Late on September 23, 1994, 29-year-old Kingston Whig-Standard reporter Scott Colby was lining up with hundreds of others outside a local record store. He wasn’t reporting, only shopping. In a few minutes it would be September 24, the official release date of a local band’s new album. Colby and the rest of the crowd were waiting to get a copy of The Tragically Hip’s Day for Night. Sales, he thought, are going to be massive.
Throughout the next week, he kept checking the Whig to find out how many copies had been sold, but he found nothing. “They’re one of Canada’s best bands, and they’re from Kingston,” he says. “There was not even a boo in our own paper.” Elsewhere, he learned that Day for Night was on top of the national record charts after only one week in release, having sold 300,000 copies, the fastest-selling Canadian album ever.
For Colby, the case of the unreported success of Day for Night illustrates a larger problem at his paper-and most other English-language dailies in the country. “We don’t do that good a job appealing to the younger set,” he says. Colby often tries to pitch stories, like the cost of getting an education, that he feels are important to the young. Last fall he interviewed human resources minister Lloyd Axworthy about the proposed university tuition hikes, but he doesn’t think his paper is very interested. He also tries to promote other subjects that are important to the young, including the environment, unemployment and entertainment stories on TV shows and bands. But Colby is one of only four full-time staff members in their twenties out of a total of 46, so the odds of survival for these subjects are pretty slim.
It’s a problem not unique to the Whig. A fall 1994 survey of 14 major dailies across Canada revealed that only six-the Montreal Gazette, New Brunswick’s Telegraph Journal and Evening Times Globe, the Calgary Herald, The Ottawa Citizen and The Toronto Sun-had more than 10 per cent of their staff under the age of 30. The other papers surveyed were The Edmonton Journal, the Winnipeg Free Press, the Halifax Chronicle-Herald,The Vancouver Sun, The London Free Press and the Whig. The two papers with the largest newsrooms-The Toronto Star, with 359 staff at the time, and The Globe and Mail, with 247 had the worst showing: less than four per cent of staff under the age of 30. The average at all the papers was nine percent, while according to the 1991 census, 16 per cent of Canada’s population is between the age of 20 and 29.
What you find in our country’s newsrooms are middle-aged journalists working and drinking coffee with other middle-aged journalists-an environment Colby operates in every day. Periodically he tries to give his stories a spin to make them appeal more to the young. For example, when he interviewed Ontario Premier Bob Rae in January, Colby asked him what some of his favorite television shows were. In the final story, the mentions of NYPD Blue and Murphy Brown were gone. Colby objected to these cuts because he believed this information would help younger readers relate to the premier. “I think that young people don’t have as an acute awareness of politics. If you can humanize the news, they might have more of a tie.”
Putting aside whether that’s the approach to take, middle-aged reporters tend not to worry whether today’s youth can relate to the news. When a youth-related story presents itself to a typical editorial team of the nineties-assuming its members recognize it as a story-chances are it won’t be covered adequately. And an entire generation of potential newspaper readers is largely being ignored, just at a time when most papers are worrying about dropping circulation. As Colby says, “I don’t think most older journalists are doing a good job writing about issues affecting people under 30. The older ones tend to be complacent.” Michael Valpy is a reporter and columnist at The Globe and Mail. Like 96 percent of the staff, Valpy is over 30-52, to be exact. But he doesn’t think that stops him from being a good journalist. “I love what I do for a living. I’m good at it and I’m very energetic, and I have a sense of professionalism, so I won’t turn in something that I think is a piece of crap.” On the other hand, he recognizes that he risks becoming out of touch. “As I grow older, eventually my perspectives will become less and less relevant. I am no longer sure what makes my society tick. I don’t know wheat people under 30 are doing any longer. I don’t have conversations that often with anyone under 30.”
Valpy can understand why younger people have difficulty retailing to the news. “Look at the Globe,” he says. “It’s loaded with reports from institutional politics, institutional business.” He recalls watching a national affairs program with a 23-year-old intern, Amber Nasrulla. “It may have been about the Dupuy letter to the CRTC. I asked her, ‘Is this relevant to you?’ and she said no. My perspective of Canada is different from Amber’s.”
It’s also different from Naomi Klein’s. In 1993, Klein, then 23, was hired at the Globe for the summer, then her contract was extended for another three and a half months. During her time there, she wrote features on such topics as a production of Romeo and Juliet being staged by street kids underneath a Toronto bridge, and a young woman who had set up a booth on the city’s hip Queen Street West where she sold psychiatric advice for $1. The pieces were eye-catching in a paper that’s usually a more austere read. Klein’s stories were different in that they showed a reporter who was in touch with a younger community, one who used the same contacts as she did when she was writing for a campus paper at the University of Toronto.
