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How to engage young news consumers

News brands can build audiences for the future if they understand the way that young news consumers build trust and what they value in terms of content, storytelling, and delivery formats.

April 5, 2024 | By Michelle Manafy, Editorial Director – DCN @michellemanafy

Young news consumers understand the value that news can play in their lives, but are often disinterested in it or frustrated with how it’s being delivered to them. It isn’t a surprise that news brands tend to focus on older consumers with larger disposable incomes. However, no one can deny the importance of engaging and building future audiences.

A new report from FT Strategies and Medill’s Knight Lab, “Next Gen News” aims to help news media producers understand the needs and behaviors of younger news consumers so that they can better serve these news consumers. particularly as they come to dominate content consumption in the future. The report also points to the fact that we frequently see the behaviors and preferences of younger consumers eventually adopted by older ones as well, which gives their attitudes additional weight.

Emerging behaviors of young news audiences

The research finds that the next generation of news consumers exhibit four key emerging behaviors:

1. Digital simul-tasking

They fluidly transition between dissimilar tasks (messaging friends, buying things, playing games, catching up on socials, listening to a podcast) while they’re on their phones.

2. Sensemaking via digital discourse

They rely on the personal opinions of others in digital contexts to frame and understand the news.

3. Filtering through trusted networks

They seek out sources of information from people that they know, or feel like they know (e.g. their favorite creator), in real life.

4. Sophisticated searching

They have honed their own sophisticated search skills on social media platforms and in online communities to avoid information overload.

What young consumers need to navigate news

To navigate information, the research found that younger audiences also adopt different modes of consumption which can occur throughout the day to satisfy different news needs:

Sift

They need simple, low-effort ways to keep up with and discover relevant news.

Substantiate

 They need straightforward ways to follow up on and verify news that has sparked their interest.

Study

They need access to content that educates, upskills and inspires them (when they want to dive more deeply).

Socialize

they need information that they can share that makes them feel current, connected and socially validated.

Sensemake

They need different perspectives and other accessible ways to process and understand complex topics.

The ideal news experience for young audiences

Most news producers operate under the assumption that young audiences’ news consumption takes place on mobile phones and is primarily accessed through social media and video. While the research points out that this approach is not wrong, they found that it lacks the level of nuance required to build significant audiences for the future.

After extensive experiments and interviews with 45 young news consumers, the researchers found that that the ideal news experience for the 18-25 year old respondents revolved around three important factors: trusted source, personal significance and desired storytelling.

Rebuilding trust with young news audiences

For most media organizations today, the issue of trust is of particular concern. Traditionally news brands have relied on trust signals that lean into brand and credentials and actually avoid any personal information about the makers of news. However, younger news consumers may be more inclined to trust reporters over monolithic brands, particularly if they are more transparent about who they are. In fact, it might be beneficial to news organizations to help journalists build their personal brand.

The report suggests that media brands might better make use of the lived experiences and personal stories of journalists and other subject matter experts to build deeper connections with the next generation. However, they point to the difficulties of achieving this without undermining journalistic notions of balance and fairness.

News that matters to young audiences

Deciding what stories matter most has also long been the provenance of news providers. It is common to assume everyone is interested in “hard news” (or believe that they should be) and therefore over-index on reporting of topics like politics, international affairs, economics, and science. It is important to recognize that while younger news consumers know that these are important topics, they are bombarded with content and seek out a personal connection to information to give it relevance that will allow it to rise above the noise.

By adopting a broader definition of news that incorporates infotainment and giving more space to “soft news” topics, news brands can better engage younger audiences and provide entry points into more difficult topics that serve different life stages. These audiences want to understand how a piece of news directly impacts their life and those around them. They also appreciate context and explainers that help to bridge gaps in their knowledge. And they want to feel that they can take action; that they are part of a solution working with their community on big social, political, and economic issues.

Storytelling formats that engage young news consumers

Historically, news producers have sought out singular and uniform formats that would attract younger audiences, such as the industry-wide “pivot to video” in the 2010s.  However, the research found that format preferences were dependent on several factors, not least the mode that consumers were in. For example, those in the Sift mode may be more likely to look for short form videos or TLDRs, while consumers in the Study mode are more likely to consume long-form podcasts.

To meet the needs of younger audiences, news producers must acknowledge that there is value in a diverse portfolio of formats that match an individual’s preferences or situation (time of day). In other words, they must not default to any one storytelling structure that doesn’t align the kinds of emerging styles and formats that are growing in popularity. And it is critical that news organizations adopt an experiment-led approach that allows them to validate audience demand.

The time to act – to attract young news audiences – is now

Certainly, we have seen that consumer behavior and expectations shift as each generation matures. However, the authors of the “Next Gen News” report point out that news producers can’t afford to wait to build relationships with younger audiences. Instead, they need to make the effort to meet them where they are now to be perceived as a trusted ally moving forward.

It is critical to understand the shifting information consumption trends shaping the expectations of younger news consumers. By developing trust-based relationships on their terms, news brands can engage and interact with these audiences now. This requires adapting to the information environment they live in, and adopting an open, experimental mindset that maintains the values of quality news while adapting to serve the next generation of news audiences.

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