'The million-dollar question': What gets millennial readers to care?

Jenny Surane (Photo courtesy of Jenny Surane)
Jenny Surane (Photo courtesy of Jenny Surane)
Jenny Surane recently wrapped up a year-long stint as editor-in-chief of The Daily Tar Heel student newspaper at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The million-dollar media company boasts more than 250 staffers and over the past two semesters delivered a bevy of breaking news reports, special editions, impassioned editorials and large-scale investigations.

But did student readers notice?

In a farewell column of sorts -- written first as a class assignment and later published on the news outlet Quartz -- Surane shared her qualms about what she sees as a growing disconnect between student journalists and their student audience.

In her words, "[I]t’s humbling to realize that the newspaper I spend so many hours working on isn’t really beloved by my peers in the same way. ... My peers are interested in reading news, but they have no loyalties whatsoever about where it comes from. ... Even some of my closest friends refused to pick up the newspaper I spent dozens of hours on each week."

Surane, a fresh UNC graduate, has also been one of college media's most influential recent thought leaders. To flesh out the perspectives she offered in the Quartz piece, I tracked her down over the weekend in Austin, Texas, near the tail end of a post-commencement cross country roadtrip.

During our chat, Surane spoke candidly about a number of challenges she experienced firsthand while first in command at a major student media outlet. Among them: the "hamster wheel" of nightly news production, the pushback against opinion-editorial writing, the rise in real-time reporting competition from unlikely sources and the lingering debate centered on what to do about print.

As she told me, in respect to the latter, "That's the million-dollar question. ... I worry the job I spent so many hours training for this year didn't really teach me how to plug into that niche of millennial readership."

Here are six of the most interesting takeaways from our interview. To listen in on the full conversation, check out the College Media Podcast SoundCloud stream.

The Hamster Wheel.
Surane found it exceptionally tough as top editor to push for digital innovation while print -- still the moneymaking part of the DTH media empire -- demanded so much of her daily attention.

Surane: "You can't stop focusing on print for one day to focus on digital and improving it because you have to make your money. You have to have a good print product. The minute that you start to slip, your advertisers will leave and then you have nothing. You have no brand to rely on. You can hire people to think about digital, but ultimately if the head of the organization knows that most of your money is coming from print that's where your priorities are going to be. ... It's this hamster wheel that you can't get off. I don't know how you break that cycle. ... It's hard sometimes when you have this huge enterprise to simply say, 'Well, you know, we're going to try something totally different, guys.' Because there's a lot of red tape to do that and you have to put that paper out every day."

Stock and Flow.
Among the many articles, books and TED talks touching on the future of news which Surane has recently consumed, a Snarkmarket post by Robin Sloan headlined "Stock and Flow" especially captured her attention. According to Sloan, each term in the title represents a different integral component of a new media brand.

Surane: "Your digital offerings are your flows, that capital that keeps moving. Then you have your print offerings, which is your stock, the good stuff. It's the big in-depth investigations that look beautiful in print. We did a couple of those this year. I think we spent way too much time thinking about stock and probably not enough time thinking about flow. But both are really important to making sure your organization is successful. So I guess in the future I think what I see is people who can integrate those two beautifully [will be successful]. If your flow could incorporate parts of your stock and vice versa that would be great. And maybe that's the key to making money."

Our Writers Are Also Our Readers.
Surane said the key to building audience buzz is creating content staffers are excited to promote -- personally and professionally. This past year, DTH staffers were most abuzz about a series of monthly special sections that involved unparalleled cross-newsroom collaboration.

Surane: "Our Projects and Investigations team would come in and have a special section on sex on campus, a special section on food on campus, a special section on race on campus. We had a really good design team that would build beautiful front pages and nice double trucks with huge graphics. Then, the next day, because [staffers] would be so excited ... they would want to tweet out the beautiful front page and tweet out their stories. And those were days we would get the most traffic online. ... This is something that's unique to college media: Our writers are also our readers. Our writers are friend with our readers. Our writers are in the student groups that we cover. When our writers are sharing things on their Facebook and their Twitter, their friends see that and want to support their friends. And they'll click or they'll pick up a paper or they'll pass it out in the cafeteria or whatever. Those were days that people were talking about the Daily Tar Heel, and it started with the people who work on it."

Who's Your Audience?
When writing and editing stories over the past few semesters, Surane said the person most on her mind was not a staff member, but a family member.

Surane: "I really tried to think of just my little sister as my audience. She's a sophomore at UNC, and she's hopelessly out of touch. She loves the Daily Tar Heel because I work for it, but she might pick it up and maybe read the front page. ... There's not a lot of brand loyalty even though I'm her sister and I spent many hours slaving away at this. So I always try to think, 'What would make Jessica read my stories?' She loves a catchy headline. And she loves knowing in the first three paragraphs [of a story], 'How is this going to relate to me? I'm a biology major. What does that mean for me? I'm in Phi Beta Chi [sorority].What does that mean for me?' I always try to do that. More journalists [should] think, 'Who's your audience?' And make sure you're delineating exactly up high [in stories] how this matters and what actionable item they need to get from this. That's stuff we've been hearing in journalism schools for a really long time, but I think might have been lost a lot in current media coverage. And I think that's why we see a lot of people kind of turning away from standard media outlets."

A Brand to Protect.
The shifting standards of accuracy, trust and citizen journalism have also thrown Surane for a loop at times. As an example, she cited the popularity of Overheard at UNC, a crowdsourced Facebook group with more than 18,000 members dedicated to sharing "ridiculous interactions around UNC." While pegged as pure gossip at first glance, Surane said more and more students are turning to it for news.

Surane: "I know last year Overheard at UNC gave us a run for our money when we were covering an armed man running across campus. Students were able to take pictures [and] post them on the Facebook group immediately, saying, 'Hey if you're hanging out near Graham Memorial, he's coming that way.' We weren't able to do that because we've got this brand that we have to protect. And if police don't say he's running near Graham Memorial, we certainly can't say that. ... It's kind of scary that this Facebook group of people who aren't trained journalists and who don't understand ... the crucial importance of accuracy can beat out a very established legacy newspaper in the area."

An Opinion Bias.
Surane is confident the paper's staff editorials this past year swayed the administration on several big decisions and that separate columns and op-eds by individual writers helped pull in outside media attention to deserving stories. But she grew disheartened by students' apathy and antipathy toward them -- and opinion writing in general.

Surane: "Any time I felt like we took a really good stand on something and any time our columnists had something that was really insightful, I would go and read the [online] comments or I would talk to people on campus and they'd be like, 'I don't understand why this is so biased. I don't understand why you guys feel comfortable being so opinionated.' I was like, 'That's the point!' ... I came to a new truth: My friends and my peers really like to formulate their own opinions and they like to take a news article and post it on their Facebook wall and then dissect it one by one, each comment [from friends on their wall] getting them closer to where they feel about it. But they don't like me telling them how to feel. They don't like my opinion editor telling them how to feel. They really just want the facts and they want to come to a conclusion on their own. That's kind of scary for me because ... if anybody has the knowledge to form a good opinion I think it's the newspaper, it's journalists."

  • Daniel Reimold

    Daniel Reimold, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of journalism at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia, where he also advises The Hawk student newspaper.

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