To us in print journalism, it's hard enough to hear that young people don't think newspapers are important. But there's something more ominous on the horizon that extends beyond our own parochial professional fears. After all, young people have been telling researchers for years that they don't read newspapers, but usually around the time they're approaching their 30s, they start owning property, having children and just generally realizing that having an in-depth understanding of their community and world is a pretty good idea. We've always figured if we couldn't get them early, we would get them then, and despite the recent complications thrown our way by the Internet, the fallback strategy has generally worked.
A new book by a University of Texas communications professor, though, adds a troubling wrinkle. It's not just newspapers young people don't care about, says Dr. Paula Poindexter in her book "Millennials, News, and Social Media: Is News Engagement a Thing of the Past?" It's news, period. In short, Poindexter's research finds that young Americans -- the "millennials" who replaced the aging Generations X, Y and whatever -- describe news as "garbage," "lies," "one-sided," "propaganda," "repetitive" and, perhaps worst of all, "boring."
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That may not be so surprising. One or more of those terms can be found nearly every day in the Daily Herald's Fence Post column condemning our news coverage. Nor is it all that surprising that, as Poindexter also reports, young people are getting most of their information through Twitter, Facebook and other social media -- that is, of course, when they're not getting it through the filters of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. What is concerning -- to me as a journalist, but more to the point to all of us as citizens -- is that they may never want it any other way.
"In the future, we may not have anybody consuming news," Poindexter says in a story about her research at the University of Texas website. "We can't continue to ignore the problem. The older generation is dying out. Who will be the role model encouraging future generations to be informed?"
Personally, I see value in the role of Stewart and Colbert, or others like them. They certainly defy that painful contention that the news is boring. And although they deliver news with an unvarnished political slant and a first priority of satire, they demonstrate the value of knowing what's going on in the world and evaluating it critically. You can't do the latter without doing the former, so I'm hopeful that their work encourages young people to want to be informed -- and if people of any age want to be well-informed, we'll do our best to make the Daily Herald and our website dailyherald.com a satisfying and engaging alternative.
Meanwhile, Poindexter's solution, and one that most of us in the news business are settling on in one way or another, is for news agencies to do more to engage readers at Facebook, Twitter and similar emerging technologies. Working with her journalism classes, she plans to develop a Facebook page where students will pointedly receive and interact with news content.
It will be interesting to watch how well it works and not just in the interest of journalistic self-preservation, for ultimately newspapers and news media exist to, among other things, help citizens run their government and their daily lives. It does not necessarily follow that if newspapers and news organizations disappear, society will crumble. But if people's interest in knowing what goes on around them disappears, it surely will. In that sense, the views of young people about the news are important for all of us.
• Jim Slusher, firstname.lastname@example.org, is an assistant managing editor at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.