I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but millennials are everywhere. We hear a lot these days about the 80 million or so people born after 1980 and before 2000, but America’s largest generation are often dismissed in newsrooms as being disengaged and “newsless.”
Unfortunately, add the dismissal of millennial readers to the list of things newspapers have gotten wrong in the past 20 years. Since this generation is expected to spend $200 billion annually by 2017 in the U.S. alone, it could be a costly mistake for newspapers still struggling to adapt to the times.
The good news is a large number of millennial readers may still be up for grabs, at least according to a study released last month by the Media Insight Project.
According to the study, most millennials value news and consume it daily, often multiple times a day. They’re not buying newspapers or specifically visiting local news sites, they’re coming across their news largely on social media, specifically on Facebook.
Think of it like this: Baby boomers shopped for newspapers at the newsstand or in a drug store, while the shops millennials use to find their news are Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Reddit and other social media platforms.
So what can newsrooms do to capture this huge pool of news consumers? Here are three ideas.
1. Up your Facebook game
One thing made strikingly clear from the study is no matter how badly millennials trash Facebook, it’s where upwards of 88 percent of them get their news. That means editors need to shut off their auto-pilot strategy of simply sharing their top stories, and devise a strategy to highlight their best and more relevant work to their Facebook audience.
The most important thing to remember about posting stories to Facebook is readers interact and share stories they personally identify with. While crime stories are part of a news site’s bread and butter, the “if it bleeds, it leads” adage doesn’t apply to Facebook, where users seem to reward uplifting, unique or bizarre stories the most. In fact, politics and government were at the bottom of the list of news topics where Facebook was a common point of access for millennials.
To get some perspective, NewsWhip, (newswhip.com) which tracks the spread of stories on social networks, recently published a list of the most-engaged stories on Facebook in January 2015 (remember engagement is key to more people seeing your stories show up in their newsfeed).
Notably, there were few hard news stories on their list of the top engaged stories. Readers on Facebook seem to value interactive content, like PlayBuzz’s quiz “What Was Your Past Life According To Your Memories?” and Huffington Post’s uplifting “109-Year-Old Woman Gives A Remarkable Reason For Her Long Life” over traditional hard news pieces.
That’s not to say that city council and crime stories don’t have value—they obviously do. But it does mean editors should be thinking creatively about how to tell those stories differently to appeal to the changing tastes of readers.
Facebook also has powerful tools social media editors can take advantage of. Heather Brown, the head of social media at the UK-based Mirror, has increased their effectiveness on Facebook dramatically by targeting content to specific users based on criteria such as age, gender, location and relationship status. Editors can play around with this by clicking the “Edit Page” drop down menu in your page’s admin panel and selecting “Edit Settings.”
2. Embrace creativity
Technology has allowed millennials to become the first generation that’s truly free to seek out and find what enjoyable and relevant to their lives. Editors are no longer competing with other news sources; they’re competing with Netflix, cat videos and everything else the Internet has to offer, so newsrooms need to fully embrace creative and unique ways to pique their interest.
One creative idea initiated by the editors of the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer is Charlotte Five, a mobile-first website featuring stories picked and highlighted due to their appeal to millennials. In addition to aggregated local news coverage, Ted Williams, director of digital strategy and new initiatives at the Observer, notes that Charlotte Five focuses on “Seinfeld Journalism”—original content that isn’t exactly news, but are items millennials are talking about.
“As we look at this market, in general, the digital advertising market is growing and large,” Williams told NeimanLab. “The young population in Charlotte is also growing. So we’re looking for a lightweight product to reach them.”
Another creative approach is to use art and comics, popular among younger readers, to appeal to millennials. Ironically, newspapers have understood the popularity of cartoons and comics for nearly 100 years, but in most cases art of any kind is hidden deep in the bowels of most newspaper websites.
It’s newer websites that have embraced art as a way to attract millennial readers not just with fluff and gags, but with in-depth storytelling on issues relevant to them. Fusion cartoonist Jen Sorenson recently did a long-form cartoon on college rapists. Over on Medium’s vertical The Nib, recent cartoons include Ronald Wimberly’s exploration of racism in comic books and Maki Naro’s look at the science behind vaccines.
“Comics are visual and highly-efficient storytelling devices—which makes them perfect for the Internet, especially as readership has become driven by social media,” said Sorenson. “You can make an abstract story more engaging and accessible by telling it in comic form.”
3. Diversify your newsroom to tell more relevant stories
This might seem like the most obvious solution, but newspapers still seem surprisingly entrenched in terms of hiring younger, more diverse workers to staff their newsrooms.
In its most recent survey, the American Society of News Editors (ASNE) found just 13 percent of daily newspaper journalists are racial and ethnic minorities, compared to the 20 percent that comprise online-only news sites. This despite the fact minorities comprises nearly 34 percent of the total U.S. population.
One of the respondents to the Media Insight Project’s report named Devon made it clear he wanted to hear from journalists of his generation, who can speak in ways that are more relevant to him.
“Find a way to make it different points of view,” Devon said of news coverage. “Bring in more people with a different opinion, like maybe a different age group that could reach a different audience. (B)ring somebody else along so that they can maybe (speak) to our age group.”
Lam Thuy Vo, the interactive editor for Al Jazeera America, wrote a “game plan” that presents steps newsrooms can take to find, hire and keep diverse talent. Vo wanted to see more “gender diversity, socioeconomic diversity—which includes class and income and how you grow up—and even LGBT diversity and people with disabilities.”
After all, nothing will turn off readers more than making them feel like their voice is not heard. That’s not to say it’s smart for newsrooms to cast off their older newsroom employees. It’s just important for seasoned veterans to adapt and grow with the changing times, as ONA board member Benét Wilson recently explained.
“Just keep up your skills,” Wilson said. “Never stop learning—and I’m saying this as a journalist who started her career on a manual typewriter. It is doable.”
Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor and Publisher. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.