Thursday, December 11, 2014

How newspapers lost the Millennials

American publishers and editors have only themselves to blame for failing to connect with the Millennial generation that they – and most of their advertisers – covet the most. 

The inability of newspapers to resonate with digital natives has left them with a daunting demographic challenge. Two-thirds of the audience at the typical newspaper is composed of people over the age of 55, according to Greg Harmon of Borrell Associates. “The newspaper audience ages another year every year,” he adds. “Everyone’s hair ought to be on fire.” 

As the newspaper audience grays, the readers that newspapers – and most of their advertisers – would like to have are, instead, busily racking up page views at places like BuzzFeed, Circa, Mic, Upworthy, Vice, Vocativ and Vox. 
To delve into the demographic disparity, I pulled the audience data on Mic.Com, which comScore calls the favorite news destination for individuals from the ages of 18 to 34. Although many publishers and editors never may have heard of Mic, comScore says it is visited by a thumping 60% of Millenials. 

To make things interesting, I compared Mic’s audience with the aggregate data for the 28 geographically dispersed markets served by McClatchy Co., the largest newspaper company furnishing user data to Quantcast.Com, which requires publishers to opt in to its data service. 

Quantcast indexes audiences against the national population to make it possible to compare the demographics of one website against another. This means a site whose audience perfectly mirrors the national age distribution would index at 100. Now, here’s how Mic compares with McClatchy, according to Quantcast’s data:

At Mic, users from 18 to 24 index at 156, meaning that the site has 1½ times more readers in this age group than the national average.  The index climbs to 171 for the 25-34 crowd.

The story is quite the opposite at McClatchy, where the under-34 age groups come in at less than 100 but where the incidence of older readers is above the norm, indexing at 108 for 35-44, 117 for 45-54, 126 for 55-64 and 125 for 65-plus. 

Assuming McClatchy is representative of the industry  – and I see no reason why it wouldn’t be – the big question is how so many highly intelligent and highly motivated newspaper executives failed to connect with this massive and influential market.  Here’s a not-so-subtle clue: 

In a recent study, researchers at the University of Missouri reported that only 29% of newspaper publishers conducted focus groups prior to putting paywalls around the digital products that most profess to be the future of their franchises.  

Instead of talking with their intended consumers, fully 85% of respondents to the survey said they asked other publishers what they thought about erecting barriers around the content that they had been freely providing for the better part of two decades.  

While paywalls boosted revenues at most newspapers because they were accompanied by stiff increases in print subscription rates, the tactic gave the growing population of digital natives – and non-readers of every other age – the best reason yet for not engaging with newspapers. 

Of course, newspapers were losing Millenials well before they started feverishly erecting paywalls in the last few years. But what if publishers and editors had begun studying the needs and attitudes of the emerging generation from the early days of the Millenium? Could the outcomes have been more positive?  

In the interests of tuning into the thinking of those elusive twenty- and thirty-somethings, a newspaper client recently brought a panel of them to a strategy session. Here is what we learned: 

:: The Millenials said the only media that matter to them are the social media, where they get current news about their friends, as well as cues to other interesting or relevant content. 

:: They put a great deal of trust in recommendations from their friends but are not motivated by loyalty to media brands. 

:: They will click on whatever content interests or amuses them, and they make no distinction among news, entertainment and advertising. 

:: They prefer graphic content – images, videos, GIFs, infographics, etc. – over text.

:: They will buy a book, vinyl record or other physical artifact that they view as a collectible, but see no value in paying for access to ephemeral headlines that are freely available everywhere. 

:: They are turned off by the dispassionate voice that characterizes conventional media, preferring treatments that evoke an emotional response. 

:: They are smart, engaged and want juicy articles that take stands on important topics. 

:: They will exercise the full power of choice made possible by their always-on mobile devices. 

:: They are decisive. If they don’t like the content they are getting, they will make their own. 

Given the above, it is easy to see that publishers and editors have a higher regard for their products than the next-gen consumers they need to attract. Now, the only question remaining is whether newspaper folk have the gumption – and time – to turn things around. 

© Copyright 2014, Editor & Publisher

11 Comments:

Blogger Marc Matteo said...

This is an interesting piece. On the one hand you make statements that I can get behind: that newspapers have lost the millennial audience and they need to do something about it. But on the other hand you paint the millennial audience as fickle and shallow ("They will click on whatever content interests or amuses them...") making them an almost unworthy audience in their own. I'm not sure about that.

By casting the millennial audience in that way, you cheapen them. And by catering to that cheapened audience you cheapen yourself. Put another way, do we want to exchange our McClatchy's for our BuzzFeeds? Really?

What "newspapers" (in quotes because, well, be honest) really need to do is recognize the value in ALL the so-called generations and get to where they are providing value to them. This is not "top ten" lists and forgotten-underwear photos and crap like that. Those drive traffic for sure, but provide no value.

The question is, even if newsapers got it right, is it too late?

9:51 AM  
Blogger Newsosaur said...

Per the above comment, I did not say that Millenials are "fickle and shallow." In fact, I said they are smart, engaged, motived and empowered to choose content that matters to them. That is a long way from fickle and shallow.

9:56 AM  
Blogger Marc Matteo said...

Ok, fair enough. "Fickle and Shallow" was perhaps not the right phrasing but consider:


* the only media that matter... social media, where they get current news about their friends

* not motivated by loyalty

* click on whatever content interests or amuses them

* make no distinction among news, entertainment and advertising.

* [image] content... over text.

* preferring treatments that evoke an emotional response.

