- The Washington Times - Monday, June 2, 2003

Plain headlines, plodding newscasts and bombastic pundits don’t mesmerize the young and restless, the most elusive audience on the planet.

But one way or another, the under-30 crowd manages to get the news du jour — nibbling and gnashing their way through a variety of unorthodox sources for updates that keep them current.

Late-night TV, comedy monologues, online news sites and convivial buzz are increasingly part of the news diet among young people — a fact first uncovered three years ago by a Pew Research Center poll that found that 79 percent of them got political news from “nontraditional outlets” such as NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” or MTV.

Current events have become a delicious side dish to late-night shenanigans.

“I watch the news; I flick around the dial; I’m interested. But I also want to figure out what’s really happening, and why it’s happening. I want to provide a smoking gun on my show, not just a bunch of rhetoric,” said Colin Quinn, who hosts “Tough Crowd,” a late-night talk show on Comedy Central five nights a week.

Younger viewers have a distinct relationship with the news, he said, and filter much of it through their own personal prisms.

“These kids already know if they’re left or right, or if they believe in the latest conspiracy,” Mr. Quinn said. “They approach the news with their own predispositions. I do it myself. I do my own take on the news. I try to say the truest thing in the funniest way.”

That makes sense because among the young, news is no longer perceived as the final authority, delivered by sonorous anchormen in weighty pronouncements. Pew researchers also found that among 18- to 29-year-olds, only 33 percent “enjoy keeping up with the news,” 29 percent read a daily newspaper and 22 percent watched the nightly TV newscasts.

News must have flavor.

Between the cacophony of stand-up routines and insults, Mr. Quinn throws out topics for his nightly guests to feast upon: terrorism, racial slurs, partisan politics, feminist pinings, criminal justice, the war in Iraq, school uniforms.

“The opening page of the Koran has more violence than the first two seasons of ‘The Sopranos,’” Mr. Quinn told a recent audience.

“The important thing is to get the younger audience’s attention, so they get some of the news; they get some of the topics,” said Mr. Quinn, who confesses a penchant for “The O’Reilly Factor” and “Hannity and Colmes” on Fox News.

“But you know, people go overboard on some of these networks. They think asking a million questions can pass for intelligence,” Mr. Quinn added. “There’s a scurrilous side of that, like if somebody goes and compares Bush to Saddam. I have nothing to say to them. They’re so obviously stupid, so obviously inflexible.”

The news becomes great theater toward the midnight hour, particularly on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” which features comedian Jon Stewart in the role of fake newscasters, with a panoply of fake correspondents.

“We go in, and our day operates, oddly enough and funny enough, like a news organization. We get in, and we have an editorial meeting,” Mr. Stewart told PBS’ Charlie Rose recently. “The only difference is we don’t have any news-gathering capabilities. We say ‘What is the story of the day?’ ‘I don’t know; let’s turn on the TV.’”

Fox News, which is winning the ratings war for younger viewers on several fronts, believes in “growing” a young audience, according to Marty Ryan, executive producer of the network’s political news and “Fox News Sunday,” which had more viewers aged 18-34 in recent ratings than CBS’ “Face the Nation” and ABC’s “This Week” combined.

“We build the audience. We’re offering younger hosts, popular music, faster pace, more entertainment. Packaging makes the difference,” Mr. Ryan said.

But the importance of reaching that audience goes beyond ratings alone. “We’ve been through two recent wars where the burden has fallen on the young,” Mr. Ryan said. “So it’s important that they hear the news of the world.”

MTV News Director Ocean McAdams believes that youthful apathy is myth.

“We know they’re interested. Everything we ever did on 9/11, Iraq and elections always gets a huge response,” he said.

Analyzing the political content of late-night fare has, in the meantime, become serious business.

The Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA) has tracked the frequency and nature of political jokes since the 1988 elections, when a total of 140 jokes targeting campaigns and elections were broadcast late-night on NBC or CBS during the three-month final campaign. In the 2000 campaign the CMPA counted 1,146 jokes.

Even in a non-election year, the 2003 count is already at 330, according to CMPA spokesman Matthew Felling.

As the focal point, President Bush leads the pack — followed by Saddam Hussein, former President Bill Clinton, Fox News correspondent Geraldo Rivera, Vice President Dick Cheney, Sen. Hillary Clinton, New York Democrat; Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat; White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, Al Gore and Osama bin Laden.

The jokes, Mr. Felling said, are “a nightly focus group where we find out what we’re comfortable enough to laugh at, and what makes us uneasy.”

Late-night monologues are ideal “for younger viewers who may not have the appetite for the roughage of current affairs programming,” Mr. Felling continued. “These programs serve as the teaspoon of sugar to help the medicine of political discourse go down.”

Print news is also courting the young set. Newspapers and magazines have hired focus groups to fathom the needs of hip new readers.

Earlier this year, the Columbia Journalism Review put out the call for journalists under 30 to share ideas for a “Dream Newspaper,” designed for the next generation of newspaper readers. Almost 70 responded. The youthful tastemeisters demanded more international news, more conversational tones and less “dumbing down” of complex topics.

PBS has also studied young news audiences extensively in recent years, including a “News Hour” investigation of “the media’s quest for younger viewers,” which aired in March.

Some of that quest is inspired by potential ad revenue. Marketing analyst Tom Wolzien told PBS that advertisers pay double and sometimes triple fees to reach 18- to 34-year-olds who have yet to develop “brand loyalty.”

TV news programmers have scrambled for fresh young faces, snappy graphics, sexy topics and a frantic pace. CNN’s “Headline News” began aiming at a new audience two years ago.

“They can dip on; they can dip out,” noted CNN’s Teya Ryan, who developed the format.

CBS President Andrew Heyward had a term for the omnivorous news habits of the young who glean news “from late-night comedy, from radio, just from buzz,” he said.

“It is kind of meta-news that tells them when something big is happening. Then they might turn to a more traditional source,” Mr. Heyward said.

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