Engaging diverse, digitally savvy audiences aged under 35 with news – and, crucially, making them pay for it – presents a challenge for publishers.
While young people aged between 15 and 34 still make up almost one-third of the audience of leading UK newsbrands, their share of that audience is falling, according to figures from PAMCo.
Subscriber data, meanwhile, paints an even starker picture. This year’s Digital News Report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found that in most countries the average age of a paying reader is over 50.
“If [publishers] look at the data in the Digital News Report and elsewhere they see they’ve got this massive problem with younger audiences,” says Nic Newman of the Reuters Institute.
“They won’t admit it but they’ve got a massive problem, not just with attracting them but with them spending any time with them or subscribing to their publications.”
The problem, while not universal, affects most publishers.
According to Press Gazette’s analysis of PAMCo data, almost all news organisations have seen a fall in their share of young readers since 2019. Only The Guardian, Telegraph and Times have seen increases, although the Telegraph and Times’ readerships are on the whole older.
‘Newsbrands have always thought their job is to tell people... things that they should know’
While some news organisations such as The Times and The Telegraph have passed “that tipping point” into sustainability by selling “to older, richer people” and mostly plan on capturing subscribers later in their lives, the news habits of young people mean many publishers face an “existential” challenge, says Newman.
“Within the under 35 group you have already a group who are very interested in news, who are subscribing, who are listening to news podcasts a lot, who are definitely the next generation of subscribers, but you’ve just got that bigger proportion of people who aren’t interested and who just pick up enough incidental news and social platforms to keep them informed and have conversations with their friends,” he adds.
[Read more: Reuters Digital News Report coverage]
Part of the issue is a disconnect between what publishers think audiences ought to know and what younger readers are actually interested in. The latter, according to a 2019 Reuters Institute on news habits of under 35s, includes LGBTQ+ rights, climate change, activism and the arts.
“A lot of it just comes out of the way in which newsbrands have always thought their job is to tell people the news and to tell people things that they should know,” says Newman. “But actually what young people want is some of that, particularly when it’s a matter of life or Covid or something like that, but they also want stuff that’s useful. They want stuff that is fun, entertaining and interesting as well.”
Even young people interested in their communities are not always engaging with mainstream news, says Jennifer Grygiel, an associate professor of communications at Syracuse University in the US.
“I find that although the next generation is very engaged in civics they aren’t necessarily gravitating towards news. It shows that there's a little bit of a disconnect there,” they say.
One newsbrand that has redoubled its efforts to better respond to what young people would like to read is The Mirror. Its Mirror More Hopeful initiative attempts to report more positive news stories to counter the negativity that can put off some young news readers.
The Sun: ‘You can't move away from your identity in search of a new readership’
Will Payne, The Sun’s head of digital, meanwhile says his newsbrand’s wide variety of content helps it to appeal naturally to a broad demographic, with 31% of its total readership being Generation Z or Millennials. While this is a minority of its audience, Payne believes that the title does a better job at attracting younger readers than many immediate competitors.
“The Sun brand inherently, irrespective of any extra digital initiatives or anything like that, is quite appealing to a younger audience because we cover a lot of entertainment, a lot of television – a wide variety of different things,” he says.
“I don’t believe we’ve had to work particularly hard to come up with new content strategies to naturally reach that demographic.”
Although Payne says that the publisher is careful not to veer away from its core editorial principles in search of younger audiences, new content areas such as gaming and coverage of non-traditional sports like UFC have helped broaden its reach, as have campaigns around topics such as suicide and lip fillers.
While Payne says the brand’s generally more conservative political stance may “potentially” have alienated some younger readers, he believes that The Sun’s more serious content also has a home among younger readers.
“People sometimes are too narrow in their perception of the political leanings of younger people,” he says. “The left can be very loud and they can occupy a prominent position in society.
“If you go outside of London maybe not everyone of a certain generation believes exactly the same thing.”
Though Payne says not alienating older readers is important, The Sun's reporting on certain issues such as climate change has nevertheless evolved. The title also devoted significant energy to reporting on issues traditionally seen as appealing to younger readers, such as the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests.
“It’s that balance you’ve got to strike,” he says. “You can’t move away from your identity in search of a new readership. You’ve got to try to cater for both,” he says.
“We move with the times. We’re not a stagnant entity.”
While Payne believes the newsbrand’s inherent range of content has been central in bringing in younger readers, The Sun has also put significant effort into brand building on social media, despite the less immediate financial payoffs.
“We have a very high Facebook reach and our proportion of Facebook traffic is high,” says Payne, who adds that while the social network might be regarded as a bit "passé" for younger readers it continues to be a core way that The Sun draws in 20 and 30-something audiences.