* want juicy articles that take stands


I still maintain that paints a cheapened picture of the Millennial audience. Perhaps it wasn't intentional, but it's there. And you're not the first to do it. The danger is that "newspapers" in their desperation are chasing that myth, falling over themselves to cheapen themselves to cater to this mis-articulated picture of Millennials. In the end, they have nothing to offer anyone.

10:40 AM  
Blogger Tim McDougall said...

Marc, why do you equate "clicking on whatever interests them" as shallow?

It doesn't say they click only on listicles, for example, or only on entertainment content. Just that they click on what they want, news or otherwise.

Saying clicking on humor or fun content makes them shallow is like saying a newspaper reader that also reads the comics (so most of them) are shallow. It's not a logical conclusion.

3:10 PM  
Blogger William Hoelzel said...

Help me understand what you meant, Alan, when you wrote: "They will click on whatever content interests or amuses them, and they make no distinction among news, entertainment and advertising."

>. How does that make them different from, say, Gen X or Boomers? Don't those groups click on whatever content interests or amuses them?

>. And what survey results indicate that those older groups DO make distinctions among news, entertainment and advertising? What do they DO that makes their behavior different from Millenials?

Honestly, I agree with your inference that younger readers approach "news" a different way, but I'm hoping you can point us toward research surveys and specific questions that uncovered differences in how older and younger readers perceive news and advertising.

The bottom line is, as you said, that Millenials turn to a very different array of websites than older adults. But is there anything they value about traditional, "objective" news sites, or is that content simply a starting point from which to riff? Is "attitude" something that Millenials require in the presentation of news? And does that mean that there's nothing that traditional news sites can do to report news "objectively" and still "engage" Millenials?

7:51 PM  
Blogger Jean Levac said...

I think the misconception is that print tried to attract 18-34s. I've always seen that age group as ignored, totally, ignored. How can we go after millennials in the digital realm, if we ignored them in the print world????

9:01 PM  
Blogger T. D. said...

The older generations view newspapers as mild entertainment as well as a news source. That's why the Sunday paper gets so many readers and why so many readers like the print edition over the digital. They like to read while drinking a cup of coffee or while sitting in their easy chair.

The younger generation's entertainment is mostly audio or video media. And small phone screens are no problem for them at that level. Reading on a small screen is not so great. So, newspapers have a high bar to climb in being so text driven.

Newspapers have not been good at pursuing advertising opportunities. If Craigslist makes a big profit, why couldn't newspapers go to that format with its built in base and revive classifieds by making them free? Which goes to your point that they erected pay walls to gain money not subscribers.

Still, my home town newspaper, The Oregonian, has no pay walls, but it is bleeding subscribers (down about 25% in two years). So, it's not just pay walls.

The format itself may be too hard for a media savvy generation. Newspaper journalists may go the way of essayists. Really serious people still read essays and long articles, but most modern people don't. As audio and video media keep eroding attention span, newspapers and serious magazines will find their audience dwindling.

Thank you, Alan, for caring to think about and write about this issue.

1:44 PM  
Blogger Amy Vernon said...

The entire time I was in newspapers (20 years), I watched and listened as the powers that be were wringing their hands over how to get young people to read. They ignored all advice and input from young reporters, despite asking them time and again how to get young readers.

The difference this time is that there are alternatives to traditional news organizations, and new places to get local news. Newspapers still held sway as you got older, because they were the only place to go to get the local local news.

10:43 AM  
Blogger Wayne K. Spear said...

I imagine an essay from 100 years ago, "How the horse-and-buggy retailers lost the youth." Newspapers, digital or online, are obsolete. No business strategy is going to change that. As for the tastes and behavior of millenials—these too are determined by technology, not by the personalities or traits of younger readers. Of course they click on whatever interests them: that's how the digital world is designed to work. No one failed here; no one is to blame. The world is changing and the winners in this game will be the ones who dump the past and do something new. And I'm betting the new in this case will not be an online version of the print world which lures back younger audiences. Journalism as we knew it is gone, gone, gone. Forget about it.

12:10 PM  
Blogger policywonk said...

The boomers read papers, sure. But the next generation of parents - ? If they were getting their news from TV and skipping newspapers, why would we expect their kids to read papers?? Notice now that even network news at 6pm has lost much of its audience. Broadcast news will soon go the way of print.

Unless you can somehow persuade millennials that they need to be better informed citizens than they ever can be from social media, you don't stand much of a chance keeping the news media in business. Think about it: you have no new business model to pay for the infrastructure that reporters and editors need to do a good job, and no interest on the part of millennials in paying for that. Do they even understand that without the kind of investigative reporting that is expensive to support, the demoagogues and tyrants win? Or that they're making it easy for the demagogues and tyrants to con them and spin the news by thinking that real, accurate reporting can be had for free?? That's the bottom line: millennials expect someone else (God only knows who) to pay for the cost of getting the news. They're idiots. And I don't mind saying that.

3:29 PM  
Blogger Greg Fox Sr. said...

Here's the basic problem: It matters not what the newspaper does to attract the Millennials..they're not listening. Millennials, as a group, rarely pick up a newspaper. They don't subscribe and see no reason to subscribe and then spend time reading paper when they can dial up the same and more interesting news and features on their digital devices for free. There is no way for newspapers to capture the Millennials. They're reading online posts that are far more hip than anything the stodgy newspaper sites can serve up. The only hope for legacy publishers is to expand their portfolios to include print and digital products the Millennials do want and don't have to pay for.

8:08 PM  

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