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Guest Commentary: The news must reach the young

Jul 29, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Although almost 30 million Americans still watch a network newscast every weekday night, very few of them are what you would call young. Nielsen Media Research figures cited by the Los Angeles Times show the median age for Tom Brokaw’s viewers is 56.7 years-and they’re the youngest of the lot; Peter Jennings’ are 58.7 and Dan Rather’s are 60.3.
Not that cable news is much better off, if at all. Fox News Channel’s viewers average 59 years old, and CNN averages a whopping 63. The youngest of the cable lot watches CNN Headline News, hurry-up news for busy Boomers, and their median age is 51.
So news executives are tearing out their remaining hair. (By the way, things are at least as bad in the newspaper business.) They’re all wondering how they can get younger viewers to watch news. Otherwise, the advertisers with real money will put their commercials somewhere else. (It’s a rule: Toyota pays more per thousand viewers than does Tums.) Otherwise, who pays for that expensive graphics equipment or the few foreign bureaus that haven’t yet been closed, or the CEO-type salaries of the anchormen?
There may be a hint in the way most Americans, young and old, turned to the network news coverage of Sept. 11. When there was news they really wanted, that’s where they went. But that so rarely happens anymore. The kind of news that newsmen think is significant, the kind of news that not so long ago everybody considered to be vital, no longer seems important to people under 50, or maybe under 45.
I have another thought. When a group of us put Chet Huntley and David Brinkley together to anchor the NBC coverage of the 1956 political conventions, nobody expected it to work as well as it did. And none of us has ever figured out why it did. In hindsight, perhaps it was because Chet made you realize that what was going on was important, and David, while not disagreeing, implied, “Yes, but …”
When in October 1956 they took over the evening newscast, with myself as producer, we still had no idea of the potential. The first years, as a matter of fact, were not big winners as we felt our way. Then it exploded. Evening news audiences were never larger, before or since. Including young people. Not that we ducked big, often unpleasant news. Those were, after all, the days of the civil rights struggle, the Vietnam War and protests at home, campus riots and burning cities.
But the presentation was straightforward instead of gimmicky. (We didn’t use fantastic graphics just because they were there, because, in fact, they weren’t there yet.) The news that followed the big news was interesting rather than medical. And looking back, I have come to believe there was something about Brinkley’s attitude that appealed to young people. He never slighted the news, of course, but not all of it was earth-shaking. He may have ended forever the voice-in-the-well news that dominated broadcasting as it moved from radio to TV. Would that attitude attract younger viewers now?
One more thought about getting younger people to watch news: It may be impossible.
A few months ago, a widely reported poll of American high school students showed they know very little history. Sometime this year or next, we can expect the National Geographic Society to announce that another of its periodic surveys has shown how little Americans, and especially American schoolchildren, know about geography.
If you don’t know history and you don’t know geography, how can you be interested in news? You don’t know where it is taking place; you don’t know what went on before. How can someone in Oregon care about the president banning oil drilling off the west coast of Florida? And as for foreign news, forget it. Afghanistan is bad enough. How about Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan? That’s only where we’ll get our oil after Saudi Arabia dries up. It’s also where the old Silk Road went through and where Marco Polo traveled. Why should young people be interested?
How can you expect them to be interested? The school system we taxpayers pay for has not equipped them to be. If you are really concerned about young people being interested in news, get after your local school board. Go to PTA meetings. Do something!
Reuven Frank is a former president of NBC News.