September 17, 2019

Heaven Taylor-Wynn and Alexa Volland are the boss lady reporters for MediaWise, a Google-backed, Poynter-led fact-checking program for teenagers. Heaven was previously an intern for Poynter’s PolitiFact, and Alexa was a copyeditor at the Tampa Bay Times and an elementary school journalism teacher.

Teens are hard to figure out, and reaching them online can feel like a constant battle. Like playing Fortnite, but blindfolded — constantly taking shots in the dark hoping something lands. (Fortnite is still a thing, right?)

We both work for MediaWise, a grant-funded digital media literacy project that aims to teach teens how to tell fact from fiction online. Our audience demands a totally different approach to publishing, which has forced us to ignore a traditional newsroom model.

MediaWise doesn’t have a website. (Well, there’s this.) A print product was never really an option. The project lives solely on social, which means we first have to think about how content will be shared, then how it will be presented. It also means we have to be quick to adapt to the ever-changing social media landscape, and willing (sometimes reluctantly) to jump on bandwagon apps and trends.

Alexa helps lead MediaWise’s Teen Fact-Checking Network, a national team of student journalists who debunk misinformation they see on their own timelines. She was 16 in 2007.

Heaven leads MediaWise’s social media development. She was 16 in 2014.

But being 16 in 2019 requires a unique set of skills online, many of which newsrooms should be adopting themselves.

MediaWise has taught us a lot about how teens use social and how they obtain news. Here’s the best of what we’ve learned so far. We hope you find it useful and applicable in your own newsrooms.

This article originally appeared in an issue of The Cohort, Poynter’s newsletter for women kicking ass in digital media. Join the conversation here.

Adapt to working backwards

Other newsrooms might see MediaWise’s workflow as backwards. Unlike most news orgs, we don’t have a hub, per se. We live on Instagram. We’re a year into the project and we’re just now creating a blog-style page where some of our fact-checks can live. This model has its share of benefits and challenges.

The way we think about social first is by asking our teen reporters to pitch stories they’re seeing as fact-checkable claims on their social media feeds. We prefer their pitches to come from widely shared posts that make them raise an eyebrow. 

During the scripting process, they’re required to write some social copy for their story. How will the tweet read? What’s going to make someone share this in a group chat with their friends? How might we compel a follower to pursue the heavy lift of tapping through an entire Insta story? 

Since MediaWise almost exclusively publishes on social, our focus has always been writing for social. We repeatedly ask our teen fact-checkers, “How would you text this to your friends?”  From there, we encourage them to craft their articles around features built within the Instagram app. Effects, filters, boomerangs and GIFS are all fair game when it comes to our style of storytelling.

Meet teens where they’re at

We’re teaching teenagers how to discern what’s real and what’s not online. We’re meeting them where they are —  on Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter and TikTok. 

Few teens have watched a newscast outside of school. And even fewer have read a newspaper front to back. They aren’t going out of their way to find what they need to know because they’ve never had to. (And why should they?) 

Instead, more than half of teens turn to social media for their news. Half get their news from YouTube alone. Of those teens, the majority of them will seek the trusted expertise of their favorite influencers and celebrities. 

This doesn’t mean that teenagers are an unattainable market; it means that we need to get on the apps that they’re on. And do it sooner rather than later.

Don’t be afraid to try anything once

Not all apps will work in a traditional newsroom. And with the rapid release of new platforms, a younger audience becomes a moving target as opposed to a static one. Social media storytelling is constantly evolving. 

The only way to find out if a new app will work is to try it. Simple. In terms of MediaWise, we don’t have much to lose by going a little rogue. We’re doing something that’s never been done before and writing the rules as we go. We also have the advantage of a 50-person consulting group made up of our teen fact-checkers. Most newsrooms obviously don’t have a network of teens at their disposal; Instagram polls and live streams are good alternatives for this. 

We need to see the value in what teenagers are interested in and take stock in it. 

Some traditional newsrooms fail to acknowledge what, to them, are seemingly menial platforms until those platforms explode in popularity. By the time newsrooms are willing to invest resources and dip their toes into the trend, the water has already run dry. Teens will have moved on to what’s next. 

Almost no one could’ve predicted an app meant to send spicy content to love interests would rise to prominence as a major news player. Now, Snapchat reaches 90% of 13- to 24-year olds in the U.S. NBC took note and hosts a daily news show within the platform aimed at teenagers  (one of the hosts, Savannah Sellers, is now a MediaWise ambassador).  

Similarly, few newsrooms saw the value in an app replete with 30-second videos of teenagers lip-syncing to popular songs. At first glance, TikTok can easily feel like a way to waste time. Upon further inspection, you’ll realize the algorithm is mastered to keep the user engaged in a way other popular platforms haven’t. (RIP Vine.) Teens are eating it up. 

The Washington Post is making an amazing effort through its artfully crafted creations. It tapped into the features in a way that works not only for it, but also for the teens who follow. Overall, the Post’s videos are just funny or entertaining. Other newsrooms ought to take a page from the Post’s book. By no means is TikTok the most effective form of journalistic storytelling, but it has teens’ attention. Newsrooms stand to benefit from dedicating resources to this space because it’s a major opportunity to market their product to teenagers. 

We want to presume TikTok won’t be a vehicle for publishing investigative journalism. However, given the way technology has evolved, there’s no way to tell for sure. 

If we’re meant to inform teens, we have to make concerted efforts to reach them. 

Teens are not consuming news and information in ways that make sense to most adults. They don’t gather around the TV at 5 p.m. with mom and dad on the couch. And they’re certainly not reading the morning paper at the breakfast table. 

We must not get caught up in allowing big players to dictate what’s what in publishing. While most newsrooms already have a strong presence on Facebook and Twitter, it’s worth exploring and establishing a voice on Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat and TikTok, as well.

Follow your audience and be quick about it.

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Alexa Volland is a multimedia reporter with the MediaWise project. Before joining Poynter, she was the web editor for the Tampa Bay Times’ high school…
Alexa Volland

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