“Sometimes with longer news events that have a larger scope, I’ll learn about them through The Daily Show or some other outlet that I use more as a curatorial news source, and then I’ll seek out harder facts about it from more legitimate news sources.”
— Oliver, age 29, San Francisco

As Millennials come to much of their news and information through personal conversations and social feeds, they expect news content in a tone that feels at home in that conversational space.

Young consumers will follow media brands expressing relevant perspectives with an approachable tone. Journalists become trusted guides for leading audiences through the saturated media landscape, for example, if they broadcast strong opinions or a sense of humor, share a similar background, prove their credibility through their reporting, report on matters that intersect with their readers’ lives, or interact with their audiences on social platforms.

Prateek Sarkar, former managing director of user experience research for The New York Times, says that Vice repeatedly came up in his studies on Millennials and the news. The media brand has become a news guide for millions of young consumers.

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“What [Millennial interview subjects] were really talking about was an unfiltered and unvarnished presentation that appealed to them. They liked the freshness Vice brought, as opposed to the more staid traditional media presentation that they’re used to,” he says.

This doesn’t mean media companies should suddenly copy Vice’s irreverent tone. Vice Co-Founder Shane Smith explained to The Guardian in 2014 the failure that happens when big media companies all chase the same stories with similar approaches.

“The problem with the news cycle today and the news media in general,” he told The Guardian, “is that it’s kindergarten [kids] playing soccer. The ball goes over here, everyone goes over here. The ball goes over there, everyone goes over there.”

Vice’s success has come in large part because the editors are adamant about finding unique stories or bringing uncommon perspectives to stories, says Sterling Proffer, general manager of Vice News.

Our research for this study found that each news organization should cultivate its own voice, with some critical factors in mind:

  • Define the void not being met by other media outlets and own that niche in your coverage.
  • Allow the opinions and personalities of your writers and editors to come through in their stories and in their social media interactions wherever possible.
  • Avoid a condescending tone by addressing important issues within specific life stages of the larger Millennial generation and by treating emerging trends for younger audiences with journalistic respect.
  • Discuss audience data as a team and constantly calibrate your offerings for a readership with swiftly changing interests.

Define the void not being met by other media outlets and own that niche in your coverage

Gannett launched The Bold Italic in 2009 to fill a regional niche. The site was founded by the company’s then head of innovation, Michael Maness, who partnered with human-centered design firm IDEO to research what San Franciscans wanted in a local publication.

The answer? They craved personality.

They didn’t want some critic up on high talking down to them about what was happening in their city, they wanted stories by people who came off like well-informed friends.

And so The Bold Italic became a chorus of voices discussing what was happening around town, giving readers inside intel on the city (nicknamed “winning at dinner” moments), and sharing frustrations about things happening around us — with a healthy dose of comedy, since humor is integral in a city with multiple costumed foot races and satirical political protests.

Identifying and tracking the tone and topics that resonate with a younger audience in your region is important.

Identifying and tracking the tone and topics that resonate with a younger audience in your region is important. At The Bold Italic, that meant keeping up with issues like living with roommates, dealing with student debt, and riding public transportation.

Chris Krewson, editor of Philadelphia’s Millennial-focused Billy Penn, says his newsroom avoids stories about nursing homes and pensions and focuses on topics like rideshare and bike share companies, as well as “secret Philly” behind-the-scenes coverage. BillyPenn also features a series called “Who’s Next” that showcases the upcoming generation of community leaders.

At RedEye, former editor Tran Ha says the focus is on “the Chicago experience” as lived by a resident in their 20s, meaning pieces about bike paths, crime and safety, and early career issues.

At CharlotteFive, they practice what The Charlotte Observer’s Innovations Editor Jennifer Rothacker describes as “Seinfeld journalism,” or “what people are going to talk about around the water cooler,” such as the city’s worst intersections or most atrocious parking lots.

Each publication needs to find its own niche, to consider the needs of the young audiences in their readership, and to develop strong storytelling around those themes.

Allow the opinions and personalities of your writers and editors to come through in their stories and social media interactions wherever possible

Consider the popularity of the nightly newscaster, the morning talk show host, or the opinion page columnist in attracting a following dedicated to that person’s understanding of the news, opinions, and overall character.

In the modern media landscape, where young audiences may get news from friends in their social groups as often as they do from a traditional outlet, amplifying the personalities of your journalists helps amplify your media brand.

Personal essays, opinion pieces, humor pieces, and experiential stories all immediately intertwine the reader with the personality of the writer, as do stories that really target important issues in younger readers’ lives. Having reporters engage in conversations with readers on social media is another opportunity to make that connection.

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There are so many different ways journalists can offer readers a sense of the real people behind the reporting, the key is to make sure your newsroom is taking advantage of them.

Editor Corey Inscoe says that all writing associated with CharlotteFive is purposely informal so the reader’s friendly association with the organization is threaded across stories, newsletters, and events. “[Editor] Katie [Toussaint] and I have to make ourselves personalities,” he says. “We put our faces in the newsletter, we’re on Twitter, we do events, and people come see us. We wanted to be like, ‘Here we are, we’re having a conversation with you each morning and letting you know what’s going on around Charlotte.’ People connect with that more than just a byline that doesn’t have any voice to it.”

Avoid a condescending tone by addressing important issues for specific life stages of Millennials and by treating emerging trends with respect

Being relevant is about more than writing style, it’s about framing the topics and explaining the details in a way that doesn’t condescend to the reader. So while not every article merits personal voice, every story should show readers that your journalists understand the subtleties of a young audience’s interests at various stages in their lives.

