November 23, 2003

Big D and the F Word

Eric Celeste of the Dallas Observer, commenting on the battle for younger readers in Dallas between two new tabloids, A.M. Journal Express and Quick, blames newspapers' lack of appeal to 18- to 34-year-olds on their reluctance to print the "F" word - a metaphor for their inability to understand the complexities of this next generation.

Celeste writes:

"For a long time, Big Media Company honchos have theorized that young people don't read their papers because young people are stupid and don't read. This theory is wrong. Many young people read books, for example. A study done last year by the Pew Center found that more people in that age range read a book every day than read a newspaper.

"That's because books often have at least one of three qualities that young people demand, things few dailies have: 1) They're smartly written, because kids are smarter than you think; 2) they're useful, while much of what is in newspapers can be found easily and quickly online; and 3) they reflect the world young people live in."

When the Dallas Morning News launched Quick two weeks ago, I quoted Mary Nesbitt of the Readership Institute saying something similar: "'It's not that they don't read the local daily newspaper, it's that compared to previous generations, they don't read at the same level."

Smart writing, as Celeste points out, is a scarcity in newspapers. Here, for example, is the lead from Quick's Friday cover story about an exhibit by photographer Annie Leibovitz:

"Annie Leibovitz's famed portraits speak extraordinary stories. The close-up of a New York woman and her swollen eye utters words of sadness about domestic violence. The depiction of three poker-faced San Antonio girls in jerseys and bandanas waxes on about teen gangs."

Not smart, not even well-written. The lead resorts to several clichés and the story, in all its nine paragraphs, never identifies Leibovitz as the Vanity Affair and Rolling Stone photographer, which I would think would increase the interest to younger readers who may not otherwise be drawn to a story about a photo exhibit at the Dallas Women's Museum.

How can newspapers, as Celeste puts it, "reflect the world young people live in" when the journalists on those papers don't share that world?

"More than half of the people who read The Dallas Morning News or the Fort Worth Star-Telegram are older than 50," says Celeste. He could have added that the average age of the American journalist is 41 and nearly one in three is older than 45.

Newspapers need younger people writing and editing them, just as they've learned they need Spanish-speaking journalists to reach Spanish-speaking audiences.

Do they have to print the "F" word to reach that younger audience? No. But they do need to understand that, as Celeste says, "young people want the world as they see it: without filters. It's why they love The Daily Show. Because it's smart, informed, crude and passionate. Like young people."

"Smart, informed, crude and passionate" journalism may not appeal to those older than 50 readers (although I'm sure they'd embrace "smart, informed and passionate"), but one size of journalism doesn't have to fit all.

The mass news audience is a myth, a relic wistfully remembered of a time before television replaced reading as an after-dinner activity, before Vietnam arrived live in America's livingrooms, before the Internet enabled the audience to become the publisher and before those sought-after 18- to 34-year olds were born.

Journalism is not a 14-by-21-inch roll of newsprint. It doesn't have to happen in English, be written in language purged of passion or even be the product of a "news organization." Journalism is a set of values, a way of delivering information that embraces fairness, verification, civic discourse and concern for the public good. In fact, journalism should be smart. It should be informed. It assuredly should be passionate. And, at times, it should be fucking crude.

 Eric Celeste Curse of Youth

Posted by Tim Porter at November 23, 2003 05:41 PM

For comparison, here's's blurb on Annie: "As a photographer for Rolling Stone Magazine, Annie Leibovitz had a chance to develop the chops which have made her one of the highest-profile photographers. This biographical documentary traces this development through her years at Rolling Stone, her life on tour with The Rolling Stones and subsequent drug habit, on to her renewed career with Vanity Fair magazine, which finally established her as one of America's greatest photographers."
The context is a 1993 documentary about her.

Posted by: sheila on November 25, 2003 07:28 AM
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