St. Paul, Minn. — They probably don't know it, but Kelly Harrington and Carla Aguilar are a daily newspaper's worst nightmare. The two young woman, both in their early 20s, sit chatting in a cafe called "Plan B" in the Uptown neighborhood in Minneapolis. If you ask where they get their news, a long pause ensues. The two women smile at each other, and Kelly Harrington finally answers.
"Star Tribune... sometimes," she says. "Sometimes online."
The women say they don't follow the news that much. Kelly Harrington says she's especially turned off by the local daily papers because she doesn't think they adequately cover topics relevant to her, such as reproductive issues.
Just across the room sits another version of the problem newspapers face. Mai Rose, 32 is an avowed news junkie, but the Star Tribune and Pioneer Press aren't part of her daily media diet. She checks out alternative sources like "news from Babylon" or "Al Jazeera." Rose says she's turned off by what she considers the local papers' schmaltziness.
"I'd like to have more facts instead of feel-good stories about, you know, 'this soldier came back and this is what happened to him when he got back,'" she explains. "I think their stories are important, but personally I'd really like to hear the facts, the numbers; what's really happening."
Across town in his office at the Star Tribune, editor Anders Gyllenhaal is paying close attention to the reasons young people are ignoring his paper. He can practically channel the thoughts of the women in the cafe.
"There are many ways in which the paper simply wasn't including younger readers in the conversation that is a newspaper," he says.
Gyllenhaal's expressing a reality shared across the newspaper industry. Media analysts say papers have been losing readers for years. And, they say, papers need to start working hard now to cultivate people under age 20 as readers in order to enjoy their readership loyalty as adults. Competition with online news sources, television, and radio has already led to significant declines in readership and advertising sales, as well as job cuts, at papers around the country.
Media consultant and newspaper editor Dick Weis says a number of recent studies have that newspapers need to plug into people's experiences. He says that's what media consumers are looking for.
"They don't come to the media necessarily to find out what happened at a city council meeting. They don't wake up thinking, 'oh, I wonder what the the city fathers are doing today?,' unless there happens to be a flood in the community," Weis explains. "But what they do care about is their kids, their relationships, what happens to them when they go to work. And if we write stories around those themes and those topics, we can reach readers at any age."
The Star Tribune has been doing its own research for the past 18 months or so, trying to figure out the best way to bring more readers on board. In one experiment the paper engaged Northwestern University's Readership Institute to study what kind of news stories grab young people's attention. They produced versions of the Star Tribune that treated routine stories in unexpected ways, using humor and more stimulating visuals. And they found these techniques made the paper far more appealing to younger readers.
In addition, they found that readers liked accessing information through a variety of components, including Q-and-As and bulleted sections, not just standard narrative.
Editor Anders Gyllenhaal says the new Star Tribune draws from those findings.
"Here's a prototype of the paper in front of us. Each of these stories of any length has summaries on top, so you can grasp it. There's also a section called "One Minute Strib," that is a summary of the paper in a single column, if that's the kind of day you're having. At the same time, you turn the pages, and you can find stories of great length that go into international news," he says.
Gyllenhaal says the paper's redesign is an effort to appeal to all readers. He says the paper has not focused singularly on attracting more young readers as other papers have. In Chicago, both the Sun Times and Chicago Tribune have launched separate papers specifically targeted at younger people.
Gyllenhaal says certain sections of the Star Tribune do target young people. But overall, he says the strengths of those sections -- livelier writing, better visuals-- deliver what all readers want. So he says a personal finance section called "Ka-ching" has broad interest, even with stories about, say, college debt.
"Ka-ching is unapologetically aimed at younger readers. But we're finding it's of interest to all readers. A lot of us have children in this age group. Just because you're writing about college debt doesn't mean you're not interested," he says. "So Ka-ching turns out to have a lot of appeal, but it also is very pointedly being received well by younger readers. That's an example of what the whole paper needs to do, and is doing."
In a news meeting at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, there's plenty of talk about this industry-wide question of how to draw people in. About a year ago, the paper decided to strengthen its coverage of local news. And the paper's new editor, Thom Flatung, who just took over the helm last week, says better local coverage will bring more readers.
He points to a recent front page story about a Catholic priest in Wisconsin, whom a judge posthumously found likely to be guilty of murder. Flatung says it's the kind of story that can intrigue a wide audience.
"It's a great murder mystery, first of all. Who doesn't that appeal to? There are also issues it raises about the now well-known, unfortunately, abuse stories in the Catholic Church," he says. "That's a good example of the kind of local news story that we have. And we need more of them. "
Flatung acknowledges that newspapers are under a lot of pressure to do more than just good storytelling, though. That might mean embracing blogging, podcasting, or whatever comes next.
Media consultant Dick Weis is adamant about the need for adaptation.
"Maybe we shouldn't even refer to these businesses as newspapers anymore. They're communication empires, almost. They may have started out as newspapers. They have to get much better with using the Web. Some will be partnering with television or other vehicles. And a young reporter that comes into this business is going to have to have a facility with writing certain story forms for certain platforms," he says.
"I think what gives people pause, is that it appears as though the content is being downgraded -- the basic reporting that we do, " says Star Tribune reporter Steve Brandt.
He says he's worried about all the multi-tasking that will be expected of reporters where he works and elsewhere. He says it could take away from the important work of reporting.
And in the case of the Star Tribune, he's concerned that the reporting will be further diminished by the redesigned paper's greater attention to graphics. All the visuals take up space and could force reporters to leave out important information.
"And that concerns us because a lot of subtlety we do is in the copy; it can't be conveyed in headlines and cut lines and break out boxes," he explains.
And, finally, Brandt is concerned that the grand experiment his paper is doing won't pan out in an industry where job lay-offs are rampant. But media experts say unless newspapers can reverse a long decline in readership, more layoffs are guaranteed.