This BuzzFeed feature about Vine and YouTube personalities who tour the country like rock stars is a strong example of considering the reader. BuzzFeed’s San Francisco Bureau Chief Mat Honan says they recognized the subject matter was perfect for their demographic. But in the reporting, journalist Ellen Cushing also treated the popularity of these video stars with respect.

“It would’ve been easy to go in and say, ‘Look at these kids, they’re famous for nothing, isn’t that funny, ha ha.’ But Vine stars are as big as the Beatles now,” says Honan. “You dismiss them with the same peril that you dismiss the Beatles. So we are aware of [the fact that] these trends are big with younger people.”

Another important point when addressing a younger audience — don’t refer to them as Millennials. Doing so discounts the nuances between the life stages within the demographic and risks turning off your audience.

Every story should show readers that your journalists understand the subtleties of a young audience’s interests at various stages in their lives.

Former RedEye editor Tran Ha says to keep in mind there’s as much as a 20-year age difference between Millennials, which means there are a number of demographic segments that may not even relate to one another.

“As much as possible, unless you’re doing a story about generational change, don’t label the whole generation,” she says. “If you’re talking about workers in their early 20s, say ‘workers in their early 20s.’ If you’re talking about young parents in their 30s, call them that. It doesn’t help organizations to connect with that audience when they’re being lumped in with a bunch of other people that have nothing to do with where they are in their lives.”

Breaking out Millennials into more defined age groups also helps in understanding their behavior around and connection to the news.

In this typology of young news consumers, we divided Millennials into four distinct segments based on life stages and media consumption habits. We were able to discover that, for example, over half of The Explorers (18-24 year olds who actively seek out news) said they follow the news because of the connection it gives them to their community. Activists (25-34 year olds with established careers who actively seek out news) have a positive association with local news — making these audience groups strong candidates for targeted regional stories.

These sorts of findings, together with the study’s discoveries about the topics most important in each life stage, can help editors make decisions about the types of content to experiment with.

Discuss audience data as a team and calibrate your offerings for swiftly changing interests

When you’re engaging a younger audience, it’s important to understand that things change in their lives very quickly. Your content should reflect these shifting interests and expectations. “What’s relevant this year might not be relevant next year so don’t get too attached to your initiative or your beats and be able to be more fluid,” says former RedEye editor Tran Ha.

Big economic changes, for example, affect how younger residents who may have just found their footing in their careers and their housing situations are able to keep living in a city. Both RedEye and The Bold Italic started out doing aspirational stories focusing on a more affluent urban lifestyle. When the recession hit Chicago and the tech boom divided San Francisco economically, the content moved towards rent affordability and budget-conscious activities.

If you have staffers, interns, and freelancers who are living these changes, and editors regularly involve them in brainstorming sessions, you’ll have a better connection to the conversations writers should be covering in your content.

Given the transient nature of younger readers’ interests over time, journalists should also be discussing the metrics they’re receiving from their content across platforms as a team and calibrating their offerings accordingly.

Step one is giving everyone on the editorial team access to your analytics. Once the data starts rolling in, it can be challenging to figure out what it means. The answers aren’t in performance metrics for individual posts as much as they’re in the narrative the analytics tell over time, and it helps to tease out that narrative as a team.

Angie Aker, the sponsored sections editor at Upworthy as well as a writer for the site, says that Upworthy’s editorial staff sharpens its sense of what works and what doesn’t through a mix of analytics and journalistic judgment.

“A staff needs to share learnings as they come across them. It’s just ‘anec-data’ as we call it,” she says. “In order to prove it’s a rule you have to do longitudinal studies on it, which isn’t always possible. But trying to bring that in for editorial judgment and share it with your colleagues is important. It’s like trying to find your way together in the dark.”

Journalists should also be discussing the metrics they’re receiving from their content across platforms as a team and calibrating their offerings accordingly.

At The Bold Italic, we had weekly anec-data meetings as an editorial team. We broke down the main themes of the content we covered on the site into “arcs” — everything from urban development and gender identity to food and “cool things happening in the sky.” There were around 20 arcs in all, divided across four junior and senior editors, and those editors charted all the stories that fell under their arcs by pageviews.

We met weekly to discuss the high and low performing stories and what we thought was the secret to the articles’ successes or failures. From there we fine-tuned our larger understandings about the arcs. We had these meetings with our interns and photography fellow, everyone who created content for us in house, so everyone knew how to pitch and post the strongest stories.

We made informed decisions about our content from these granular discussions, phasing out fringe arcs that didn’t perform well over time, and staying on beats that soared. Together we made every component of every story count.

Tyson Evans, editor for newsroom strategy at The New York Times, says the Times is working on giving its journalists a keen understanding of who the audience is for their stories by digging into the reading habits and knowledge depth of their audience.

In the case of a reporter covering a political debate, for example, informed writers can ask themselves questions like, “Am I writing for the audience that watched the debate an hour ago, or watched it live?” Or is the audience for a story the people who are watching the debates the next morning, “who are much more interested to have a retrospective telling with added context and analysis?” Evans adds that the answers to these questions lead to very different stories that the same reporter could write.

Speaking a common metrics language means a team can efficiently and intelligently hone its offerings. Giving ownership of those analytics to everyone on the team empowers them to take responsibility for the success of the content together and allows them to be responsive to the needs of a younger readership in real time.

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