But like virtually all the students the Globe recruited during 1993 and 1994, Klein wasn’t kept on at the end of her internship. Of the Globe’s current editorial staff of 220, 212 are over the age of 30. In an article entitled “Give Us a Break: Generation X and the Boomer Media Shut-out” that appeared in the June/July 1993 issue of This Magazine, Klein criticized the youth shortage in Canada’s newsrooms. “Young people are being laid off from media jobs across the country, silencing what few post-boomer voices have made it into positions of influence over perspective and content,” she wrote. “Moreover, hiring freezes at almost every Southam and Thomson paper and at the CBC, combined with cutbacks in summer internship programs at most of the major dailies, are making sure nobody slips through the cracks.” Because most news is filtered through the baby boomers’ point of view, she argued, youth can’t relate to it.
Twenty-four-year-old Pauline Tam was hired full-time as an entertainment writer at The Ottawa Citizen at the beginning of this year. She believes the Citizen uses haphazard methods to attract a younger market. She points to a page in the City/Life section called High Priority, published five days a week, which contains “teenage perspectives” written by high-school students. Tam gives credit to Deborah Richmond, the editor of High Priority: “What she tries to do is get high-school students to write. It is one of the more structural ways the paper has tried to attract a younger readership.” But Tam suspects that Richmond’s section may be a token gesture, asking: “Are they committed in the long run?” It is beginning to look as if they aren’t-the Citizen is taking steps to make the paper smaller, causing Richmond to worry that High Priority’s days are numbered.
Tam questions whether such “pandering” to younger readers was ever the best way to attract them. “Young readers don’t have to be enticed to read the paper,” she says. “All issues should be of interest to readers. Don’t ghettoize certain issues. With youth writers, to me, it’s sort of like singling out a group in a way that’s more exclusionary than inclusive.”
In her This Magazine article, Klein also criticized tokenism. “Then there’s the requisite bi-monthly feature, ‘Generation XYZ: They have no future, they’re really shallow and they dress funny.'” Ironically, last June she herself was given her own weekly column in The Toronto Star, the first of which detailed her fears of the column being entitled My Generation or, worse, The X Column: “It seems nobody under 45 can get a word in these days without that stupid letter cropping up along with at least a passing reference to bike couriers,” wrote Klein, who has used the space to discuss everything from Red Dog beer’s recent marketing campaign (she thought it was dumb) to her reluctance to cruise the information superhighway. She now juggles her column at the Star and her duties as the managing editor of This Magazine.
Petti Fong, a 23-year-old reporter for The Vancouver Sun-one of five reporters under 30 out of a newsroom of 174-shares Klein’s sentiments about the letter X. “I think people can get trapped in Generation X labels. Advertisers have this image of what a young person is.” She also worries that older journalists buy into that image. That stereotype is more often than not the apathetic Slacker, and 23-year-old Shawn Ohler, whose contract at The Edmonton Journal is up for renewal this October, thinks the older members of the newsroom tend to accept that stereotype without question. “The powers that be in the newsroom seize upon the stacking,” he says, “and see it as a defining characteristic.” But Ohler disagrees with Klein’s belief that the news is filtered through the baby-boomer perspective. “She sounds like a prof, he says. “People don’t come up to me and say, ‘This angle is good. The baby boomers will like it.’ There’s lots of freedom at the Journal.”
These days, however, not many young journalists are able to experience that freedom. Southern Ontario Newspaper Guild president Gail Lem sums up the problem. “Reporting used to be a young person’s game, and I think largely because of the economy we have seen that change in two ways. First, people weren’t leaving the newsroom because jobs weren’t easy to find, and secondly, the newspapers weren’t hiring. And the newsrooms have definitely shrunk.” Colin Mackenzie, the Globe’s deputy managing editor, remembers different times. He estimates the median age of the editorial staff at The Ottawa Citizen, where he started out 20 years ago, to be 23, and remarks on the number of people he worked with back then who are now in charge of newspapers across the country. The Globehas chopped 40 positions over the past six years, and no vacancies are opening up for young, aspiring reporters to fill.
