This was adapted from a panel at Online News Association 2022 in Los Angeles, CA.
At a panel at Online News Association’s annual conference, we talked with four leading journalists in regional newsrooms across the country about how we all try to reach younger and more diverse audiences with our coverage and the findings of a report from API and the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research on opportunities for newsrooms to do just that.
The first question to ask is “what do we think we know about young audiences?” Our study with AP-NORC study focused on Americans as young as 16 and up to 40 years old. We hear so much in the media about how newsrooms have had to pivot distribution entirely so they might reach young audiences who don’t pay for news, only read stories on social media and have been blamed for many changes in the news industry. But what if we revisited our assumptions about what’s possible?
In the study, we learned from over 6,000 Millennial and Gen Z readers that many pay for news, use traditional media outlets and not just social platforms, feel fatigued by round-the-clock news coverage of negative current events and often think the media fail to accurately cover communities of color and immigrants in America.
At The Washington Post, where I worked before joining API, we cross-checked assumptions of young audiences and how they learned about current events; it often wasn’t because we didn’t put the story on TikTok, but because we hadn’t considered how to cover the topic in ways that they cared about. If it was a story about a natural disaster that caused property damage, one way to consider young readership was to look at the statistics and include details about homeownership that they might not be familiar with because younger folks are more likely to rent. There are so many ways to consider diverse audiences in news coverage, depending on who lives in your community, but it isn’t enough to translate stories as-is to a new language and expect new readership without thinking about the story angle, distribution and expected content over time.
Najja Parker of Unapologetically ATL, Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s weekly newsletter highlighting Black culture, events and news in metro Atlanta, experimented with several ways to reach young readers. By making the newsletter as accessible and simple to sign up for as possible, collaborating with influencers who already reach the audiences AJC wants to capture, surveying readers about their backgrounds and administering giveaways, they’ve managed to grow an audience of around 5,000 subscribers.
Najja answered a question from the crowd around how to drive higher survey responses with: “You have to make it worth their while.” Her team has seen success with more survey responses by giving away concert tickets and other merchandise, as well as placing the survey link at the top of the newsletter instead of buried further in the scroll.
Further west, Allison Shirk, engagement editor at the Chattanooga Times Free-Press, noted that “you can’t expect to start serving an audience after years of not serving them, and expect them to find you immediately.” Shirk said that Chattanooga’s demographics have been shifting younger and more diverse, partly due to the pandemic and remote workers in the past few years, and they reached their new audience by identifying them, figuring out how to reach them, collecting survey data and interviews with community leaders, and holding in-person focus groups to fine-tune those new insights.
Editor of the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville, Florida, Mary Kelli Palka spoke to the crowd about her newsroom’s experience with community-based reporting. Her newsroom’s audience responded to well-rounded reporting that included members of their own communities, particularly on Instagram Stories and Reels. While participating in the Table Stakes program, her editors identified four main goals to further reach out to younger and more diverse audiences in the area.
CalMatters’ College Journalism Network editor Felicia Mello explained how their program, which has worked with 50 student journalists since 2020, created dedicated spaces for student reporters to talk to each other about higher education in California and issues they’re facing, including food and housing insecurity. “When you involve people affected by policy in covering the results of that policy, you surface stories that you wouldn’t otherwise,” Mello said.
While strategizing how to reach your entire community, thinking about and representing the needs of your diverse audience and how they want to be involved with the news is at the heart of the issue, said Mello. “Student journalists don’t just want to join the industry, they want to transform it.”
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