-averse as some might think.
MNI’s study reports 83 percent of Gen Z-ers “turn to newspapers for trusted information” and they spend “more time reading physical newspapers and magazines without interruption than they do on social media, websites, and blogs.”
I first encountered these findings when they were released two years ago, and I was skeptical, especially as I watched local newspaper circulation numbers continue to dip.
But then I met a group of Gen Z-ers.
In addition to directing and teaching graduate-level journalism students in the Public Affairs Reporting program, I’m filling in this semester as the instructor for an undergraduate Intro to Mass Media course.
My PAR students are immersed in the news business, so the fact they read newspapers isn’t surprising. In fact, it’s expected.
But what about the undergrads, most of whom are Gen Z-ers and aren’t huge news consumers?
So I assigned them to buy a print newspaper, read it and write an essay about the experience.
I was happy to find that many of the students felt more informed, less distracted and trusted the information they read.
Here’s a sampling of my students’ feedback:
“After perusing through my printed newspaper, I felt much more informed about the world and my community than I usually do. When scrolling through social media, I find that I have a narrow selection of information despite the vastness of the internet. Algorithms and the ability to filter content excludes a wide range of newsworthy stories. The physical newspaper provided this range because it’s not as specifically tailored to my viewpoints and preferences.”
“One advantage that I experienced when reading the news in this format was that I felt I trusted what I was reading more. I also like how organized it was and how I could find things easier. Sometimes online there are too many articles at once that it is hard to know where to even start.”
“The newspaper I think does a much better job than my daily media consumption on Facebook and Twitter. Overall, I felt that in the newspaper there is just more reporting and less room for manipulation. The classic feel of the newspaper just gives you a sense of security in the information.”
“I cared more about what I was reading when it was in my hands compared to online. Maybe it’s because our social media apps are basically a dump for all news, the good, the bad, and the fake.”
“As I was reading the newspaper, I noticed I was a lot more focused on the main idea of the article. I was not distracted by pop up advertisements. … In an odd way, I felt like the newspaper article was less biased even though the article content was completely the same. Perhaps it is my trust issues from coming across so many biased online news articles.”
It wasn’t all good feedback, however.
Some students complained about the price of a single copy (between $2 and $4, depending on the newspaper and the day) and couldn’t imagine having to pay that every day to read the news.
Others found it inconvenient to get their hands on a newspaper. Availability is limited, if not non-existent, here on campus, which meant many students had to venture off campus to find one. And even then, it wasn’t always easy. In one convenience store on Toronto Road, the newspaper racks were shoved into a hallway by the restrooms instead of near other products.
There were also concerns about the paper being “messy, loud, and unwieldy” and “large and clunky.”
“I have a hard time rationalizing buying a daily paper because I would throw it away at the end of the day … where if I had a subscription online, I would not have to throw away so much paper,” one student wrote.
In terms of content, one student felt the print articles were too short due to a lack of space, while online articles about the same topic were more detailed. Another noted it’s much easier to find what you want to read online as opposed to thumbing through the entire paper.
So what’s the takeaway here?
Without question, newspaper companies still need to innovate and transform their products to better serve the digital audience, which will continue to grow and further exceed the size of the print audience.
At the same time, newspapers shouldn’t write off young people as potential print customers. Instead, find ways to address the concerns about the newspaper-reading experience – namely the price and the availability.
What if more local newspapers provided free print subscriptions to college students who wanted them? Deliver them to a place that’s easy to access – residence hall lobbies, entrances to classroom buildings, the student union. Allow more students to discover the benefits of putting down their phones to read the printed product so that when they leave college, you’ve hooked a paying subscriber.
And, of course, newspapers need to invest in the newsroom. Local newsrooms are the only outlets paying attention to and asking questions about important local topics -- city councils, school boards, statehouses, local COVID-19 responses, high school and local college sports. Newspaper companies, however, continue to cut reporting positions, taking away local coverage, the one reason people buy their local newspaper.
Jason Piscia is an assistant professor and director of the Public Affairs Reporting program at the University of Illinois Springfield, who came to UIS following a 21-year career at The State Journal-Register (SJ-R).
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