Generation Ink gives way to Generation Link
The media is full of old farts who, for the sake of argument, I will now unfairly define as anyone who is old enough to remember punk but wasn’t one.
In some respects, this shouldn’t be too much of a problem if your audience is also mature, as it is in the newspaper industry. We can all make merry with that exciting Boomtown Rats revival story without having to explain that Bob “dad of Pixie” Geldof is the bloke who never actually said “give us your f**king money” live on television, but that’s the kind of crazy urban myth that used to circulate before we had YouTube and could check.
Over the past decade, the newspaper business has indulged in some natural wastage. This has nothing to do with dead trees and everything to do with reducing the number of people who work for them by not replacing retirees (including incentivised early retirees) if it can help it. So it’s not really accurate to say the media is full of old farts: middle-aged farts is much more like it.
Bear in mind I’m a full six years older than my byline photograph and a bit cranky at the moment because my slippers have holes in them.
It’s all relative anyway. A few years ago, a colleague, at that time approaching 40, was delighted but puzzled to be referred to as one of “the young people” in the office by a more senior figure. As for actual young people, well, a group of them encircled me at a media event in Google Docks recently and they all worked for TheJournal.ie.
I bring this up because on Monday’s Newsnight, Susie Boniface, aka press blogger Fleet Street Fox, told presenter Gavin Esler (who is surprisingly about to turn 60), that newspapers’ audience was not just diverging between two mediums, print and online, but between two age cohorts, which she defined as the over 35s and the under 35s. Generation Ink and Generation Link, if you will.
Then on Tuesday, figures from the Joint National Readership Survey, which is measuring the online readership of its member publications for the first time, showed that 17 per cent of people under the age of 45 consume Irish newspaper content online on at least a weekly basis. Among people aged 45-plus, that figure dropped to 8 per cent.
Other reports show that older readers are simply less likely to have the hardware. A UPC study on Ireland’s digital landscape published last November suggested ownership of smartphones and laptops peaks among 25-34s and declines with age.
For iPads and other tablets, the peak was in the 35-44 age group, which is interesting, as it hints there would be an audience available to news groups pushing content that appeals to this parents-of-small-kids demographic if they invested in bespoke tablet apps and dared to whack a subscription charge on top.
In the old mono-platform days, editors who wanted to boost product appeal to a younger audience simply had to clamp their eyes on the nearest intern and commission something that, from their perspective, would adequately tick the “young fart” box.
It was a question of balance, with that balance still inevitably tipped in favour of the kind of conservative hand-wringing and “bogeyman in the back garden” genres that leave twentysomethings bemused, if not outright alienated.
In this multi-platform era, however, the conventional wisdom is one of differentiation between the online and print product, with the content tailored in parallel with existing demographic preferences.
In practice, this involves aiming your print edition at the middle-aged audience that it’s most likely to retain, while publishing online-only content that requires prior knowledge of important cultural figures such as Kim Kardashian.
The reverse approach – online publication of grammar whinges and big print spreads on Lena Dunham and Aaron Swartz – isn’t as instinctive. In theory, it could compel a mature audience to spend more time online and invite a younger audience to buy a paper out of their tight discretionary incomes, but the latter outcome, in particular, seems unlikely.
My view is that this generation gap in online consumption will soon close, perhaps even faster than the similarly pronounced chasm between Dublin and the rest of the country. This will allow news brands to return to a simpler, one-platform product (a digital one).
That still won’t entirely fix the problem of an industry that’s slow to embrace the knowledge and energy of the under-25s on its workforce and lets younger readers slip away. Each generation refreshes the culture that it finds. It’s scary, but maybe it’s the turn of those 1990s babies to start putting the “new” in “news”.