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Media companies must work harder, smarter to attract college-age readers

We’re fast approaching my favourite time of year. I love autumn – the smells, the colours, football, a feeling of togetherness.  

As a circulation sales manager, I look forward to the excitement of increased sales, both in home delivery and single copy, as the vacation season winds down and consumers settle in and prepare for the winter months ahead.

For most media companies, the fall also represents the start of a new school year and an opportunity to reach arguably the industry’s most important audience: young readers.

The idea for this blog post came to me when a potential client asked if the company I work for had ever done any Newspapers-in-Education funding programmes. I was somewhat surprised to hear this request, simply because most newspapers have cut back on investment in student readership programmes such as NIE.

This gave me pause to reflect on the importance of student readership and the fact that many newspaper companies have done away with important educational programmes because they often generate little or no revenue.

In researching this blog post, I actually found there was very little about developing young readership habits, etc.

Developing new readers should be a No. 1 priority for the newspaper industry. Millennials make up the largest living generation in the United States; larger than the baby boomer generation and three times the size of Gen X. (Globally, the age group that makes up the millennials represents around 1.8 billion people.)

In the United States, this age group represents more than US$200 billion in buying power. According to Ypulse Lifeline, 33% of millennials get their news from printed newspapers (still!), and 62% get their news from a news Web site.

This audience should not be taken for granted!

Even though it’s probably a given that young readers will eventually abandon print (if we’re not beyond that point already), they will still have an appetite for the kind of relevant, trustworthy news and information that only newspapers can provide.

The millennial generation (kids born after around 1984) tends to be very skeptical of news sources and wants accurate, informative news.

This makes sense given that many of them don’t remember a time before the Internet. They learned to become critical thinkers — and to question the information they read— at a young age. This makes them a prime audience for newspapers.

A 2012 survey, commissioned by Craigslist founder, Craig Newmark, indicated that, of all media, newspapers continue to be the most trusted source of news.

The key is reaching young readers where and how they want to get their news.

Many college readership programmes still offer delivery of “free” printed newspapers to locations around campus. My experience with these programmes is that they are a lot of work for little payoff when it comes to building a sustainable, robust audience for years to come.

There are very few locations on most campuses that are limited to just students, so the newspaper copies often get picked up by faculty, staff, visitors, etc. This is just not how students get their news.

Media companies need to become more strategic in how they reach young readers, particularly college readers. While many do still offer printed copies on campus, many are expanding college readership programmes to include digital access and social media.

USA Today College features a Web site and a Facebook page with more than 65,000 followers. Its Twitter account has more than 37,000 followers. The Web site features articles of interest to college students, as well as user-contributed content.

The Wall Street Journal has maintained a strong educational presence throughout the years. When I attended college in the late ’80s, my Economics 101 class required a 10-week subscription to the WSJ.

We used the newspaper in this class almost daily and, by the end of the semester, I had developed a strong WSJ readership habit that continues to this day.  

The Wall Street Journal continues to be prevalent on campuses across the country and around the world. It does not offer free newspapers on campus, and generally pushes students to digital subscriptions. In addition, it conducts campus-wide events that educate instructors and students on how to best utilise the WSJ in the classroom.

News Corp is also venturing into the education field at the elementary level. Two years ago, in partnership with AT&T, it launched Amplify, a K-12 tablet-based learning system. News Corp boasts that 200,000 educators and more than three million students are currently using Amplify.

While the curricula are not necessarily newspaper-based, this initiative provides News Corp access to a large and crucial audience that it hopes will be future readers of News Corp products.

Other newspapers have also launched innovative NIE programs that are sustainable and revenue generating. Nadine Chevolleau wrote a wonderful blog post on the INMA Web site in January about the Toronto Star Newspaper-in-Education programme.

Toronto began offering e-paper (the Toronto Star digital replica) as a cost effective alternative to deeply discounted print subscriptions.

As part of this subscription, students and teachers get full access to In addition, the Star invested in four newspaper curriculum-based workbooks and provided these to the teachers as part of the cost of the e-paper subscription.

While the Star did see a slight drop in school subscriptions when they transitioned to an all-digital program, the decline was less than expected. This is a big win for the newspaper, but also provides a modern and relative way to introduce newspapers to young students — probably in a manner that will be similar to how their generation will consume news in the future.

The West Australian in Osborne Park, Australia, conducted an innovative experiment with Generation Z (born between 1995-2009), where 12 students between the ages of 11 and 17 joined the editorial staff in editing a Sunday edition.

The students decided which stories would run and where and provided commentary on the various issues in the news. The students also had the entire opinion and letters page to themselves.

This experiment provided incredible insight for The West Australian. It blew up assumptions on both sides. The newspaper sold an additional 24,000 copies that day and the project was well received by readers. The West plans to expand the project this year.

Media companies must continue to invest in innovative ways to reach young readers. Journalism is as important to young people, if not more, than it ever has been. As generations become more and more saturated with information, they will seek out reliable sources of news and information.

For these reasons, it is important that newspapers continue to maintain a tradition of in-depth, reliable journalism.

Furthermore, media companies must start investing more in attracting young readers with the understanding that they will not look like today’s readers, and that the revenue model for these readers will be very different than that of their parents and grandparents.

About Dan Johnson

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