News Needs to Meet Its Audiences Where They Are

Faced with avoidant consumers, media companies must experiment with different technological formats

Credit: John Lamb/DigitalVision/Getty

The Reuters Institute released its annual Digital News Report last week, and among its many findings a couple jump out.

One is that when it comes to news, more people are putting their heads in the sand. Almost one third (32%) of the world’s population avoids the news, up 3% from 2017, the report found. In the U.S. that figure is higher at 41%, up from 38% in 2017. As the American Press Institute and Nieman Lab have pointed out, there are a lot of reasons behind this news avoidance problem, but the leading cause for Americans (at 57%) seems to be: “It can have a negative effect on my mood.”

Secondly, the report found that given concerns about misinformation, more people are turning to trusted brands. And more people — especially the younger cohort — are also turning to podcasts for news because they find podcasts “deal with serious issues in an engaging way.” Interestingly, millennials between the ages of 25 and 34 say they are turning to podcasts because they “learn something” (52%) or “to keep updated” (54%). Those numbers are higher for the 45+ crowd (at 54% and 55%, respectively). Podcasts are more diverse and less stuffy, respondents told Reuters — offering “a diverse range of news ideas and thoughts from vastly different people, not your traditional people who look and act a certain way.”

All of which begs the question: Can news organizations recoup defectors and broaden audiences by changing their tune?

Efforts to do so are underway. Tortoise avoids breaking news. The London-based organization is carving a niche for readers who want to “slow down and wise up.” Problem-solving is at the Guardian’s mainstay at The Upside, as it is at the Solutions Journalism Network, a not-for-profit that says it works to “legitimize and spread the practice of ‘solutions journalism’ defined as ‘rigorous, unbiased reporting about credible responses to social problems.’” The Solutions Network says it has collaborated with The Miami Herald, Mississippi Today, and Chicago’s public radio station WBEZ in addition to news outlets in Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Montana, and Connecticut. Its members website “The Hub” functions as a toolkit of best practices for journalists to explore topics likely to strengthen democracy, health, and education. And it’s growing: Members are up from 1,075 to 3,415 in 2018, according to its most recent annual report, as are followers on social media.

At The New York Times, it is Anna Dubenko’s job to strategically amplify Times journalism beyond the newspaper’s app and website. In a “Personal Tech” column published this week, she described her efforts to track how readers consume news and spend their time online. As Dubenko explores how to make Times journalism work on platforms like Apple News, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Pocket, she told the Times: “I try to put myself in readers’ shoes to figure out how to make our stories match what they’re looking for.”

Some media outlets are taking a lighter approach. In an effort to better connect with their communities, they are putting funny news quips on TikTok, a destination for short-form mobile videos popular with the younger crowd.

Others are experimenting with unexpected corners of the Internet. For a while now, I’ve observed students in my Stanford classes turn to “gamification” as a design solution to the many engagement and distribution challenges facing the news industry. It’s a model that inspired Phoebe Connelly, deputy director of video at The Washington Post, to team up with the live-streaming gaming platform Twitch. The experiment — a Post Twitch channel– has turned out to be a successful, if unlikely, collaboration.

With an enviable audience of over 100 monthly users between the ages of 13 and 24 spending on average 90 minutes a day on the platform, Twitch seemed to the Post like a good audience to get. At the same time, Cody Conners, Twitch’s Senior Manager for Content Acquisition, told a class of Stanford students last fall that Twitch had wanted to explore different verticals that might resonate with the platform’s audience, one that, he said, has varied interests like music and art. “I’m a big political and news fiend. I like to stay up-to-date with everything,” Conners told the class. “I had a hunch that we could put news adjacent to games and that could be powerful and meaningful on the platform.”

It turns out that a lot of the 90 minutes Twitch players spend on the platform is spent chatting. “Twitch is an experiential platform,” Conners said. “It’s like your favorite bar.”

It took some time for the collaboration to kick off but the two organizations (which are corporate step-siblings of a sort — Twitch is owned by Amazon and The Washington Post by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos) launched a politics channel in time to live-stream Mark Zuckerberg’s hearings on Capitol Hill earlier this year. Even for the most die-hard news junkie, a Congressional hearing can be a slog. But chat — moderated and kept civil by The Post — exploded.

The challenge for all news organizations is figuring out the right content to share with an “off-brand” audience. Identifying a popular platform or distribution channel doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good fit. News organizations can’t just shove one brand into another. But Connelly — who adds that the Post is on TikTok too — argues that “finding new audiences by looking off platform and understanding how those audiences expect to receive news is what every media organization needs to be doing.”

Given the size of the news avoidance problem, more media organizations, like the trusted brands that Reuters found to be gaining traction, need to take stock. If they can change their tune and tone — “to deal with serious issues in an engaging way” — news organizations may be able to recoup some of the defectors Reuters identified and potentially gain revenue as well.

Ann Grimes is Associate Director of the Brown Institute for Media Innovation at Stanford University where she also lectures at the Hasso Plattner School of Design

Ann Grimes is Associate Editor of the Brown Institute for Media Innovation at Stanford and a Lecturer at the Hasso Plattner School of Design.

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