Desperately Seeking Youngsters – Seven Insights About a Demanding Audience

This phrase keeps popping up regularly in editorial meetings: Everyone is presenting their topics, and then one of the bosses throws it in: “We have to do something for young people.” Perplexity escapes the eyes of older participants. Maybe something about Tik Tok? About hip music or the approaching high school graduation? Everyone younger than 30 goes into hiding, just in case. They know that their most important job is to impress their over-40 superiors with clever suggestions that will go down well with the over-60 clientele. After all, they want to be taken seriously.

Established media companies and young audiences have a hard time with each other. While the former cannot do without the latter, because this would result in their economic starvation, the latter can very well do without many things that ensure the livelihood of publishers and broadcasters: Subscriptions, apps, and live TV, for example. Even with digital there is no guarantee. According to the Digital News Report 2020, 84 percent of under-25s don’t go directly to a media brand’s website, but get information from what social media, search engines or news aggregators flush into their timelines or onto their screens via push messages. This is why established media put it on the agenda again and again: Young users desperately wanted.

But what about young people’s media consumption, what do they like, what do they ignore, when do they tune in and when do they tune out? Judging by how much and how long the topic has preoccupied newsrooms, research on this is fairly slant. For the German market, two studies revealed important findings this spring.  One is “#usethenews”, published in April 2021 by the Leibniz Institute for Media Research Hans-Bredow Institute. The second one puts an emphasis on media literacy and was published in March by the Stiftung Neue Verantwortung. From this, my own research and from countless conversations with students from various disciplines, a few things have emerged that editorial strategists should know.

First: The house is indeed on fire on this topic, not only as far as the future of publishers is concerned, but also with regard to civic engagement in democracy. According to the research team at the Hans Bredow Institute, around one in two young people do not consider it important to be informed about current events. They provide the explanation right away: “Journalism often lacks a connection to young people’s everyday lives.” So it’s not enough to shrug and point to the generally rising proportion of news avoiders, which the Digital News Report puts at around one-third internationally. Among the younger generation, news abstinence is much more pronounced. Anyone who is serious about journalism as a pillar of democracy should therefore take urgent action.

Second, the gap between those who are well informed and competent and those who can barely find their way in the new information landscape is widening. Whereas formerly, even those with a low level of education used to be reasonably well informed, perhaps because there was a newspaper lying around here and there, because they watched TV news out of boredom, or were force-fed hourly radio news while driving, all of this can be completely avoided in the age of maximum distraction possibilities. The information gap that the Internet was supposed to close is opening up more and more as a digital divide between the social classes – if nothing is done. Public broadcasters with their mandate to offer journalism for everyone have a special obligation here.

Third: Fortunately, many young people are interested in the world around them after all – just not always in what seasoned politics and feature editors find exciting. Those who enjoy journalism like to check out the local news. Anything to do with environmental protection and science is thought after, at least by the better educated. Incidentally, in a recent American study on news avoidance (“The head and heart of news avoidance”), it were also stories touching health, science, the environment and local affairs that news avoiders of all generations were most likely to be interested in. Newsrooms whose informal pecking order starts with the politics desk followed by a large gap will have to adjust.

Fourth, what unites all users of the younger generations is a preference for light subject matter. According to the Leibniz study, “funny and strange” is consistently well received. In any case, humor is a pretty sure way to get a hearing among generations Y and Z, as evidenced not only by Böhmermann and Co. But beware, it’s not necessarily the kind of humor that those same mature executives like. Joking at the expense of weaker people is not acceptable. Those who dish it out have to at least take a joke themselves once in a while. In the humor department of journalism, the same applies as with uncertain sources: If in doubt, leave it alone.

Fifth: There’s no way around influencers, but they don’t have to be Instagram marketing heroes. When the Swedish daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter had Greta Thunberg head the newsdesk for one day last year, digital subscriptions came rushing in, several thousand in one day. Celebrities increase reach and help get messages across. Rule of thumb: Celebrities should come across as people, not officials. Having the movie star talk about politics and the politician talk about movies can make both more credible, if they mean it honestly. Young people are trained to distinguish between genuine authenticity and staged approachability.

Sixth, diversity counts – and not just as a box-ticking exercise. Young people expect a program or brand to portray the world as they experience it. They may be able to identify with protagonists and perhaps even contribute something themselves. This includes language that is both casual and respectful and content that – see above – has something to do with their everyday lives. News should be useful and fun, was the conclusion of a study on young journalism users published by market researcher Flamingo together with the Reuters Institute in 2019. Constructive journalism that opens the world wide with perspectives is therefore particularly well received by the young generation. Rule of thumb: You can trust the audience with something. The success of science-driven formats such as Brainstorm by Irish public broadcaster RTE or the German magazine Katapult are proof of this. It’s a pity for cost killers that in-depth research is usually more time-consuming than dishing out news copy-and-paste style. But quick news is everywhere these days. You could say that young people are journalism gourmets.

