Younger audiences are the key to the future success of the news industry, but reaching them is a major challenge for many traditional, legacy publishers.
During a World News Day panel session at our World News Media Congress in Zaragoza, two experts in the area offered some solutions they see for reaching not only younger audiences but also those who are underserved, or as panellist Shirish Kulkarni put it: “badly served.”
“Business as usual is not going to fix those big problems,” said Kulkarni, a journalist and community organiser for The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, UK. “Big problems require big solutions, and it’s not going to be overnight. We need to start that process. We’re not going to diversify the pipeline tomorrow. We’re not going to fix trust tomorrow. That’s not how relationships work.”
Understanding the audiences’ needs
Phoebe Connelly, Director of Next Generation Audiences of The Washington Post, described the steps they are taking to address this mammoth task.
“The mandate my team has is to help The Post as a whole figure out how we are reaching younger and diverse audiences,” she said.
“We have started that mission in a couple of different ways, but I think key to that is understanding the needs of those audiences. Providing the newsroom – and the business as a whole – with metrics so they can understand where they stand with these audiences: if they are reaching them/not reaching them. And then work across divisions to amplify the great work that is already happening. And then create space for experiments,” Connelly said.
See also: Six steps that helped Sweden’s NWT gain younger readers and increase reader revenue
Asked by moderator Kathy English if she has faced any resistance to her team’s work, especially given that The Post is considered a traditional publisher, Connelly said it has been very much the opposite.
“I haven’t faced resistance at all,” she said. “Across the board, I have seen departments come to us. They want to reach these audiences. They want to understand the toolkit. Journalists are just by their nature endlessly curious: What’s new? How do we figure out how to be on the cutting edge? That’s just part of who we are. I think the trickier thing – for not just The Post, but all of our organisations – is assuming this work isn’t happening, because it is.
So, should you just start a TikTok channel?
Too often, news publishers seem to believe the answer to reaching these audiences is to jump on whatever platform it is young people are using and start putting their current content there and that success will surely follow.
Think back 20-25 years, and that’s pretty much how just about every traditional print publisher started working on the web: take the content from the print newspaper and then dump the same texts and images online.
This works at a very basic level, but it also ignores the possibilities and nuances that publishing stories online enables, such as including video, audio and graphics to provide new levels of experience that are impossible with print alone. Think back to the first time you saw a story like Snow Fall from The New York Times, which was published in late 2012 and won a Pulitzer Prize among other awards.
As the internet evolved, social media platforms like Facebook came along and many publishers once again poured their print-ready content onto the new platform, and so on through to today’s TikTok and Twitch. The same procedure is frequently seen with products such as newsletters and podcasts.
‘It’s not about the platform, it’s about the storytelling’
“I never think it’s about the platform,” Kulkarni said. “People come along thinking ‘How do we get on TikTok?’, especially. But it’s not about the platform, it’s about the storytelling.”
See also: How targeting the Gen Z audience helped Czech News Center kickstart its TikTok presence
“If you think about the storytelling that works on TikTok, it’s explainers, right?,” he added. “It’s explaining the story. And in the research I’ve done around storytelling, people wanted more context. They wanted to understand where the story had come from and where the story was going. Actually, people are less interested in breaking news than journalists are.”
“If you get a one-line push notification, people might click on it,” he continued, “but they’re left with a sense of anxiety and then you get to news avoidance. And actually, we’re creating the cycle that’s stopping users from engaging with us. For me, it’s about doing the storytelling, the things they’re telling us they want.”
The solution is working in your newsroom
The good news, according to Connelly, is that the answer to how to succeed on any of these channels is already working for you.
“Trust me, there is someone who is already using it as a journalist, as a consumer of information, who has thoughts about your strategy,” she said.
The harder part, she added, is how do you make sure that person has a place at the table and that they are taken seriously? And then making sure they are brought into assignment conversations and investigative work as well as conversations about news judgement and how you approach more serious stories.
Connelly also offered a specific example of something The Post did in the past year or so, which was to reconsider the way they greeted readers who came to them from Reddit. The Post has long had a presence on Reddit, she added, and a good one, but it wasn’t being used to its fullest extent.
“It has its own voice, but a very authentic Post voice: Very much showing our work, explaining how The Post does journalism,” she said. “And we felt that we were under-serving that audience. How do we welcome them even deeper into our product?”
The benefits of having an inter-departmental team
This is where Connelly’s team comes in. The Post’s Next Generation Audiences team is made up of members from other teams within the company, which helps to ensure that they can move quickly to work across departments to come up with solutions.
“I’ve got a Product Manager on my team, and I’ve got someone from the Subscriptions department on my team as well,” she said. “What that has allowed us to do is that instead of me alone having to put together a plan, I already have a team that is embedded in all of those departments and we are working together to be able to move much faster than if we were all siloed. We’re already in a Slack room together. We’re already doing a stand-up meeting every week.”
With Reddit, she said they decided to set up a custom registration wall so that when a reader follows a link to The Washington Post’s site, they get a message, a custom offer, that if they register, they will get more access than say someone coming from search would. “And because of the community that reddit is, we found that those users are younger,” Connelly said.
Ultimately, regardless of the audience or the platform, what is crucial is that the publisher makes an active, informed commitment to get involved and stay involved for the long haul.
“You need to show up tomorrow, next week, the year after,” Kulkarni said. “For me, it’s not looking for quick solutions, but doing the work that’s really going to fix the problem. And actually accepting that that might take 10 years, 20 years, whatever. But we have to start. And that’s the important thing.”
A video recording of the full World News Day session is available here, the above panel discussion begins about 31 minutes into the recording.
Shirish Kulkarni, above right, a journalist and community organiser for The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, UK, speaking at WAN-IFRA’s World News Media Congress in Zaragoza. At left is moderator Kathy English, Chair, Canadian Journalism Foundation, and in the centre, Phoebe Connelly, Director of Next Generation Audiences at The Washington Post.