Grow up

Grow up

: I’ve come to believe that newspapers and network news are barking up the wrong tree trying to attract young people, holding their conferences and issuing reports and fretting about what they want so we can give it to them.

The problem is that such a strategy is inherently condescending and pandering and that’s why I don’t think it will work.

As a wise colleague of mine, Joan Feeney — my editorial partner at the founding of Entertainment Weekly — once wisely said, if you build a new product based on a demographic, you will lose. If you build a new product based on a great idea with passion behind it, you just might win.

Time Inc. — where Joan and I worked at the time — had tried for years to create magazines for women and consistently failed, because it was men who were trying to figure out what they — women — wanted. Freud couldn’t have successfully edited some of the tripe the regimes then published. As another colleague of ours famously said, the men at Time Inc. saw women “only from neck to knees.” It took Time Inc. years to learn that magazines aimed at women would fail, but magazines women like will succeed (witness People, InStyle, and others).

The problem with the youth strategy is that it treats young people as if they are alien beings. But they’re just people, like you or even white-bearded me. They’re not “they.” They’re “us.”

You don’t have to be young to use RSS or an iPod or mobile digital networks or wi-fi. You don’t have to be young to appreciate the conversation the internet enables. You don’t have to be young to question authority or distrust the press.

When we hear research about how young people treat news differently it could just be that they are the generation freed to think differently, unencumbered by our old-fart habits. If we old farts would free ourselves, we’d think differently, too.

So what’s the right strategy?

Serve news to anytime anywhere because anyone should want that. Join in a conversation because no one wants to be lectured to. Be honest and transparent because no one has to trust you.

It’s not about age. It’s about change.