Engaging the Young with News

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I remember a chart showing print newspaper reading by age.  The bars stepped upwards as each ten-year cohort read a little more than those younger than them.  It often led editors to conclude that people develop a print newspaper habit.

It was the wrong conclusion.  Deeper analysis showed that people in each age group read newspapers less than those same people did ten years previously.  The habit was being broken, not adopted.

As that lesson sank in, gurus offered explanations.  Young people have shorter attention spans, was a popular theory; they prefer video, was another. 

Fast-forward fifteen years to a lecture hall where Mark Thompson is speaking.  Mark is now the President and CEO of the New York Times.  15 years ago he’d been the CEO of Channel 4, riding the video wave.

Across town there’s a panel discussion where Katie Vanneck Smith, the co-founder of Tortoise, a new news organisation daring to be different, is on the panel.  She’d moved to Tortoise from a long career in News Corp, where she too, fifteen years earlier, would have seen that chart.

These two bright sparks, one at a start-up and the other at a 170-year-old business, are using these speaking engagements to say they can engage the young with news.  Neither thinks the obstacle to overcome is attention span or the lure of video.

Thompson’s approach can be summarised as: invest in content, listen to the young to find out how they want to consume it, and utilise the Podcast.  Audio, for news consumption at least, is killing the video star.

Thompson represents the New York Times and they have deeper pockets and greater magnetism amongst investors than, let’s say, The Sheffield Star.  It can, therefore, be both galling and uplifting to hear Thompson talk about investing in content. 

“We believe in journalism, it’s what we stand for, it’s also the only thing we have to sell.  So, almost unlike everyone else we’ve invested in journalism. We now have around 1,750 journalists working for the New York Times, that’s 300 more than in 2012 and the greatest number in our company’s 170-year-old history”.

He draws a direct line to companies adept at attracting the young, “Heavy investment in content is Netflix’s strategy; it’s Disney’s strategy”, he argues.  He adds, “This is unavoidably a capital-intensive period in media history”… yet we’re probably headed towards a new recession.  Eek.

He attacks “former digital darlings“, like Buzzfeed, who came to fame by holding short attention spans for a monetise-able second.  With too great a dependency of ad revenues, he argues, they are, “Players who today look more like legacy publishers but without an actual legacy”.

On Podcasts he says the following: “The Daily, that podcast of ours, is reaching and deeply engaging a significantly new audience for us.  ¾ of that audience is 40 or under.  45% is 30 or under.  I grew up in broadcasting being told by everyone that very few young people would ever listen to serious speech audio.  It turned out to be rubbish.” 

Considering the cost difference between good video and good podcasting, this at least offers some cheer to lesser publishers.

Thompson concludes about young people, “All you had to do was go to them and listen to them and figure out what they wanted.”

Let’s turn now to the thoughts of Vanneck-Smith.  Her approach can be summarised as: reinvent content, listen and discuss, reach beyond the professional classes, and, of course, use audio.

Tortoise are reinventing news content, taking time to produce ‘slow news’, not chase breaking news.  Fast news had become noise, she argues, saying, “When you ask people why they joined Tortoise three quarters gave ‘news had become noise’ as their reason”.

On listening, she says, “When I was at The Times we talked about our role being to inform, educate and entertain our readers.  It’s slightly different at Tortoise, where we don’t start by thinking we need to inform, we start by thinking we need to listen.  We listen and we learn and we understand.”

She doesn’t mean they start with market research (as much as I’d like that to be true), she means they involve their members in editorial style meetings called Think-Ins.

She says Think-Ins are, “engaging, participatory, we’re having a conversation in a room, it’s not a panel [with] sages on the stage, it is a genuine conversation in a room.  That is the number one reason our membership skews younger, it’s why they joined Tortoise, to be there in person and be part of those conversations.” 

You can see how Think-Ins appeal to millennials given their pursuit of experiences and keener sense of entitlement.  40% of Tortoise’s 8,000 members are under 30.

However, she says, “Even though we see a younger membership than I traditionally see in other [paid for news] organisations, they are still the professional, urban classes.”  Tortoise now runs bursary memberships to extend their reach, and conversations, beyond the bubble.

Like Thompson, Vanneck-Smith sees the value of audio.  She says, “You can’t have enough audio, one of the things we get asked is, can you actually read the article to me?”

The funny thing is that none of these approaches were unheard of fifteen years ago.  In fact, the term Podcast was first coined fifteen years ago, and not with great fanfare.  Podcasts were stepping-stones on the way to video solutions.  They have since been rediscovered and better appraised.

Listening is a far older word, but listening to the customer is being practiced with more urgency now.  Publishers are leaning in.

And we’d all love to see more investment in content.  Great content holds attention, no matter how old the audience.  And we should welcome the reimagining of quality news content and how it is delivered to younger audiences too.

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