Writing to young readers: Are Boomers too retro?

Ralph Keyes brings up an interesting point: Are younger readers not picking up newspapers because we’re being too ‘retro’ in our writing?

When journalists refer to people as being too ‘Eddie Haskell,’ for example, do those folks born well after the 1950s know, first of all, who Eddie Haskell is and, secondly, why someone would compare Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner to him?

While those of us in the Boomer generation would fully understand the analogy, I can appreciate why the Gen Ys and millennials would scratch their heads and go ‘huh?’

Just how sensitive is it? A few years back, I was training a young and talented assistant editor to become a department manager. Part of that training included giving her the lead in a major project that involved a number of content editors. For the first week, I continually received phone calls and e-mails about the project from the content editors.

After days of forwarding the questions to the assistant, I finally shot out an e-mail to the content editors reminding them that she was in charge of the project and that I should be looked at as ‘the Sgt. Schultz of this project.”

About a half-hour later, the assistant sheepishly asked me “Who is Sgt. Schultz?”

I laughed — I probably shouldn’t have — and explained he was the affable and bumbling Nazi guard of “Hogan’s Heroes” whose famous line was “I know nothing, NOTH-THING!!!!”

But later it made me aware that such analogies worked for me and my peers, but not for this young assistant and the staff she was managing.

Like a manager and his staff, writers need to also understand the factors that have influenced their readers. In many cases, the two may not be in sync.

This is the very reason the staff at Beloit College puts together a yearly “mindset” list….what the incoming freshman class may or may not know. It gives the staff … and those of us who read it … the perspective of the 18-year-old student as he sees the world. Check out the current version. Eddie Haskell isn’t on it. Neither is Sgt. Schultz.

As a writer, you must know the audience you’re writing to. And you must write to them in terms they’ll understand.

Being too retro for younger readers may not be the main reason they don’t pick up newspapers. But if may be a factor as to why they don’t understand what you’re writing about. Maybe we Boomers should consider locking Eddie Haskell and Sgt. Schultz in that time vault, and find newer analogies to state our case.

It may not be too bad every now and then to say the cost of President Obama’s stimulus package is bigger than Kanye West’s ego.


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