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Igniting youths' interest in newspapers

A REGULAR task of my childhood was buying the Sunday papers. "Go down to Tandler's," my father would say, "and pick up the Times, the Trib, the News, the Mirror, the Journal and the Record." All but the last of these referred to the main New York City newspapers operating through the early 1960s. I can still remember spending hours wading through the Sunday Times, reading the news of far-off places, poring over the sports section, and occasionally trying to help my mother with the formidable Sunday crossword.

Then, reading a newspaper connected me to places I could barely imagine, and explained events, and books, and plays, and music that seemed well beyond what I could ever experience. Now, although I teach about some of those events and books, and have even been to places as distant as Russia and China, the highlight of my early morning is still reading the paper. There will be developments to discuss with my class, reviews of movies I've seen, opinions of writers I respect and revile -- and I can sip coffee and munch oatmeal at the same time.

Journalists and newspaper publishers value readers like me, but they worry about creating life-long readers out of you students. Most studies of newspaper readership agree that young people aged 18-24 have the lowest rates of reading a daily paper -- estimates range from 14 percent to 44 percent -- either in print or online versions. Either percentage is far too low. One simply cannot even pretend to be informed about anything without reading a newspaper. Other demographic data seem to confirm this: Readership goes up with level of education, annual income and, most strikingly, with age. People understand that reading a newspaper is essential.

The overall trend is disturbing. In 1964, around the time I was fetching those Sunday papers, 80.8 percent of all American adults read the paper daily; in 1997 that figure declined to 58.3 percent. Those readers, by the way, have not all gone to the Internet: People who read online editions tend overwhelmingly to read print newspapers, too. Most, it seems, have switched from newspapers, television and radio for their news, assuming they seek out news at all. And here too the demographics of television news are striking: All those laxative commercials on the nightly news are not an accident. Young people in droves avoid the network nightly newscast.

Of course even if you tuned in assiduously to network news, you'd get about 24 minutes of "news." Compare this with reading The New York Times or The Washington Post. Even those measly 24 minutes would be better spent reading. On virtually any subject, coverage in the newspaper is deeper, more detailed, better documented and usually more thoughtful. Even a blue-chip program like PBS's Newshour covers only three or four stories in any depth. Once again, an hour with the paper will leave you far better informed, even if you sample the comics and Ann Landers.

Our national newspapers are truly a cornucopia of information, opinion, cultural criticism and community coverage. And if you wish to follow events in the world beyond the United States, there truly is no real comparison -- for all its global reach, TV is embarrassingly provincial even in the most cosmopolitan cities. Local TV news has become a sensationalized police blotter. Only for disasters and for live and late-breaking events does TV have the advantage. And even then you'll learn more by reading about in tomorrow's paper.

Why read a newspaper when you can surf the net? I'm as inveterate a Web-surfer as many of you, but I rarely do much serendipitous learning there. Reading the Times, I come across stories about things I rarely search for on the net -- stories like the competing standards for mapping the human DNA code, the reasons for stock market gyrations, the twelve-year-old boy who is leading a guerrilla army in Burma.

This rarely happens on the Web, even on www.nytimes.com. My search is too purposeful, and the screen is too small. Internet searching does help me find that article I wanted to clip, and now I can send it to students and friends via e-mail. But I read editorials, concert reviews, interesting opinion columns that, on the Web, I'd click right past. And those horrible flashing ads! With the printed paper, I can just turn over the page.

In my foreign affairs class, I assign a term-long project that involves following a human rights issue, like the Bosnian war crimes tribunal, in a major newspaper. My goal, I freely admit, is two-fold. Certainly I wish my students to trace the development and learn about an issue they choose. But I also hope that I can help them to fall in love with reading the daily paper. For me, it's been a life-long affair.

(Michael Joseph Smith is a professor of government and foreign affairs.)

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