Friday, November 29, 2002

NEW YORK —Five days a week, Tim Nekritz sits down with a cup of coffee and checks the latest news on his computer screen.

Although he grew up reading the newspaper, he usually finds the Internet a more efficient way to stay current.

“It’s just quicker and less cumbersome,” said Mr. Nekritz, 35, of Oswego, N.Y. “I can just punch up one bar on a Web page that says ‘sports’ and get what I need, as opposed to having to wade through all the other stuff.”

To the newspaper industry’s chagrin, Mr. Nekritz’s Internet habit is increasingly common. Newspaper readership among those younger than 40 is shrinking, a function of changing tastes and alternatives including the Internet and cable TV.

Although the loss of readers has been an industry concern for decades, the intensifying competition has newspapers worried that if they don’t do something now, they will lose future generations forever. So they are experimenting, launching new publications and looking for more cutting-edge features and columns.

“Newspapers are realizing they really need to do something and fast,” said Gregory Favre, a fellow at the Poynter Institute, a journalism-training organization.

One of the most high-profile efforts is taking place in Chicago, where the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times have started competing tabloid editions. The tabloids, named respectively the RedEye and Red Streak, mix original stories with content from their parent papers repackaged to present a more youthful perspective.

“Over half the folks 18 to 34 read at least one edition of the Chicago Tribune without the RedEye, and we thought we had the opportunity to encourage these folks to read with more frequency,” said John O’Loughlin, the RedEye’s general manager. “This also provides consumers and advertisers with another option.”

Gannett Co. publishes youth-oriented weekly publications in Boise, Idaho; Lansing, Mich.; and Nashville, Tenn.

There’s also an increased push for columns and other features that address the concerns and represent the views of younger people. The Washington Post Writers Group says interest is growing in its more youth-oriented syndicated offerings, such as “Tell Me About It,” an advice column written for people under 30.

And newspapers have stepped up programs that target high schools and colleges. Depending on the paper and the school, students might have access to discounted or free copies.

“We hear over and over again readers say that, ‘I was introduced to the paper in my social studies class, through my economics teacher,’” said Susan Mills, vice president of education sales at The New York Times, which first began reaching out to schools in the 1930s.

The Times also considers its Web site a valuable draw, but it’s not clear how many young readers are responding. The median age of a Times print reader is 43, the same as for its Web site.

“My impression is that newspapers see the Internet as having great potential for attracting younger readers, but the issue is the business model,” said Mary Nesbitt, managing director of Northwestern University’s Readership Institute. “It’s not a profitable business so far or at least not at the level newspapers have enjoyed with the print product.”

Experts say newspapers must learn how to provide readers with information they can’t get anywhere else in an easy-to-access format. But that takes time and money, a tall order for many newspaper companies that lack big budgets or patient shareholders.

There might also be some obstacles beyond their control, including the changing habits of would-be readers. With busy schedules and long commutes, fewer Americans are finding the time to sit down with a newspaper and with so many other information sources, they don’t need to.

“I read the paper maybe once or twice a week,” said Cindy Wei, 30, a zoology graduate student in Lansing who usually ends up watching the nightly news while she cooks dinner. “I prefer to read the paper, but it’s hard to find the time.”

At the same time, America is becoming more diverse, making it more difficult for a newspaper to appeal to readers who want specialized information. Even so-called alternative newspapers, which aim to provide a less mainstream perspective, are seeing the average age of their readers increase.

“A newspaper has to tell them something they really don’t know in a way that they care about,” Northwestern’s Miss Nesbitt said. “Just fooling around with the look and not changing the essential nature of the content or the way it’s written is not going to produce very many results in of and by itself.”

There’s little doubt that the stakes are high, both for the future relevance of newspapers and advertising. Most advertisers prefer the age 18-34 demographic, because those consumers are viewed as being more open to trying new brands and products.

“If newspapers want to get advertisers, they have to have this group,” said Scott Stawski, head of the Media Solutions Group at Braun Consulting. “And the indications are that this age group is rapidly moving away from newspapers. Most people outside the newspaper industry would say that these people are lost forever, although that’s not what newspapers want to hear.”

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