The Washington Post, in a series of focus groups, discovered that young people are far less likely to subscribe to newspapers than people 35 and over. Frankly, that wasn’t a great big surprise to me or most other people living on planet Earth. What was slightly more surprising is that many of them said they wouldn’t even accept a newspaper subscription for free, as they didn’t want the papers cluttering up their house. Contrary to public opinion, most young people are not completely illiterate and are actually interested in news. It’s just that we want our news on-demand, targetted to our interests, and for free.
A few years back, I had a daily subscription to the Financial Times, a weekly subscription to The Economist, and a monthly subscription to Utne Reader. I like being able to read things in bed or on the sofa, and not from a computer screen. But I found in each periodical, that there were many as many articles I was interested in reading as those I was not interested in, and for the daily news, I often just wanted a brief synopsis rather than an in-depth treatment of each topic. If I was really interested in the topic, I could seek out more information myself. I also was getting sick of having newspapers and magazines piling up in my home, and I felt like I couldn’t keep up with the news because I was inundated with new material every day. The real reason I gave up my subscriptions is because I knew I could get the same quality of content and commentary from the Web for free without cluttering up my apartment and feeling pressured to read the paper every morning. While perhaps I could not read the same articles online, I could read others that were just as informative and insightful, and I didn’t need to pay a dime for them. In addition, I could get through my newsreading far faster when I was online because I could click just on the articles I was interested in reading.
RSS is an even bigger threat to print newspapers. Now people can subscribe to RSS feeds from a variety of news sources that are targetting to their specific interests and concerns. Imagine a newspaper coming to you every day with only the stories you are interested in, and you can see the power of RSS. I am primary interested in intellectual freedom, libraries, technology, and information access, so that is the sort of info I get in my collection of RSS feeds at bloglines . Paradoxically, I find now that I read far more than I used to, and I am much more informed on the issues I am most interested in. I still go to CNN.com to keep up with the latest world news, but for the most part, my news comes from RSS feeds. The only way I’d consider going back to print newspapers is if a newspaper came to my door every morning designed just for me with only the information I am interested in, I
Newspapers really need to look at their future online if they want to remain competitive. They need to learn how to reach people under 35, and it is not about adding fresh content or offering them free print subscriptions. Right now they may not have to worry so much, as there are enough baby boomers still subscribing to newspapers (my parents subscribe to 3!). But over the next 10-20 years, the market for print journals is going to change tremendously, and newspapers will need to be the architects of change or they will likely cease to exist.