Newspapers and (Amish) youth: an age-old dilemma
The Amish population doubles roughly once every 20 years. Despite the famous rumspringa period in an Amish teenager’s life (the time during which adolescents are given freedom from some of the church’s rules before they decide whether to be formally baptised) leading some to the decision not to join their parents in a simpler way of life, Amish families tend to be larger than their English equivalents. This means even if one or two children decide to leave, there is normally a sizable number who will choose to stay. They in turn will have their own children, and so the cycle continues. So this leaves the Budget with a quandary familiar to most newspaper editors of today; how to draw in younger readers. But unlike many other publications, the Budget has many more obstacles in its way than just cash flow and clever advertising campaigns.
Both Budget publisher Keith Rathbun and national edition editor Fannie Erb-Miller say they have no reliable data on the demographic make-up of their readership, but they estimate the majority of their Amish Mennonite audience to be in the 50+ age bracket. Keith puts this down to two contributing factors:
“One is they are busy. Even the Amish kids, they do not have the time to read it like their parents and grandparents did. But also the content and letters tend to be of more interest to the older people. They’re about health problems, people’s recuperation, visiting the sick. The kids do not really relate to that. There is a place for that in the paper, but when it’s so much of the letters, the kids just sort of tune it out.”
He said this has led to concerns that, despite the Budget’s 120-year history, some of the kids simply do not know the paper exists, and this is worrying for a newspaper which in many areas has a monopoly as the source of Amish news.
Over the past few years, Keith and his team have tried to develop schemes to tackle the youth problem:
“We want to try to find out what the younger Amish look for in the Budget. What do they need to see to make the time commitment to the paper?”
Ideas have included producing a “Little Budget” – a compact version of the paper, aimed at young adults and children attending parochial schools and written by younger scribes. It would be about “what’s going on in their school, their lives, trips they’re thinking of doing, friends that are getting married,” said Keith, and could also act as scouting ground for talented national scribes. But while Keith is willing to put in the time to find the advertising commitment to be able to break even on such a project, the economic downturn has rendered it a pipe dream for the time being.
Other proposals included mimicking the Newspapers in Education programme that has been popular in other US schools. The scheme puts a number of newspapers into classrooms each month, allowing teachers to build lesson plans around them to raise awareness of their role in society and current affairs. Doing the same with the Budget, say the staff, would be a way to maintain a connection with their younger readers on the ground. But they have faced opposition from the Amish bishops and others in the community, with such schemes deemed “too mercenary” for the Amish philosophy. But the publisher insists there is more to his paper’s motivation than dollar signs:
“Of course, we are hoping to gain readers,” said Keith. “And we are hoping to get people to want to pick up the paper on a regular basis, but [the bishops] felt that that was all we were interested in. But the Budget is a very important part of Amish lives – it tells their history, their genealogy.”
Even smaller schemes to raise awareness of the Budget’s name have been fraught with problems. Plans to provide dictionaries to every Amish third grader, courtesy of the Sugarcreek publication, were shelved after it proved too difficult to find a “clean” dictionary. Thoughts then switched to putting world maps into classrooms with the newspaper’s logo printed somewhere discreet, but this idea could also come under fire for a perceived commercial motivation.
And all the while, the Amish (both young and old) are finding other ways to communicate. I have seen more than one young teenager chatting away on a mobile phone in the week I have been here, and walking into Sugarcreek Library on Thursday I came across one Amish girl about to type something into Google’s homepage. The recent addition of extra computers to the library is, in no small part I am told, due to others like this young woman. But while the causes of the Budget’s youth problem may sound familiar, they also have to factor in a respect for the Amish adults they co-operate with, who are often working from a very different agenda.