The Wilson Quarterly

A generation ago, as the Watergate scandal threatened President Richard Nixon, knots of readers stood outside the entrance of The Washington Post each night waiting to buy the next day’s newspaper, which would go on sale at 10:15 pm. Many of these eager consumers were teenagers and ­twenty­somethings who were as interested in public affairs as they were in the new Stones ­album.

That was a time when more than half of all adults under 30 were regular readers of a daily newspaper, and most of them also watched the even­ing news. Today, only one in 12 young adults reads printed news. Twice as many watch news on television—­one in six. One young person in eight checks out Internet news.

So how does this generation get the news? Much of it doesn’t.

Roughly a fourth of all younger Americans pay no attention to news from any source, writes Thomas E. Patterson, of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

A large national survey found that only a fifth of younger respondents could accurately dredge up a factual element about the top story of the day. And though some proponents of new media say that young Americans merely get their news fix through a “different distribution system” such as The Daily Show, the survey uncovered only a tiny number of such ­individuals.

The decline in exposure to news is part of an overall cultural shift. Two or three decades ago, news had a ­near ­monopoly on dinner-hour television, Patterson says. Watching TV while ­preparing—­or ­eating—­dinner meant watching news. But television’s ability to force-feed news ended with the rise of cable, which offered alternatives, even at six o’clock. Fewer parents watched news, and even if they did, their children were usually in another room watching something else. The development of “news habits” in children and teenagers slowed ­dramatically.

The Internet has even less ability to build new audiences for news. Users gravitate to the sites they like, and news is about as popular with many of them as spinach. Even if they call up the news, they spend less time reading it than in the past, and are less likely to do so as a matter of habit. New media, Patterson says, reinforce interests rather than create new ­ones.

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The Source: "Young People Flee From the News, Whatever the Source" by Thomas E. Patterson, in Television Quarterly, Winter 2008. 

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Mick Baker

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