The readers we ignore and the news they want

Millennials like news. They just don’t like you – the legacy newsroom.

Don’t take it personally. By all accounts the under-40 crowd and many over forty (API millennial study here) read and value news. But they are not paying for it in larger numbers, and they are certainly not nearly as loyal to a small handful of digital news sources as their parents were to print.

We can argue that the Internet, and even more specifically mobile phones are the leading cause of this disruption. But that takes agency away from journalists and places it squarely on “technology.” And framing it as a tech problem drives us to try and solve it with technology.

“Throw another Snapchat on that mobile template. The young people will love it. Did you check how it looks on the Apple Watch and Google Glass?”

Which is odd, because we know why people read the news, or seek out other types of information: relevancy. Technology is just a convenience that lets us access that information 24/7 in almost any location or context.

Gary Kebbel at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is organizing a conference this Fall: Mobile Me & You and I have been thinking about news, smartphones and relevancy in preparation for a talk there.

So let’s propose a maybe not too controversial theory: While much of the journalism being produced by legacy news organizations is of value to younger readers, it does not entirely speak their language nor fully reflect their lives.

Here’s a tongue-in-cheek test: open up your local printed newspaper – how many comics on the page were launched prior to 1960? FYI – that list includes B.C., Dennis the Menace, Beetle Bailey, Blondie and Prince Valiant.

Comics aside, our failings are sins of omission as much as commission.

Many newspapers are still built to cover “community” as defined seemingly generations ago as rigid beat structures constrained by geography and by local government services. Advocating a change to that system is nothing new; numerous blog posts have covered the ground. Unfortunately, experimentation has come largely but not exclusively from digital news start-ups.

These days, digital-savvy readers live seamlessly between online and offline. Amazon.com is their local market and Netflix their local theater. The problem is neither Amazon or Netflix are “local” in a sense that is recognizable by local media. But, chances are about 30% of your hometown have shopped at Amazon in the past year. And Netflix has 40 million U.S. customers. There is a reason suburban malls are in trouble and Blockbuster went out of business.

Any local media out there covering new Netflix releases that aren’t House of Cards? HuffPo does.

Speaking of video: Good Mythical Morning. Never heard of them? The North Carolina pair appeared recently in an advertising campaign for Wendy’s and have 7.3 million subscribers on YouTube. They have received a smattering of local media coverage. A smattering. Keep in mind the top rated cable TV show last week received 4.9 million viewers.

Any local media out there covering YouTube shows? Tubefilter does.

One last category: games. Mobile games are estimated to be a $25 billion industry this year. Globally the movie industry is a $100 billion business, about $10 billion domestically.

Any local media out there covering mobile games? Vox does – Polygon.

The list goes on: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter are all communities of interest comprised at least in part by your neighbors. Why do we spend so little time highlighting the conversations and content our local readers create on those platforms?

Uber, Yelp, and Pandora all have to some extent supplanted services that were previously hyper-local. But local people still continue to use them. So why don’t we cover them like we cover local taxis, business listings or radio stations?

By ceding “things that happen online” to Internet blogs and digital news start-ups we have washed our hands of a huge swath of human existence. And, we have done so for reasons that are as much due to structure and vision as resources.

This is not a “millennial” problem. It is a gap we face with any digital-friendly audience. It is not a “mobile” problem – though many of these users are mobile-first. It is not a “UX” problem as your user experience doesn’t much matter if readers find nothing of interest to read. The problem is the news industry has gone for years without needing to examine who its audience is or what they want. And our organizations have calcified to the point that it is difficult for us to even ask, much less answer the question.

Without a change in our approach and more attention paid to local lives lived online we will remain in a downward attention spiral. As readers migrate more and more to a hybrid digital/physical existence they will continue to leave us behind. Not because they don’t care about us, but because we don’t seem to care about them.

  • Scott Axelrod

    This is not a today problem. It is a 1990s problem. That is when “the newspaper” decided to fight digital. They saw digital as the end of the newspaper and chose not to adapt. When did they start to? When newspapers were closing down and they started to realize no one wanted to buy news that was one-day old.

    The change is happening but unlike commerce that has leveraged digital tremendously — the newspaper business is still a decade behind.

    • dkiesow

      By “not a today” problem I assume you mean it should not still be a problem? Yes, I would say though that there are plenty of people in the business who “get it” and have been working from within for years to effect change. As the literature would argue though – it is not easy to survive disruption.

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  • Great piece, quick note: your link to Mobile Me & You points to some Google Chrome extension. I was kinda hoping to find out more about the con.

    • dkiesow

      Oops. Fixed. Thanks.

  • mroehrman

    Good food for thought, Damon. Thanks!

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