September 22, 2010

Won’t somebody please think of the children? Well, OK, maybe not the children — but young people, at least.

That’s just what Christopher Sopher has done with his research project, “Younger Thinking.” It’s a meta-analysis of available data about the relationship between the news industry and its up-and-coming consumers. Sopher, a senior studying public policy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, can relate to much of his findings as a young journalist and news consumer.

After poring though dozens of studies on people born between 1980 and 1996, Sopher compiled an extensive list of findings that, on occasion, confirm stereotypes. It’s no shock that 21-year-olds turn to Facebook for information more than 71-year-olds do, after all.

But other discoveries are more arresting: there’s a significant gap between young peoples’ interest in the news and their consumption of it, suggesting that youngsters expect news to find them, rather than the other way around. Sopher found that aggregators are key and that network news lacks compatibility with young peoples’ lifestyles. He also learned that the issue of trust presents fundamental obstacles for news organizations.

Among Sopher’s most constructive reports is his list of “10 ways to improve news media for young people.” Wanting to know more, I talked with Sopher by phone about his 10 points and explained them below.

1. Use road signs and context

Throughout my conversation with Sopher, we kept coming back to wayfinding and usability. News on the Web is often presented in a confusing hodgepodge, and streamlining the journey from one article to the next is crucial for retaining users accustomed to the easy readability of Tumblr — or, taken to an extreme — single-use sites such as Is It Christmas. This is consistent with a Media Management Center study last year that said young people feel overwhelmed by information on the Web.

Sopher said he likes the BBC’s approach to providing context: a modest sidebar that links to related articles (actually related, not possibly related). He also pointed to The Money Meltdown, a financial crisis news site created by NPR’s Matt Thompson that employs a simple design to explain complex topics.

2. Offer “wisdom journalism”

Sopher recently returned from Europe, where he asked Millenials about their attitude towards news.

“There’s this sense that you’re not getting the whole truth,” he said, “or you’re getting a varnished, polished, cold representation of what’s going on, because it feels so impersonal.” More than previous generations, Sopher found, young people seek a personal connection to their news providers.

But that doesn’t mean that consumers want biased reporting. Rather, he found, they’re seeking a more conversational, explanatory tone. Reporters should leverage their extensive knowledge of their subjects to not only report the facts of “what just happened,” Sopher said, but the context of “why it matters.”

In a paper for the Shorenstein Center, Mitchell Stephens [PDF] used the term “wisdom journalism” to describe this approach, defining it as “exclusive, investigative — with more informed, more interpretive, more explanatory, even more impressionistic or opinionated takes on current events.”

Can reporters afford to risk adopting a conversational tone in news? Doesn’t it undermine credibility?

Sopher acknowledged that adopting a more analytical approach to reporting can challenge objectivity. “You have to walk that tightrope so carefully,” he said, particularly when it comes to political reporting. As a good example, he pointed to How Stuff Work’s “Stuff You Should Know” podcast, which employs an informal tone to make complex subjects more accessible. “They’re not necessarily the most informed people on the topic,” he said, “but it’s compelling.”

3. Personalize

In addition to a more personal tone, younger readers expect personalized content. That is, content that has been selected specifically for them.

Why isn’t there a Pandora for news? “It hasn’t been done yet,” Sopher said, “and that really surprises me.”

That’s not for lack of trying. A flock of news startups have sought to create a personalized newspaper experience, but so far, none has really taken hold. More widely-used services such as iGoogle and Newsvine allow users to simply reposition content-boxes. Then there’s Circulate, a browser plugin still under development that purports to deliver news based on your browsing history.

But do users even want such a service? Yes, Sopher said, but it has to be presented under the right circumstances. Although young people are generally comfortable with aggregators, Sopher’s conversations lead him to believe that a breakout success would have to come from a major news organization, not an independent developer. This is confirmed by Pew’s recent State of the News Media report, which found that consumers tend to develop a loyalty toward major news outlets.

“I have the feeling that Facebook and Twitter and services like that — and just e-mail and friends and conversation — are the aggregators for most people,” Sopher said. “I don’t think an independent service would be as useful as having your local or your preferred news outlet offer a service like that.”

4. Rethink news site design

There’s a stereotype that Millenials thrive amidst information overflow, but in truth, young people can feel just as overwhelmed by the Web as anyone else. When researchers at Northwestern University’s Media Management Center showed typical news sites to young consumers, they were surprised by the negative responses.

“There’s so much going on in a younger person’s life already,” said a 20-year-old. “They are stressed at school and with work and those different things, and they don’t want to just sit there and have to filter through all this extra information.”

When it was time to redesign the BBC’s Radio 1 website, research revealed that users wanted a tighter focus on live performances. That discovery propelled the new design, which stripped away more superfluous features.

Similarly, Sopher pointed out, NPR’s redesign boasts a less-dense array of headlines. The front page may not be as comprehensive as the New York Times’, but that’s OK: the role of the front page is in a state of transition. These days, the social stream is gaining in importance.

So are home pages obsolete? No, Sopher said. “The home page isn’t dead, it’s just used differently.” In olden days — meaning, as recently as a few years ago — designers tended to put as much content as possible on the front page. But increasingly, users enter a site through links on social networks, and the front page is taking on a role akin to a storefront window: an attractive, simple sampler of content, stripped to the bare necessities to lure in the occasional passerby.

