Television networks are assigning reporters to a new beat this election year: people who don’t watch the evening news.
Heather Nauert, a reporter at the Fox News Channel, has covered the youth vote for the network.
With polls showing a surge in primary-season ballots cast by voters under 30, media outlets are out to convert the newly energized voters into viewers. On cable news, CNN promotes a “League of First Time Voters” and the Fox News Channel is covering what it calls the Y Factor with a full-time correspondent. On broadcast, NBC has assigned Luke Russert, the son of the late anchor Tim Russert, to the youth vote beat and ABC, CBS and PBS are all running stories by student journalists.
Heather Nauert, a Fox News Channel correspondent, started covering the youth vote in February, one month after exit polls started showing significant spikes in turnout rates. “We basically said, ‘Oh my gosh, this is a big story and we’ve got to cover it,’ ” she said. On Fox, Ms. Nauert’s reports have appeared on the network’s nightly news program “The Fox Report” and were compiled for an hourlong special report, “The Y Factor,” last month.
The big story also gives networks an opportunity to counter two dismal trends in television news: dwindling ratings and aging viewers.
Young people are catnip for advertisers, but they mostly shun TV, and especially news broadcasts. A biannual news consumption study released Monday by the Pew Research Center found that only a third of news consumers younger than 25 watch TV news on an average day. That’s still twice as many as the 15 percent who read a newspaper on an average day.
The gray-haired audiences for television news seem to confirm the statistics. According to Nielsen Media Research, the median age of the top-rated Fox News audience is 63.9 years old, nearly four years older than that of the second-highest-rated news channel, CNN, and eight years older than for the third-place channel, MSNBC.
The median age for the three evening newscasts is 60.5.
Over all, despite public excitement over the election, evening news ratings have remained disturbingly flat among younger viewers. “NBC Nightly News,” the most popular of the three newscasts, has added 200,000 viewers this year over the same period last year, but only 2,000 of those new viewers are between 18 and 34. The newscasts on ABC and CBS are down among both total viewers and younger viewers this year.
There is no single road map for turning politically engaged voters into viewers. Cable news channels, with their hyperkinetic graphics and bluntly partisan hosts, have drawn some younger viewers to cable, perhaps showing that the demographic prefers news with a clear point of view — or at least a lot of raised voices. “It takes time to build the brand,” Chuck Todd, the political director for NBC News, said.
About 6.5 million people under 30 participated in the primaries and caucuses this year, almost double the number that turned out in 2000. Mr. Todd said that he believed the surge in youth interest had not been sufficiently captured by media organizations.
“It’s because of something I call the ‘been there, done that’ disease,” he said. “We hear about the young vote all the time, and at the end of the day, does it show up?” It did in 2004, he said, answering his own question, “but everybody showed up in 2004.”
Since then, the demographics have shifted. “We are seeing a partisan divide between young and old like we haven’t seen before,” Mr. Todd said. “This is a big part of this election.”
Young voters clearly lean toward Barack Obama, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll conducted in July, when Mr. Obama led John McCain by 12 percentage points (48 percent versus 36 percent) among voters under 30. Voters ages 65 and older were almost evenly divided, although slightly more (43 percent versus 39 percent) favored Mr. McCain.
Political pundits are recognizing the changes. No less a political institution than George Will, the conservative columnist for The Washington Post, predicted two weeks ago on the ABC Sunday morning talk show “This Week” that young people would go to the polls in November “in a way they have not in the past.” A fellow panelist, the political consultant and Democratic superdelegate Donna Brazile, concurred, saying: “We’re underestimating the number of young people who are getting involved.”
Last month NBC News hired a correspondent straight out of college — albeit not your ordinary 22-year-old — to cover the youth vote. Luke Russert, the son of Tim Russert, the “Meet the Press” moderator who died in June, was named a “correspondent at large” for NBC and MSNBC’s election coverage.
Mr. Russert declined to comment and said in an e-mail message that he was not granting interviews until after the conventions. He has come under some criticism for the perceived connection between his father’s death and his news assignment. Without addressing those complaints directly, Mr. Todd said, “The guy’s a true political junkie, and it’s not just because his last name is Russert.”
Mr. Russert’s first story may involve the changing demographics of Colorado, the state where Mr. Obama will deliver his acceptance speech on Aug. 28.
Mr. Todd and others believe that viewers respond to peer-to-peer reporting like the kind Mr. Russert will provide. Tiffany Wilson, 23, a graduate managing editor of the college journalist Web site Palestra.net, has appeared on the Fox News Channel more than 50 times in the past year, frequently to talk about the election. “Young people want to see their peers on television,” she said.
Ms. Wilson, who appears on Fox through a partnership between Palestra and the network, and Ms. Nauert said they had not sensed a correlation between Fox’s coverage of the youth vote and its desire to attract a younger audience. Even if there is a connection, it may not matter. Ms. Nauert said she had met a significant number of twenty-somethings who do not own TV sets.
Among cable news channels, MSNBC, which ranks in third place among older viewers, has benefited the most: it has drawn an average of 98,000 18- to 34-year-old viewers in prime time this year, up from 61,000 during the same time period last year, and enough to beat CNN (97,000) and Fox (80,000) in the narrow demographic.
But given the small demographic ratings, networks are trying to reach news consumers online. CBS News is posting content from UWire, a college newspaper wire service, on its Web site. And ABC News is setting up so-called college digital bureaus at five journalism schools to train and mentor students. The offices will start running in September and continue after the election. Students chosen by ABC and the schools will produce stories for ABC’s Internet and TV outlets.
Similarly, “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” on PBS is planning to showcase student journalist reports on its Web site during the conventions. Through a partnership with Children’s PressLine, a training program in New York City for 8- to 18-year-olds, the “NewsHour” will offer student reports and podcasts online.
The networks are also asserting themselves on Web sites that young people frequent, including social networking sites. Fox News, for instance, is bolstering its presence on Facebook.
CNN has taken a slightly different tack, establishing its “League of First Time Voters” and including young people in its coverage of newly naturalized citizens and other Americans who are casting their first ballots. The league includes an online set of voter resources and a series of special reports on television.
On Monday, on “Campbell Brown: Election Center,” CNN will premiere a theme song and a music video for the initiative: the rock band Daughtry’s re-recording of Foreigner’s 1977 hit single “Feels Like The First Time.”
Heather Smith, the executive director of the youth activism group Rock the Vote, has detected a tonal shift in the TV coverage over time, from a skeptical attitude about the youth vote to a more positive one. “Everyone is testing the waters,” she said.