Why one local paper launched an online section for older readers

Figuring out how to reach younger readers online is one of the perpetual concerns of the newspaper business. But a new effort from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette this spring is a little unusual: It’s aimed directly at older audiences. 

In April, the paper launched Aging Edge, a section of its website dedicated to the interests and concerns of the area’s “older adults, their families and the professionals who deal with them.” As Gary Rotstein, a veteran Post-Gazette journalist who proposed the idea and is running the section, explained in an inaugural message to readers:

It’s an innovative web venture that few other media in the country have attempted, but we deem it all the more important in Pittsburgh, a region long known for its high proportion of elderly. (Census data show 18.3 percent of the metropolitan area’s population to be 65 or older, compared to 14.5 percent nationwide.)

The section features regular blog posts from Rotstein; aggregated and curated stories that have appeared in the paper or in other outlets like the New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer; and interviews with local experts in the aging field. There are also resource pages on topics like “Staying Healthy,” “Aging at Home,” and “Preparing for the End.”

In the course of covering aging issues on and off over the past 20 years, Rotstein said, he observed that they are “pretty complex to get into. I would get calls from people looking for help and guidance.” So it’s not surprising that the section has a strong “news you can use” component: A recent blog post that discussed when to take Social Security benefits was the best-read story on the site the morning it appeared, Rotstein said. He believes the section’s archive will have lasting value, as readers come back to look for information on common concerns.

The Post-Gazette’s effort is not the first time a newspaper has put a digital focus on aging issues, said Paul Kleyman, who directs the Ethnic Elders Newsbeat for New America Media. So far, he said, its focus appears newsier than some earlier efforts.

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“It seems like a good experiment to connect local readers to national stories and offer an outlet for local reporting,” said Kleyman. “My hope is that it provides a model for other news organizations.”

Kleyman also wondered whether the section’s future would depend on the response from advertisers. I asked Rotstein about that, and the vision for the section’s long-term viability.

He told me there’s a belief some ads can be sold for Aging Edge, but nobody at the paper has indicated that would be a determining factor in the section’s future. “I don’t intend to be guided by whether or not the content creates advertising, but it’s great if it does.”

Readership will likely take some time to grow, he added. “Older adults are the ones least likely to use the web. We were aware of this going in, but we are in for the long term.”

That’s good to hear, and the resources and explainer guides are promising. Going forward, one thing to watch for will be how often the section digs in to some of the thorny political issues surrounding aging, which can bump into the interests of powerful stakeholders and big companies.

The Post-Gazette already offers readers some coverage that gets into the weeds here. For example, the paper recently featured a fine story by The Associated Press, which examined the nursing home practice of kicking out difficult residents. A local piece, by reporter Steve Twedt, told of an 86-year-old retiree who saw her costs for an IV drug treatment balloon when she switched Medicare Advantage plans, though the manufacturer had not raised the price.

Both stories seem to hold potential for follow-ups. On the nursing home front, what are the practices of local facilities? What do state inspection reports reveal? As for drug costs, were the sales material about the insurance plans clear? When the pitches for these plans begin again in the fall, will the paper and the section take a critical look at how Medicare Advantage plans are being sold?

It’s that sort of content that could make Aging Edge a real stand-out.

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Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for CJR's Covering the Health Care Fight. She also blogs for Health News Review and the Center for Health Journalism. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.