The good news for mainstream journalism is that two-thirds of millennials are following the news every day.
The bad -- or at least challenging -- news is that their definition of news and how they like to get it is more nuanced and varied than the generations before them.
As I write those sentences (based on a slew of recent studies), my own newspaper is launching what the industry calls “bundling” – offering the full range of print and digital features for one subscription price. It’s a response in part to the growing habit by readers of all ages to search out and consume news on a variety of platforms at all times of the day and night. (You can learn more by turning to Section F today or going online at www.azdailysun.com.)
But the future of journalism lies with the millennial age group (18 to 34) that can’t be counted on to automatically subscribe to a printed newspaper as soon as they settle down and start raising families. They have learned to tap online social networks for trends and lifestyle news, and when they want hard news, they have a wealth of online portals from around the globe at their fingertips. Newspapers, notes one analyst, provide “ambient informative value” but are not necessarily the main source of news for a politically and social engaged millennial.
Where, then, does a community newspaper like the Arizona Daily Sun fit in with millennials and their news needs? I’d like to think that technology is not the issue – in fact, the Daily Sun may have an edge in that department. We not only have an interactive web site full of videos, galleries and chat rooms but also Facebook and Twitter accounts and mobile apps for news and entertainment – plus the only daily printing press in the region. For platform-agnostic millennials, the Daily Sun is speaking their language.
But is it speaking to their interests in content and presentation? The same studies cited above show millennials responding positively to appeals to emotion as well as the intellect (witness the nightly Jon Stewart news rant), and to visuals like infographics and video that expand on text. And they want a more personalized take on the news from people they know and trust – much like the “like” by a friend on their Facebook page.
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The Daily Sun is moving in those directions both online and in print. Our core business is still local news and information delivered with professional expertise and accuracy. But the Internet means we are longer the only game in town, so we need to do a better job of helping readers of all ages get to know us better, with more transparency in how we report a story and more references and links. Reporters and editors will get more involved with readers through online blogs and story feedback. Social media like Facebook is a good place to start – one survey found that of 24 news and information topics, Facebook was the first gateway of choice among millennials for 13 of them and second-choice for seven others.
One encouraging sign is that, contrary to some assumptions, millennials are not living in a polarizing “filter bubble” but actively seeking views contrary to their own. And although 67 percent report acquiring news mainly for social reasons like talking about it with friends, even more (74 percent) look for news out of civic motivation and 63 percent to meet problem-solving needs. That provides a healthy opening for a news organization like the Daily Sun that is locally content-rich with a variety of voices making the news every day.
But are millennials, especially in a transient college town, embedded enough in their community to want the kind of richly textured local news that the Daily Sun can offer? There’s no doubt they have an interest in local lifestyle and entertainment news, and we hope the Daily Sun can meet those needs on a variety of platforms. But studies have shown that, counterintuitively, the more highly educated a community, the less time is spent proportionally on local news and issues – global warming or civil war in Syria are a keystroke away for those with the tools, interest and knowledge to find them.
The challenge, then, is for community journalists to bring those bigger issues home through local storytelling that make connections. See today’s front-page story, for example, on the Flagstaff volunteers just returned from Liberia and the front lines of the battle to contain Ebola. Or a story tackling the national issue of chronic homelessness through the efforts of a lone activist dedicated to converting one old Route 66 motel at a time into low-cost apartment complexes.
I know from experience that millennials are not only connected but committed to a better world – I’m the father of one. The Fourth Estate won’t necessarily solve all her problems or those of the world. But I hope it’s there when it’s needed – no matter which platform it occupies.