April 23, 2012

Mainstream news organizations are not doing so well with young audiences.

Only 30 percent of people 18 to 34 read a newspaper in print or digitally on an average day, according to the Newspaper Association of America. That’s down from 35 percent in 2009.

But there’s no reason to give up hope on reaching the digital and even print audiences of the future. Based on research and the advice of news outlets that do reach young people, here are some of the important steps you can take.

Create a separate product

You can take some steps to make your traditional news product more youth-friendly (more on that below), but to best serve a younger audience you’ll want to carve out a separate staff and product.

The Chicago Tribune chose to solve the problem this way, by launching RedEye about 10 years ago as a free weekday publication targeting local 18- to 35-year-old readers.

RedEye adapts some news coverage from the Tribune or wire services, but it also has four general assignment reporters doing youth-oriented enterprise stories the mainstream press doesn’t cover. They take on beats like the local gay community, entry-level job markets, workplace cultural issues, local nightlife and dating.

Because it had RedEye’s conversational tone and pop-culture ethos in its portfolio, the Tribune avoided doing embarrassing contortions to pose as something it’s not, RedEye Editor Tran Ha told me.

“At some point you have to have a voice and you have to stick to it,” Ha said. “And there’s going to be a certain type of audience that is drawn to that voice that won’t be drawn to a different voice. You really can’t mix them without alienating the other or changing who you are as a publication.”

Hire young people

Don’t send a 50-year-old to do a 25-year-old’s job.

“My newsroom [at RedEye] pretty much reflects the audience in terms of age and demographics and interests,” Ha said. “So we talk a lot about, ‘What are your friends talking about? What are they interested in? What aren’t they interested in?’ We try to use people on staff as a barometer of that relevance.”

That’s the same approach that helps BuzzFeed draw strong traffic from young people, especially those in college, Managing Editor Scott Lamb told me.

“I’m 36, and I’m definitely the oldest person on the [editorial] team, by a lot,” Lamb said. “We did that as a hiring strategy largely because we want people who are very native to things like Twitter and Facebook.”

At the time Lamb and I were talking last week, the two BuzzFeed posts getting the most traffic were written by an intern, Dave Stopera (since hired full-time as an associate editor), who still has a year left to complete at New York University.

“It does happen kind of naturally, because we’re hiring people who think about online content differently than I do,” Lamb said. “They’ve grown up with it, and I think they make things for people like themselves.”

Focus on relevance

Journalists may need to expand the boundaries of what they traditionally consider “news.”

“In order for news to make sense, it has to be relevant,” said Danah Boyd, a Microsoft researcher and expert in youth media and privacy issues (who also inspired this post with her recent criticism of how mainstream news organizations fail to serve young people).

“If you’ve never experienced any of the world outside of your friends and school, global news feels alien,” Boyd told me. “Young people are deeply engaged in the news of their peers, but we don’t call that news.”

At RedEye, they define news not just by what seems important, but by what seems relevant to their audience. Sometimes those two are the same, but when they diverge, RedEye gives bigger play to the story its audience will find most relevant to their personal lives and experiences.

Include more context

Journalists need to find ways to make complex, ongoing storylines accessible to people who perhaps haven’t been following every word since Day 1.

That’s especially important to young people, who “get the news more randomly and at less regular intervals than do their elders and than did previous generations of young people,” according to Christopher Sopher, who researched and blogged extensively on youth and the media, and now works for the Knight Foundation.

“On-demand news consumption,” he continues, “also means that … online news institutions and even television would benefit from redesigning their content for a grazing audience, built to help readers and viewers dropping in at random times who may not have read yesterday’s story on a continuing topic.”

In short, don’t let a news story get lost in minutiae. Remember to pull back, widen your focus, and explain where this story came from, where it’s heading and why it matters. Some cases might warrant a whole other kind of story — an “explainer” that, as Jay Rosen put it, “doesn’t provide the latest news or update you on a story, [but] addresses a gap in your understanding: the lack of essential background knowledge.”

Don’t dumb it down

The Newspaper Association of America and the Media Management Center at Northwestern University conducted a study in 2009 with 90-minute focus groups of teenagers across the country.

One of the key findings: “What these teens said they want are news sites that do news well, not dumb it down or pose as experts in teen culture.”

In other words, you serve young readers by making news clearer, fuller, more relevant and easier to digest — not by sprinkling your copy with hip catchphrases. (By the way, no one says “hip” anymore.)

Be conversational

Most young people don’t look back fondly on their time sitting in giant lecture halls listening to a teacher dryly exposit facts. So they’re equally unexcited by many mainstream news outlets that communicate the same way.

The traditional style of newspaper writing is too impersonal and formulaic for younger readers. (It’s not especially good writing for adult readers either, but they’re used to it.)

What does “conversational” really mean? Talk to the audience like it’s one regular person sitting across a cafe table from you, asking what you’ve heard today.

Use bite-sized facts

That NAA study referenced earlier found that “almost universally, teens reject pages with uninterrupted text in favor of those that offer information in smaller, bite-sized chunks with multiple entry points.”

Bullet points and subheadlines are your friend. Give each point its own distinct visual and narrative space. This is how RedEye applies the model even to solemn news like the Trayvon Martin killing:

Trayvon Martin: The big picture

The shooting death of Trayvon Martin has grabbed national headlines and renewed the conversation about race relations, gun laws and even how young men dress. … Here are other notable events since the incident occurred last month.

>>Geraldo Rivera caused a stir when he claimed Martin’s hoodie was as responsible …

>>ESPN has made an exception to its Twitter policy for the Martin case, permitting employees to wear hoodies in their online avatars …

>>Players on the Miami Heat, the team located closest to Sanford, Fla., and one of the most popular teams in the league, took pictures of themselves last week wearing hoodies …

>>Democrats on the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee are scheduled to hold an unofficial hearing Tuesday …

>>The case has rippled across the nation and prompted rallies protesting the failure of the police to arrest the shooter …

>>Declaring that “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” President Obama on Friday joined the heated national debate …

There are other less common story forms you also can use to break down information and make it easier to understand: Games, quizzes, even an educational coloring book for young children.

There’s a thin line, of course, between this directive and the advice not to “dumb it down.” Breaking information into digestible pieces doesn’t mean you have to deliver less information.

Ease off on those paywalls

Young readers may be one of the first casualties of a website’s paywall.

Many of them lack disposable income. Even those who have money are unlikely to see the appeal of spending it on your news product unless you’ve overcome all the previously mentioned issues.

“Young people aren’t going out of their way to try to find this news, so you put up one little wall, and poof, done,” Boyd said in her previous interview. “… When I hear news agencies talk about wanting to get young people, they don’t want to figure out how to actually inform them — they want to hear how to monetize them. And that pisses me off.”

Some of our readers objected to that comment, including Tennessean reporter Brian Haas: “When I hear young people talk about consuming news, they don’t want to pay for it — they want it all for free. And that pisses me off.”

Boyd clarified this to me: “I don’t object to monetization. I just think that when you lead with monetization, you often fail to engage people who are hesitant to engage in the first place. … I think that it’s important that we recognize that journalism has a public good responsibility as well as a bottom line responsibility.”

If you can embrace some of these changes while staying true to your mission and not alienating your existing audience, you should be on your way to building important relationships with the next generation.

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Jeff Sonderman (jsonderman@poynter.org) is the Digital Media Fellow at The Poynter Institute. He focuses on innovations and strategies for mobile platforms and social media in…
Jeff Sonderman

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