I went to C.K. McClatchy High School on Tuesday and spoke to a couple of civics classes. I was lightly encouraged by the level of newspaper readership among the students, but I also saw lots of hands from those weren’t regular newspaper readers.
Being a cartoonist and all, I lightly chided them for this.
There are a lot of theories about why young people don’t read newspapers, but I have one that I haven’t heard anywhere else. Newspapers started to decline in the early 1970s; if we run the Wayback Machine back to the early 1970s, we can see there was a major news event that I think directly correlates to the reason why newspaper readeship is down, particularly with young readers:
The end of the military draft in the United States.
Before 1973, any male who was of draft age was probably an expert on U.S. foreign policy. They knew that during the Vietnam War era, there was a fair likelihood they would have to face a very unpleasant choice: go to war or avoid conscription. The country was highly politicized, and young men of all backgrounds were eligible to bent drafted into the army if they hit the wrong draft number. How did they get their information? Newspapers. Magazines. Network television news broadcasts.
All of these institutions have been in decline since 1973, more or less.
The draft wasn’t interested in your socioeconomic status, although the children of the well-connected tended to be better at avoiding it through student deferments, National Guard appointments, and the like. Poor kids fared worse. Much worse.
In a way, the hyperpolitical atmosphere of the 1960s was driven by two things. The first was fear, and the other was information. That information was readily available to anyone with a dime to buy a daily newspaper. There were statements from the president, actions of the Congress, and investigations of the motivations and methods of the architects of the war, particularly after the publication of the Pentagon Papers by The New York Times (a newspaper currently in serious crisis) in 1971. Later, two gumshoe reporters on The Washington Post ( a formerly billion-dollar enterprise that recently sold for about $200 million less than what it costs to build a basketball arena in Sacramento) broke the news that the White House was involved in all sorts of political wrongdoing.
The fear was the fear of death.
Death was a very real possibility, and the government could just send you into any foreign adventure it chose, unless you organized politically and, yes, were informed.
My cousin Carl went to Vietnam as a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Army. I remember when he and his roommate stayed at our house in Virginia when they drove out from Denver to report to Ft. Belvoir. I can assure of two things: there were lots of things they would rather be doing other than that, they saw no other choice but to serve at that point or risk prosecution, and that they intently read the Washington Evening Star at our house.
The Evening Star no longer exists, incidentally.
The students I spoke to were bright, interested, and engaging.
They weren’t afraid of being drafted, or being killed in Southeast Asian jungle. If they were, I could see where perhaps they would find news products more, shall we say, compelling.
Incidentally, C.K. McClatchy, the high school namesake, was the editor of The Bee until 1936. In 1936, this country was headed for war with Hitler, and everyone knew it. Why?
They all read C.K.’s newspaper.
Even young people.