Youth movement hits paper ownership

Like vampires, the media are constantly hungry for young blood. Years of declining readership have prompted countless newspapers and magazines to throw money at consultants who purport to have the key to grabbing the attention of the youth.

Like vampires, the media are constantly hungry for young blood. Years of declining readership have prompted countless newspapers and magazines to throw money at consultants who purport to have the key to grabbing the attention of the youth.

A new layout here, some more "counterculture" coverage there, and - voila! - the kids should come flocking in. Right?

Well, as falling circulation numbers attest, the design tweaks have not been totally successful. But media outlets may be poised to accept a new youth movement in a much more unexpected position: owners.

On July 31, Jared Kushner, a 25- year-old law student and son of a wealthy developer, bought The New York Observer for a reported price of around $10 million. The Observer, which is the type of paper whose reporting makes waves, but not money, was on the block after losing millions each year of its existence. Talks of selling to a group led by Robert De Niro didn't pan out, and the future of the paper appeared momentarily murky. But out of nowhere, the young Kushner swooped in with enthusiastic talk of revitalizing the pinkish broadsheet and ushering it into profitability.

"He thinks he can help build on what the former owner did. He's going to emphasize advertising and the use of the Internet," says Howard Rubenstein, who is serving as Kushner's spokesman. "He's not going to intervene in the feature and news coverage of the newspaper."

It must be disconcerting, to say the least, for editorial staffers to be looking up to a Generation Y-er as the man in the corner office who signs the checks. Following the sale, media pundits were puzzled over how to assess the buyer's age. But response from within the paper was positive, and some even touted Kushner as a natural fit to boost the paper's circulation.

"He's certainly tied in to the youth market," Rubenstein notes. It's hard to argue with that point. Kushner is tied in to the youth market in the same way that a cat is tied in to the pet market.

"There's a young readership of the Observer... it's really the right focus for a young man who's been successful so far," says Rubenstein. "He identifies with that market."

As it stands today, Kushner is an anomaly. His demographic profile places him as a more likely fit as a cub reporter at the paper than as its boss.

Newspaper owners tend to be either families with deep traditions, like the Sulzbergers of
The New York Times and the Grahams of The Washington Post; publicly owned corporations like Tribune, McClatchy, etc.; or older, wealthy buyers who pick up a paper to build their legacy or as a vanity project, such as Wendy McCaw of the Santa Barbara News-Press.

Young and wealthy media figures, conventional wisdom says, should have their roots planted squarely in the Internet.

And the Internet has indeed made many young entrepreneurs fabulously wealthy. But the "old-media" world, which is facing such harsh competition from the ingenious products that Web-based media figures have produced, does have one thing that Internet sites don't: cachet.

Even if Yahoo News hires 1,000 new reporters, it will never quite have the same gravitas as the Times.

So, at the risk of hubris, let us make a prediction: Young Internet millionaires and billionaires will be buying up more old-media properties in the near future. Newspapers are going at fire-sale prices. What better trophy on the mantle of a new-media king than his name on the masthead of an established, weighty broadsheet - even one that might be losing money to the very Internet beast that made him wealthy in the first place?

The future of publishing is the iPod generation. And it's already here.

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