“We’ve got a very expansive and efficient social team,” he says.
Long-term trends suggest that social networks are increasingly where many young people find news. In 2021, over one-third of UK 18 to 20-year-olds and 21 to 24-year-olds said that social media was their main way of accessing news – more than three times the number in 2013.
“One of the reasons why younger people really love digital media and the platforms is because they’re just so convenient and they really focus on that user experience,” says Newman. “News publishers have just been a little bit less good at that.”
Even among social media networks, there is a growing disconnect between where news organisations are and where young people spend their time.
Although Twitter, the social network favoured by many news organisations and journalists, remains the most popular source of news among 18 to 24-year-olds, image and video-based networks are rapidly growing in popularity.
In 2020, 15% of 18 to 24-year-olds reported using Instagram and 10% reported using Snapchat to access news – up from 1% for each platform in 2016.
‘It’s important that journalists are on these platforms...’
But simply putting your content on social media is not enough, says Grygiel.
“Often newspaper publishers repackage things for the next generation on the same topics, but with bubbly graphics or with a different story layout. But they haven’t changed any of the contents,” they say.
While Newman says that publishers with a vision to reach a wide audience, such as The Guardian or the BBC, might want to exert more effort than other outlets engaging with young people on social media, a presence on platforms such as Instagram and TikTok is increasingly important.
“It’s important that journalists are on these platforms because now news is being talked about [there],” he says.
“That’s why it’s really important to have audience engagement teams and social teams that are really across that. Not just have those teams, but have those teams who have some influence within the organisation and can adapt sufficiently quickly and feel that autonomy to be able to really go out and sell the content and the journalism within those platforms,” he says.
'As much as I am a mainstream news journalist, I am also a personality'
One journalist that has successfully embraced TikTok is BBC World Service reporter Sophia Smith Galer. Her viral videos on subjects such as the blocking of the Suez Canal and male forced marriage have led young people to engage with her reporting through both her social media accounts and BBC platforms.
“It's not necessarily changing the news story,” she tells Press Gazette.
“There are some people who think that we have to report on young people’s stories. There’s an element of that. But it’s about finding the angle of a developing news story that young people really care about and it’s easy to capture that.
“We all talk about it like it’s some kind of code to crack, but literally all you need to do is see what’s trending and work out from there: ‘Oh, so people are curious about this or people really like this treatment. Okay. So what should our treatment be? What is that additional value that we can give them that they're not currently getting?’”.
Smith Galer believes presenting yourself as more than a journalist also helps, an insight echoed in this year’s Digital News Report, which underscored the importance of personalities in news consumption on newer networks.
“[What] I hope when people think of my Twitter persona, my Instagram persona, my TikTok persona is that I’m me, is that I like to talk about my reporting. I also like to talk about my personal interests and that as much as I am a mainstream news journalist, I am also a personality,” she says.
Yet, while a well-thought out and appropriately targeted social media strategy has helped Smith Galer and others such as the Washington Post’s ‘TikTok guy’ Dave Jorgensen reach younger readers, Smith Galer is not surprised that more journalists have not followed her onto TikTok.
One reason is the amount of time that has to be invested in cultivating a presence on such networks – Smith Galer admits she spends several hours a day on her TikToks – for a small or non-existent financial payoff.
“A lot of the real problems are to do with finances,” says Newman.
“Instagram is basically a cost to news organisations to communicate with young people who aren’t going to come to the website anyway because it’s really hard to get the links on Instagram. So you don’t make any money from the advertising.”
News publishers ‘need to be a little bit more niche in their content’
While social media might not be likely to make publishers money in the short term, thinking more creatively about what interests young people could help.
“You don’t want to just serve up news that you think they’re going to want to read as that makes you essentially an entertainment entity,” says Grygiel.
“If anything [news publishers] just need to be a little bit more niche in their content, finding something that can engage youth and that helps them with some of their interests, be it education or investing.”
They add that educating young people on the value of news, which has been diminished by four years of attacks from Donald Trump, is critical.
“This would be a great thing for news publishers to point out,” says Grygiel. “How do you package the service, the value of journalism to the next gen again and put in proper context the risks of social media?
“[News media] need some propaganda touting their own importance and value. They need to market themselves again.”
In the UK, Newman also believes that restoring faith in news can help bring young people into the fold of news organisations. “The media has done a dreadful job of selling the value and the importance of journalism,” he says.
“The media industry generally could do more not so much in terms of media literacy, but selling why journalism matters to young people and what you want them to do, which is read more.”