Steve Yelvington Reax To ONA

By | November 15, 2004

From former Star Tribune Online chief Steve Yelvington’s blog, following the Online News Association conference workshop (see for context):

At the ONA conference over the weekend we did a little exercise: Brainstorm a site that will appeal to younger readers (college age and early 20s). The results were predictably focused on entertainment, and afterward there was some griping that it amounted to dumbing down the news and was something of an insult to the intelligence of the segment. And some people observed that the (relatively few) twentysomethings at the conference, many of whom were college students, would not have built a site so trivially focused.

But I have to react differently: College students who are engaged in journalism programs are not representative of the general population, and editing a product to meet their preferences and prejudices would be a big mistake. It’s no different than a newspaper publisher who makes his decisions based on what he hears in the locker room at the golf club. I would ask college students not to start out their careers by repeating the mistakes of those who run today’s troubled media companies.

Listening to the audience is hard work. It requires both sound research and sound judgment, and it requires an open mind. It may be that the problem is the writing and the presentation, not the subject matter (as one college student suggested to me), but I would caution students against letting wishful thinking guide them to that conclusion. You may actually have to edit your product to reach the stoners down the hall, painful though that may be.

My belief is that people need to be introduced to news in a context of personal utility — which, of course, varies by person, which is what personal means. We can’t anticipate every personal need but we can do some segmentation and it does seem, from research and experience to date, that people aged 20-29 are more interested in finding ways to amuse themselves than in following the details of daily news. But if we present daily news in the context of a service that focuses on meeting those identifiable needs, we at least open the door to young people learning to follow the continuing story of public affairs.

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