Imagine that the children you raised in your home—fed, sheltered, educated—have grown up and are now talking a different language than the one they learned in your home. You don’t know where they learned this language, but you don’t speak it.
Now you know what it is like to be a newspaper publisher trying to reach millennials.
You grew up in a different world being rewarded for another way of journalism. But now your future depends on a group of people and you don’t even share a common language.
You have two choices as editors and publishers: forget about them and hasten the death of our industry, or learn the language. And don’t despair. Millennials want news.
(Forgive me for lumping millennials into a monolithic group. Behaviors vary within the group, but for the sake of this article, we’ll use the term to mean those born between 1980 and 1999, and we will understand there are differences in the group.)
They are interested in news. Maybe they will not sit down to read the 2,500-word report on the Supreme Court decision, but they will find out what happened and form opinions. (My 21-year-old daughter watched a presidential candidates debate with us and when I asked her later what she thought of it she showed me a Facebook meme of Donald Trump transformed into a Twinkie that bore an incredible resemblance. “That’s my opinion,” she said. Well played.) They discover news through their own networks (that foreign language thing again) but often come back to mainstream sources for independent confirmation. Still, others will go through a number of social media sites and blogs to get a variety of views about the news.
“Millennials are digital omnivores. They reach for their smartphones while they’re on the go and use their tablets or PCs when they’re in their homes and offices,” writes Josie Balik in an article called, “How Enterprises Can Optimize Mobile Apps for Millennials” on the Mobile Business Insights sponsored by IBM. (goo.gl/uEpmM4) The days of sitting in the easy chair with the paper, or drinking coffee with the paper around the kitchen table—yeah, they’re gone. Young people move and catch news on a smartphone while waiting in line at Starbucks.
They expect the interactive. The idea of delivering news on a one-way street is, to put it politely, quaint. Millennials want to engage those who deliver information. The very best reporters are doing this on Twitter. They publish the article and then respond to the questions and comments. They extend the life of the story and maybe learn more about what truly interested their readers.
Please don’t criticize them for having their nose stuck in a screen all day. Remember Rupert Murdoch’s apocalyptic speech about digital natives and digital immigrants? You are in their country. This generation feels like it is the first to truly own technology, according to Balik. You’re the immigrant. You can’t criticize the language or the habits of the natives. You either join them or you fail.
That whole notion we used to have of them paying for content? It’s dead. Some of them pay for content, but we exist in a world in which people assume content is free. And they share this free content. You’re not going to get a millennial to read your newspaper in print. You might get them to read an article that has been shared by a friend through messaging or Facebook sharing. You’ll get eyeballs. You’ll maybe get some repeat readers. You just won’t get them paying for it. You gotta figure out that economic model.
They’re busy, not distracted. We have known for decades that time spent on traditional consumption of news was dwindling. It’s only gotten more acute. They want information that saves them time and betters their lives. It has to be directly relevant and useful to their job, their families or the problems they face in their lives, according to the Media Insight Project, an initiative of the American Press Institute and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research (goo.gl/maAL2m).
I have four millennials among my children and we talk about news all the time. Not one of them subscribes to a print newspaper. Only one pays for a digital subscription. They want to be your audience, editors and publishers. Just meet them on their turf.
Tim Gallagher is president of The 20/20 Network, a public relations and strategic communications firm. He is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning editor and publisher at The Albuquerque Tribune and the Ventura County Star newspapers. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.