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.

In the fun business – Journalism that wants to reach young audiences needs to work on humour

Journalism is serious business. Just recently, a Greek investigative reporter was shot dead outside his home in a suburb of Athens. Even in Germany journalists are increasingly being physically attacked, which is why Reporters Beyond Borders downgraded the country’s state of press freedom from “good” to “satisfactory” in its latest report. Especially in Central and Eastern Europe, politicians and oligarchs are cornering independent media. And then German comedian Jan Böhmermann came along and landed a newsstand, TV and social media hit with a satirical magazine, “Freizeit Magazin Royale”, poking fun of German publishers. What got young people most worked up? Guess: that Böhmermann’s magazine was out of print after a few days.

One should still not deny young audiences a sense of seriousness too easily. Humor is a serious matter, and it doesn’t take attacks on caricaturists to get this. The trend of young people increasingly approaching the news through comedy has been showing for a while. A study in the journal Journalism highlighted this in the U.S. as early as 2007, a decade after the launch of “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central. Since then, corresponding formats have been developed in many places. Modern newsrooms better get down to this soon: Mastering lighter formats is the key to getting the next generation excited about news. This is easier written than done though.

Satire is one of the journalistic genres that fails most often. What is satire, what is just bad taste and what is even inhumane? This was the subject of a heated debate in Germany just under a year ago, when a not-so-funny column by Hengameh Yaghoobifarah in the taz newspaper equated the police with garbage and therefore caused a lot of concern – right up to the Federal Minister of the Interior and the German Press Council. Even more than other forms of journalism, which can be mastered acceptably with craft, persistence and a lot of practice, satire requires a certain talent – in other words, humor. To make matters worse, this is even culturally coded.

Not everyone can and should laugh at everything. Humor exerts power, and therefore tends to work better from bottom up. There is a huge difference between rebelling against established power structures and cementing them by joking from above. For this reason, a show in which privileged presenters amuse themselves about political correctness is very prone to go wrong. This happened famously with the failed #allesdichtmachen campaign, in which well-known actors supposedly wanted to argue ironically for freedom of expression in the Covid 19 crisis. Too bad that parts of the public perceived this, at best, as whining from the designer kitchen.  

American communications scholar Danna Young describes in her 2019 book “Irony and Outrage” that satire involves a certain basic liberal attitude that values freedom of thought and takes a playful approach to serious things in life. The counterpart to this in the right-wing political spectrum is the rise of rage talk shows, she argues.

The traditional media move between these poles. Their journalists work in the facts business and rarely in the humor field. Facts are unambiguous and clear by definition. Humor is ambiguous and lives through interpretation. Mixing things up is dangerous. Especially in social media, humor is often difficult to identify. Moreover, many reporters and commentators rarely feel like laughing (see above), cynicism excluded.

Still, humor works just fine with young audiences. Rule number one: It must not underestimate its addressees. The German (print) magazine Katapult is such a hit with the young generation, because it casually mixes factual depth and lightness. Subtitle: “Magazine for icecream, cartography and social science”, need we explain more? Young users prefer journalism that explains, is useful in their daily lives, and is fun, according to a study published by the Reuters Institute in Oxford.

The fun factor is still limited when consuming most established media. In the past, it was considered proof of belonging to the educated class, if one had to struggle properly while reading the newspaper. Today, status postures only trigger boredom. After all, the more easily digestible alternative is already waiting – on YouTube or Tik Tok. Now, it’s not about replacing news and analysis with satire. If you can’t bring it up to premium quality when it comes to humor, you better leave it. What everyone can work on, however, is tone. Many podcasts work so well because they come across as light and chatty.

Newspapers can still work on it. Some essays exude more enthusiasm of the writers about themselves and their clever sentences rather than mastery of language. To the audience, they only seem embarrassing. Young people in particular have good antennae for jokes being made at the expense of the weak. They don’t perceive it as funny, but as offensive and discriminatory. Lecturing is out, taking seriously is in. When in doubt, it’s okay to make fun of yourself. You don’t even have to be a comedian to do that.

This column appeared in German in the newsletter of the Digital Journalism Fellowship at Hamburg Media School on April 23, 2021. Translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator (free version) and then edited.