Watching the embarrassingly awkward Oscar telecast Sunday night with my 14-year-old and my 12-year-old made me think about journalism and how bad it can be when you try to use style instead of substance to make a statement.
If my kids are any indication at all, the attempt by the Academy Awards to attract a younger demographic to the show was an abject failure. The kids understood what the show’s producers did not: If attracting a younger demographic is what is important to the Oscars, you can’t do it by putting new faces into the same old situation.
That brings me back around to journalism. Lord knows, I’ve presided over more than my share of task forces and committees and study groups intent on attracting “at risk’’ young newspaper readers. And I’ve spent more than my share of hours behind one-way mirrors listening to focus groups nit-pick website designs that serve up the same old institutional coverage.
All of those conversations were obsessed with cosmetics – color, story jumps, graphics, interactives, blah, blah, blah. We were trying to attract attention from people who basically didn’t care that we existed.
That doesn’t mean they don’t know that news exists. That is part of what is so exciting about news in a digital age – watching these digital natives find their own paths to engaging with journalism on their own terms. To understand those terms, we older folks need to:
• Recognize that younger audiences are news consumers, just not the way we are. In my experience, the appetite for national and international news is strong among younger people. These are people who are deeply aware of the times they live in -- their framework for the world was established on 9/11. They understand the historic nature of the freedom movements around the Middle East and cannot get enough of authentic coverage and analysis – voices from the front lines through social media and journalists who leverage fact to call out lies. My son, for instance, was appalled that anyone would criticize CNN reporter Anderson Cooper for calling Mubarak out as a liar. My son thinks that is what journalists do – weigh facts and tell the truth, even if that means calling someone out for lying.
• Recognize where they go to get their news, both from a device and from a channel perspective. When I was at the University of Missouri’s journalism school last fall, I asked a group of J School undergrads and graduate students how many of them even owned a television. In a room of 30 students, just a handful did. But they all used cellphones to watch video and read news. Aggregation and smart curation are vital to these news consumers. They want a variety of perspectives and topics quickly. But equally important is the ability to move beyond consumer to participant – largely through testing ideas and debate using social media tools.
• Stop judging their news choices. Lord, but we older folks (and especially we older journalists) can be a judgmental lot. This is where I’m learning so much from my own teenager. His news choices are eclectic – he’s following the Wisconsin legislative standoff, anything about Egypt and Libya, the federal budget battle, and spring training. Very little about Florida and absolutely no local news at all. The subjects that grab his attention grab it in a very deep way, and he’ll follow discussions down rabbit holes all through the web and social media. And no, he can’t always cite his source – but he can always find his source if I challenge him to produce it.
I was a news junkie as a kid. But the kids in my own life now are news sophisticates. They aren’t cynical; they are extraordinarily discerning. Seeing just how discerning they are makes me quite hopeful about the future of both journalism and democracy.
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