Future proofing news consumption for young audiences

That newsbrands have an issue with young audiences isn’t a new revelation. For newspapers particularly, much of the ‘print is dead’ sentiment of the past few years was driven by the fact that young people were not picking up the most lucrative product on offer from the media company in favour of interacting with the brand in formats where the RPU was significantly lower. As a result, the vast majority of the crisis over dwindling print revenue can be put down to newsbrands’ collective failure to make their most valuable properties attractive to young audiences. Or, if you want to look at it with a glass half full mentality, to their success in making digital content more appealing to young people.

News publishers need to stop treating young people as an invasive species

At the same time, the exhaustively well-documented usurpation of the direct relationship in digital by platforms has led to a situation in which young people have a very different relationship with newspapers and broadcasters than those media companies perceive them to have. Squaring that circle, and ensuring that newsbrands have a mutually beneficial relationship with young audiences, requires an evidence-based rethink – and soon.

The latest Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism report into how young people interact with the news demonstrates that there is currently a disconnect between what young people value from news and how news publishers are attempting to monetise them. Here are some implications from the report, with a particular focus on healing that disconnect.

Personal interests…

One of the trickiest issues for news publishers thrown up by the report is that young people interact with news through a primarily personal lens. While the perception in previous generations has been that news consumption was first and foremost in service of staying abreast of current events, today’s young consumer consumes news content for a variety of reasons. While an understanding of current affairs is certainly one facet – the report puts a lot of focus on how that knowledge transfers some prestige to young news consumers, that knowledge effectively is power, it also cites five more reasons why young people interact with news.

Those range from developing a personal identity through understanding of the context of news, to being entertained by news content delivered in a fun manner, to having a ready stock of up-to-date observations that grease the wheels of social interactions.

… with an altruistic outlook

On the face of it, that suggests that young people interact with new for primarily selfish reasons, with personal development being the primary motivator and each article being a stepping stone along the way to growth. However, since young people have been demonstrated to be more aware of issues of identity and social inequality, and to be more generous when it comes to charitable donations, it suggests that young people seek to improve themselves through news content in order to effect social change.

News publishers, then, could attempt to appeal to these young people by focusing less on the ‘if it bleeds it leads’ mentality that has defined the front page for decades, and instead focusing more on solutions journalism, as Positive News and (to some extent) the Guardian have done.

In the moment

While the edition-based system of publishing has demonstrably worked for digital publishers like The Times & Sunday Times, the reality of constant ready access to the internet and young people’s presence on social media means that today’s audiences are habituated to having news content at their fingertips whenever they need it. The report also notes that Gen-Z, tomorrow’s target demographic, will expect to have news delivered to them whenever they demand, in a more more relevant and tailored manner. No surprise, then, that we’ve seen the news publishers and broadcasters with the resources to do so investing heavily in AI tools designed to increase the amount of personalisation on offer.

However, the report also demonstrates that simply having a presence on a young consumer’s phone in the form of an app isn’t enough. The research demonstrated that no individual news app appeared in the top 25 most-used apps on average (save for reddit, which is only tangentially a news app and doesn’t necessarily have to be used as such). The implication for media companies, then, is that their content primarily has to be accessible through social media – even if the issues around brand erasure on those platforms and issues of revenue share are yet to be resolved.

Additionally, the report flags up that news content will inevitably be judged against entertainment content like Netflix and Spotify, not just in terms of price anchoring, but also in terms of how easily accessible, easy-to-use and sophisticated their content sourcing methods are.

As has been pointed out, then, tacit criticism from some publishers that today’s young consumers have little brand loyalty and are ‘promiscuous’ when it comes to news sources is retrograde and backwards in its approach to reaching young audiences. Today’s consumer is a product of the internet, with understandable expectations that the services they choose to pay for provide a reasonable value exchange on par with entertainment properties. It isn’t for young people to conform to publishers’ expectations of what a ‘news consumer’ looks like, but the other way round.

Chris Sutcliffe

enquiries@trippassociates.co.uk

Martin Tripp Associates is a London-based executive search consultancy. While we are best-known for our work across the media, information, technology, communications and entertainment sectors, we have also worked with some of the world’s biggest brands on challenging senior positions. Feel free to contact us to discuss any of the issues raised in this blog.