5. Experiment with new formats

When news moved online, an overwhelming majority of that “remained the story-and-photo format that supported the newspaper,” Sopher said. Younger users, less accustomed to legacy formats like print, may have little tolerance for a format that seems idiosyncratic online.

“It’s maybe not the best way to present that information and tell people what they need to know,” said Sopher, citing articles about health care reform as an example. The Washington Post ran a static, non-interactive table to help users understand how the bill would affect them. It appeared once, was never updated and was then forgotten as newer articles appeared. That short life cycle might have been a necessity in the days of print; but online, it’s a missed opportunity to retain users with dynamic, continuously-updated content.

Google’s Living Stories project might be a promising glimpse into the future of news formats. The experimental technology allows news organizations to create dynamic news hubs around specific stories, and features time lines, summaries, and information arranged for optimal comprehension. The Washington Post and The New York Times participated in a Living Stories pilot a year ago, using the technology to illustrate health care reform, global warming and NFL playoffs.

Currently, the technical bar for implementing Living Stories is high, requiring extensive technical knowledge and continual maintenance. Hopefully, last year’s experiment revealed best practices and a road map for refining the technology.

6. Expand “civic journalism” and community coverage

It’s hard for news organizations to justify granular hyperlocal coverage. “There’s not a distinct enough value statement for a lot of local newspapers and television stations,” Sopher said.

But, he adds, that might be a short-sighted way of looking at local news. Young people report being drawn to civic and political coverage, so community coverage may be a valuable investment in future audiences. After all, many of the most engaged news audiences can be found at high school and college papers.

Sites like MinnPost, Texas Tribune, and are leading the way when it comes to robust local coverage. So far, response has been strong. And therein lies the big question: If a news site focuses more on local content, will it get more young readers? For now, Sopher said, there aren’t enough local news sources collecting and sharing data to answer that question.

7. Put young people in the news

Putting young people in positions of leadership in the newsroom can be a tricky matter. When former Washington Post blogger Dave Weigel, 28, lashed out on JournoList earlier this year, criticism of his actions were on occasion expanded to stereotype all young people.

There’s an inherent tension between welcoming Millennials’ perspectives and maintaining an experienced newsroom.

When the University of California hiked tuition, Sopher found that much of the coverage had an outsider’s perspective. For better reporting on the hike’s impacts, readers had to turn to college papers.

This phenomenon hit even closer to home for Sopher recently, when The New York Times dispatched a reporter to the University of North Carolina to cover gender imbalances. UNC students considered the resulting coverage to be wildly inaccurate.

“If you’re going to write an article about gender differences at colleges,” said Sopher, “hire a college student, or at least have one co-write the piece.”

8. Reinvent, expand news literacy programs

Nobody would dispute that news literacy is a worthy goal. But how can schools extract the most value from perpetually cash-strapped programs?

“The Internet provides an opportunity to do it at lower cost,” Sopher said, pointing to the success of the online component of The New York Times Learning Network. Other leading programs include the News Literacy Project, the News Literacy Center at Stonybrook, and The Seattle Times’ Newspapers in Education program.

Crucial to these programs’ success, said Sopher, is devoting school time to just sitting and reading. He relayed anecdotes about entire campuses falling silent during the distribution of student newspapers.

And this isn’t just an opportunity for student newspapers to engage their communities; it’s also a chance for larger, mainstream organizations to hook brand new consumers.

9. Improve sharing features and create self-supporting content

The social stream is a relatively new habitat for online news, but it’s where news seems to thrive for younger consumers. To gain attention on social networking sites, Sopher said, the news needs a form of social-stream life support: features designed specifically to keep it healthy and attractive on sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

That can be something as simple as a judiciously-chosen thumbnail and appropriate Open Graph properties, or more fully-featured interactive content, such as The New York Times’ illustration of the White House’s 2011 budget proposal.

“Sharing content is the most common social interaction with news among young people,” Sopher wrote, “significantly more than commenting on stories or blogging.”

He told me that “in an environment where a lot of young people are getting news socially, it matters that your story is something that people can talk about.’

10. Explore new approaches to television news

Online video news is a nut that’s just starting to crack. Research such as Dan Tapscott’s “Grown up Digital” has shown that young people tend to view video news as time-consuming and inconvenient.

“It’s still a series of two-minute reports,” Sopher said. “There’s still an audience there, but in the long term, that format doesn’t make a lot of sense. Why wait until 6:30 p.m. to get the news when you can get it anytime?”

He suspects that magazine-format news may gain traction in the future. Rather than a series of brief summaries, such content would focus on fewer issues, but with a greater depth and quality, such as the content produced by Current TV. That format aligns closely to the type of text-based journalism that young people have responded to.

Ultimately, Sopher said, “while the news is figuring out its economic model, people continue to grow up in some news environment or another. That has so much to do with whether they continue to be news consumers.”

He paused, then added, “and that obviously has so much to do with whether news organizations continue to have any money.”

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Writer and photographer in San Francisco, specializing in media, LGBT issues, and the environment.
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