January 29, 2006

Doing the Numbers for the Future

I am spending a few days at Northwestern University's Media Management Center observing one of its management development programs in preparation for a newspaper training project.

The program opened yesterday with a presentation by demographer Hazel Reinhardt on the changing American society and the affect of those changes on media use. As we know, the numbers and the trends aren't pretty - continued market fragmentation, aging (and declining) newspaper readership, and general disaffection by younger people with traditional sources of news (and other media).

Reinhardt emphasized the importance of cohort behavior in understanding generational media use - and presumably reinventing formats for journalism: Each generation develops its media habits young, behavior formed by the patterns, events and peer values of its age, and those habits shift only slightly over time. In other words, today's over-55'ers read newspapers at about the same rate (66 percent) today as they did 40 years ago. That means that the newspaper readership patterns of today's Generation Y (18-34-year-olds) - about 37 percent for daily papers and 46 percent for Sunday papers) are not likely change.

The good news is that this ascending generation is heavily online - nearly 8 in 10 are web users - so if we want to produce journalism that reaches this generation it is going to have to be conceived and delivered digitally.

This also means that current newspaper readership might remain stable among Baby Boomers at about 50 to 60 percent, giving papers another decade or so before it loses this audience. Think of this coming decade as a window for reinvention, an opportunity to restructure newsrooms, to rethink how we report, how we deliver and even how we define news, and to develop new economic models that can pay for the journalism.

These models and these new forms of journalism are going to have to reflect the increasing social segmentation in the United States - the clustering of the population in mega-cities (and the concomitant decline of physical community in favor of virtual community), the education and income gap between the society's upper and lower strata (with traditional newspapers advertisers aiming for the former) and the browning of the Southwest and other regional locations as Hispanics move to the top of the population pyramid and into the power structure.

All this means change, adaptation, innovation and creativity - traits newspapers have not displayed well -- which bringsu to the question: How should newspaper management programs - such as this one at Northwestern - confront this challenge? What should the newsroom leaders of today be learning in order to build the newspapers of tomorrow?

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Posted by Tim Porter at January 29, 2006 05:53 AM