For as long as I can remember newspapers have been chasing after elusive younger readers. Even at The Daily Telegraph in the late 1970s and early 1980s, which was as close to being a gerontocracy as is possible in journalism, one or two sharp-suited executives talked about chasing after the young. In those days, the paper sold between 1.2 and 1.3 million copies a day. After 25 years of coveting younger readers, admittedly with varying degrees of enthusiasm, it is selling fewer than 900,000 copies.
So the cult of youth is not at all new. But in recent years it has tightened its grip on the minds of some newspaper publishers and senior executives, faced as they are with declining circulation and the rise of the internet. There is a widespread feeling that the pace of change in the media is so dizzying that only people under the age of 30 have any chance of understanding what is going on. It is certainly true that many of the founders of successful new companies from Apple to Microsoft to Google were barely out of short trousers when they hit gold. Many newspaper groups think the future lies with the internet, and that, almost by definition, is the province of the young.
A typical representative of this way of thinking is the Irish billionaire Denis O'Brien, who continues to stalk Independent News and Media, which owns this newspaper among many others. The other day, in repeating his argument that the INM board should be halved, Mr O'Brien said: "They need to appoint four or five people under the age of 30, who understand the new media landscape." He envisages an INM board of 10 members, of whom four or five would be under 30. People who have won their battle scars in the media, and have deep and varied experience, would be cast aside, and replaced by relative youngsters. What he proposes may sound barmy, but it is becoming the new orthodoxy.
Twenty-five years ago there were some comparatively young editors such as Peter Preston at The Guardian and Donald Trelford at The Observer, but no one thought it particularly odd that Bill Deedes, who had first occupied the editorial chair at The Daily Telegraph at the age of 61, should still be going strong at over 70. It is perfectly true that Roger Alton was recently appointed editor of this newspaper at the age of 60, but he has somehow mastered the secret of eternal youth. Will Lewis was 37 when he was appointed the youngest ever editor of The Daily Telegraph, and is still only 38. His counterpart at The Times, James Harding, was 38 when he was installed last December, also the paper's youngest ever editor. James Murdoch, was 34 when he took over at the same time as chairman of News International, which owns The Times, The Sun, The Sunday Times and News of the World. At the advanced age of 40 Rebekah Wade is said to be tiring of being editor of The Sun after five years in the job, and is looking for new opportunities in senior management.
What is true of the top jobs also applies to many lesser executive positions. The other day this newspaper hired as its features editor a young woman from The Daily Mail who is just 30, and appointed a deputy home news editor who is even younger. Both are highly talented, and richly deserve their early promotion, but it is unlikely they would have advanced so quickly on a newspaper 20 or even 10 years ago.
So powerful is the cult of youth that there are writers in their early thirties on many titles who would like to become executives but feel they have already been passed over and effectively put out to grass.
The point is not that ever younger editors and executives are not up to the job. Almost all those I have mentioned undoubtedly are. My reservation is simply that editors are becoming younger while readers are not. There is a widening age gap. Those who look at newspapers online may have a younger average age, but in terms of profitability the web remains very marginal, notwithstanding the crystal ball gazing of those who tell us the internet is the future. Newspapers make - or lose - their money from producing bundles of newsprint that you pick up on the way to work, or have shoved through your letter box, and most of the slightly diminishing group of people who do this are between the ages of 35 and 70.
For all the chasing after younger readers by newspaper publishers, they remain more elusive than ever. According to the National Readership Survey, the average age of daily newspapers readers ranges from 39 at The Daily Star (the lowest) to 57 at The Daily Telegraph (the highest.) At The Daily Mail the average age of readers is 54, at The Times it is 49, at The Sun it is 43, and The Guardian and The Independent it is 44. There is certainly no correlation between a younger readership and healthy profits.
These figures suggest that many of the people who read newspapers are older - sometimes considerably so - than the people who produce them. Will Lewis is nearly 20 years younger than his average reader. Does he really know what he makes them tick? Publishers who recruit too many young executives because they supposedly understand the internet may end up by discovering that they don't really understand their readers.
Guardian website overtaken by rivals
The latest ABCe figures for online newspapers don't make very happy reading for The Guardian. For the first time Guardian Online is in third place, behind the online versions of the Mail and the Telegraph, both of which have made huge strides over the past year. Admittedly the differences are slight. The Mail Online had 18,712,533 unique users, of which an amazing 73 per cent were outside the UK. The Telegraph Online had 18,497,944 unique users, and the Guardian Online had 18,323,824. Both The Times and the Sun are coming up smartly.
What does this tell us? The internet is not, after all, a separate realm where wholly different tastes apply. The Guardian was ahead of the pack because it was the first to take an online edition seriously. As other titles began to wake up to the internet, and an ever growing number of people got wired up with broadband, so the Guardian has lost its lead, and it will probably continue to fall behind. The bitter truth is that the prime mover often does not pick up the biggest prize.
The more popular qualities that recommend the Mail to newspaper readers are gradually asserting themselves on the web. If The Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph easily outsell The Guardian in newsprint, why wouldn't they also do better online once they began to take the new medium seriously? As the Sun also starts to get its act together, and more of its readers acquire broadband, so it is likely to overhaul the Guardian. Online readership patterns will not exactly mirror those of newspapers, there will be a continuing readjustment. The Guardian's ambition to conquer America may look a bit ridiculous if it is outstripped by three or four British rivals. Of course, there's still no money in producing online editions.Reuse content