Seventh: Journalism must be easily accessible and well prepared. Digitization trains all generations for convenience; Amazon, PayPal, Spotify and Co. have set the gold standard for user-friendliness. The old world, in which people still read instruction manuals, wrote down phone numbers and went to the kiosk on the corner, is disappearing. For journalism, this means it has to go where the users are and make it easy for them. The American study mentioned above says that barriers to understanding and a lack of self-confidence in dealing with the media are the main reasons why people give news a wide berth. When in doubt, the interactive infographic with three bullet points beats the 200-line editorial. This is bitter for some authors. While complexity used to be a sign of quality, today it has to be well justified. This is good. Because in the past it has all too often merely concealed incompetence or laziness.

This column was published in German on May 17, 2021 by Medieninsider. It was translated by DeepL and then edited.

Going digital means going diverse – not only but especially for newsrooms

Demographically uniform newsrooms have been producing uniformly homogeneous content for decades, and the lack of diversity in the media has actually worsened in recent decades. The most likely reason is that industry leaders continue to regard the digital transformation as a matter of technology and process, rather than of talent and human capital.

MUNICH – When a local radio station in Charlotte, North Carolina started a podcasting competition in its community, it was prepared for many contingencies, except one: that the response would overwhelm the station’s server. The initiative was aimed at increasing on-air diversity, and tens of thousands of people wanted in. Groups and individuals from all walks of life submitted more than 370 ideas for podcasts, and 33,000 listeners logged on to vote for them. What started as a one-time experiment will now be a regular feature.

Journalism has always suffered from a lack of diversity. Demographically uniform newsrooms have been producing uniformly homogeneous content for decades. And while editors around the world have increasingly recognized that this is a problem, too little has been done to address it. 

One reason, ironically, is a preoccupation with digital change. “There has been so much focus on digital transformation in recent years, the question of diversity has had to stand aside,” explains Olle Zachrison of the Swedish public broadcaster Sveriges Radio, in a study comparing diversity efforts in the United Kingdom, Sweden, and Germany. And yet, as the newsroom in Charlotte discovered, diversity is not just an added bonus; it is at the very core of audience engagement today.

In explaining the business ethos of the digital age, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has argued that it is all about “customer obsession as opposed to competitor obsession.” For the media, then, the guiding principle should be “audience first.” And that means using data to understand and cater better to it.

Not long ago, editorial choices were guided mostly by gut feelings and assumptions, whereas now they are often informed by analytical metrics and revealed truths about audience behavior. Some of these revelations are uncomfortable. Editors can no longer fool themselves about their journalism’s real-world impact. They now know that even the best stories tend to reach just a fraction of their hoped-for audience.

Complicating matters further, newsrooms have discovered that demand can peak at times when they have no new offerings, or when what they’re serving is not what consumers are seeking. In surveys like the Digital News Report, respondents often complain that the media offer too much negativity and volume, and too little explanation and relevant coverage.

Before digitalization, journalists didn’t have to think about their audiences as much as they do now. Newspapers were money-printing machines – the advertising dollars poured in regardless of what would now be called “content.” Likewise, public-service media faced almost no competition. But now that digital information is a commodity, with a few major platforms controlling its distribution, audience loyalty has become a matter of survival.

Many newsrooms were entirely unprepared for this new reality. They don’t even know who their potential new customers are, let alone how to reach them and win their trust. The problem is not just that newsroom homogeneity results in an incomplete view of the world and of the reading/listening public. It is that even when “outsiders” do land a job in this kind of environment, they tend to adapt to the dominant culture rather than challenge it. As a result, newsrooms remain ill equipped to reach out to new audiences.

The lack of diversity in the media has actually worsened in recent decades. Back in the heyday of local news, newsrooms were no less white or male, but being a journalist at least didn’t require a university degree – only a willingness to dive in and chase leads. Yet as the industry became concentrated more in big cities and employment prospects elsewhere diminished, education became yet another entry barrier. While the better-educated candidates moved up to higher-profile jobs, many others left the profession altogether.

In keeping with the industrial society of the time, the occupational model that followed from these changes was hierarchical. As with teachers and their pupils, preachers and their congregations, and experts and the lay public, education conferred status and authority upon journalists. The public was a passive recipient of information, not an engaged participant in a broader conversation.

Clinging to this hierarchical structure is now a recipe for failure. The digital world of information is one of choice and abundance, but also of considerable confusion about what is true and false. Trust is a news organization’s most valuable asset, and the task for journalists is both to challenge and inspire their audience, and to invite conversations among them.

That can’t happen unless journalism represents the society in which it is operating. Unfortunately, a recent global survey of media leaders finds that while editors see progress toward gender diversity, much more must be done to achieve racial and political diversity, as well as a balance between “urban” and “rural” backgrounds. The most likely reason for this failure is that industry leaders continue to regard the digital transformation as a matter of technology and process, rather than of talent and human capital.

Fortunately, the digital transformation represents an opportunity. As Jeff Jarvis of the City University of New York explains, industry leaders should “Try listening to, valuing, and serving the people and communities who were long ignored and left unserved by our old industry, mass media.” All news organizations should take Jarvis’s advice – and not just because it is the right thing to do. Their own survival depends on it.

This commentary was published in ten languages by Project Syndicate on June 25, 2020