In today's Christian Science Monitor, journalism professor Larry Atkins offers the solution: Put kids in the papers. Give young readers writers they can relate to:
If newspapers want younger people to read their papers, op-ed editors should actively reach out to college journalism programs and try to develop voices that have the perspective of younger people. One approach would be to have several editors of local college newspapers act as regular op-ed contributors.In the pantheon of grand sweeping gestures, I think a weekly column filled by high school- or college-aged contributors would be a solid and modest move worth trying. There would be very little along the lines of capital invested, while potentially opening up a new audience. Perhaps the newspapers could augment it with streaming video on its website. (High schoolers are just as advanced as you'd think, if not more -- take a look at what some impressive students I spoke to last week are doing online.) Or a newspaper could hold an American Idol-esque "Columnist of Tomorrow" promotion, while rewarding precise writing and critical thinking. (Hey, use the celebrity culture of journalism for good once, you know?)
Newspapers also need to focus more on issues that young people are concerned about.
If newspapers can address relevant topics and include younger voices, it's possible that young people might conclude that newspapers aren't just for their parents and grandparents.
But that only gets us past the how question surrounding young columnists. Normally, after the chicken-or-egg argument gets stale – about a beer and a half's worth of discussion, by my rigorous calculations – the conversation inevitably leads towards the who question: Whether or not there are solid writers out there. As far as Atkins is concerned, the answer is a resounding 'yes.' -- and I must violently agree. I speak with high schoolers and college students on a very regular basis, and where they are in terms of media literacy and awareness ... well, they get it.
Back in the days, I used to be a contributor to a small Gannett teen publication called Young D.C. -- an assemblage of the most engaged teenage journalist wannabes in the Capital Area. It provided an instructive and constructive taste of journalism outside of high school hallways. Today's young journalists-in-training are just as ambitious and aware as they were back in my high school days. Newspapers should take this suggestion and run with it, to cultivate tomorrow's talent as well as tomorrow's readers.