Of all the papers surveyed, the Montreal Gazette has the highest population under 30: 28 out of 219. Raymond Brassard, the Gazette’s managing editor, says, “When we hire, we hire under 30. We won’t hire a veteran reporter. The composition of the staff is going to affect the voice of the paper.” He can’t remember hiring an older reporter in six years. But the overwhelming majority of the Gazette’s 28 younger staff were hired before 1991. The Gazette began cutting back on hiring in 1990, and introduced early retirement packages in 1992. The fact that the Gazette youth level remains high can be attributed to the hiring policy that has been in effect for the past eight years. Student reporters are employed to work on the Gazette’s three community inserts. When a vacancy opens up in the newsroom, it’s filled by a student from one of those inserts, and a new student is hired at the insert. Nineteen ninety-four was a big year for movement at the Gazette, with the first staff vacancies in years. “Last summer, I do believe, was the first time in four years we kept summer students on at the end of the season,” Brassard says.
There isn’t a newspaper in Canada that doesn’t want more young people in the newsroom. But many managers, such as Phil Bingley, the assistant managing editor of The Toronto Star, see their choices as extremely limited. At the Star, where last fall only 14 people were under the age of 30 out of an editorial staff of 359 (now 331), no hiring is taking place. Bingley doesn’t feel the Star, with its youth shortage, is aware of what is happening on the streets, at universities or in after-hours clubs. “I don’t think too many people at the Star could find an after-hours club,” he says.
Jim Rankin could. Now a staff reporter/photographer, the 29-year-old recalls a time in 1993 when he was on contract at the Star as a photographer. He and another young staff member, reporter Lisa Wright, went out with their own idea to do a feature on S & M clubs and another about the rave phenomenon. They conducted interviews and shot photos, staying out night after night.
“These were different stories for the Star,” says Rankin. “I think the advantage of having young general-assignment reporters is they go the extra length to get a story. They’re still trying to make a mark for themselves. They don’t have a family. They don’t have a kid. How are you going to get a 50-year-old reporter to chase fire engines when that’s what that 50-year-old reporter did 30 years ago?”
Gord Walsh, associate managing editor of The Toronto Sun, agrees. He only has 11 people under 30 out of an editorial staff of 96, but when a student at a local high school shot two guidance counsellors last October, Walsh found the younger reporters useful. “I know if I were in the situation those students were in that day, a 22-year-old interviewer would make me feel more comfortable than somebody old enough to hang out with my parents,” says Walsh.
The Globe’s Colin Mackenzie uses young reporters in much the same way. “Your kids tend to be your general-assignment people,” he says. “Your go-to folks.” To cover the same shooting for the Globe, he sent Amber Nasrulla to the scene along with crime reporter Henry Hess, who is in his early forties. Clearly there are times when it serves the papers well to have an Amber Nasrulla on staff. But what about younger readers? Are they being served bv the newspapers?
Evan Solomon, the editor of Shift, a Toronto-based magazine that focuses on the impact of new technologies on the media, feels newspapers have failed young people on a number of key stories, the underplaying of Kurt Cobain’s death by major dailies being only one example. “Newspapers have no ongoing coverage of the information age,” Solomon continues, pointing out that it dawned more than a decade ago. “They just missed that story completely, and they’re struggling to catch up.” Solomon also feels that for young people, issues don’t fit neatly into left and right wing anymore, and the mainstream media fail to notice. To Solomon, there is a cynicism among young people that becomes stronger with every such failure by the mass media.
Petti Fong of The Vancouver Sun has a different view from Solomon. She reads many stories in newspapers that can be seen as important for young people, but does not think they are presented in a way that would interest younger readers. She uses the federal deficit as an example. “Young people should care right now,” she says, “because it’s in direct relation to their tuition hikes”-an angle that she doesn’t feel the media focus on.
Television news is usually blamed for low newspaper readership levels among the young, but Klein believes that the entire mass media have grown stale. While young people may be the group affected the most by the youth shortage in newsrooms, Klein believes “it affects the whole live nature of news. The media get too comfortable, and everybody gets turned off.” Evan Solomon and his partner in Shift, Andrew Heintzman, have their own solution to the youth shortage: “Young people have to look outside of traditional companies,” says Heintzman, the 27-year-old publisher of the magazine. “You have to try to create your own kind of work.” Gord Walsh of the Sun is skeptical. “Starting up your own publication is fine if you can pull it off,” he says, “but if readership of newspapers is down among the young, how feasible is it?”
Well, Shift is still alive after two and a half years, and it looks as if it will hang on for more. But how secure is the future of our country’s newspapers? How can they have any future if they don’t rejuvenate themselves by employing young people on a regular basis? They can’t effectively target a younger audience without employing writers who are young themselves, and if you don’t target a younger audience, you run the risk of dying out with your readership.
As Naomi Klein bluntly wrote, “If you are aging along with the boomers, won’t you die with them too?”