Working harder to reach audiences where they are

I recently visited my old high school, a magnet school for overly ambitious teens, as part of a Career Day for current students. Between regaling them with tales of My Career in Journalism and cringing over memories from my own high school days, I asked students where they’re getting their news.

Nothing I heard surprised me; in fact, it was much the same message I hear from friends my age, and that’s what has me intrigued. From what I see, we now have at least three generations growing up — Millennials, Gen Z, and Generation Alpha — whose consumer habits are not being met by a single news organization (with the exception of one enterprising teen who loves CNBC). That gap presents possibilities.

Instead of actively opening a newspaper or turning on the evening news, there’s a general expectation that if news happens that’s big or pertinent enough, it’ll reach us without us seeking it out. We’ll see it on social media or a passive news aggregator or push alert or in our inboxes. I expect that in 2023, journalism will work harder to reach audiences where they are — if the industry knows what’s good for it.

Does that mean more publications on TikTok? Yeah, of course it does. And probably also more brand-name or brand-name-aspirant journalists explaining scoops confessional-style to their phones and Substacks. More newsletters on more niche topics, more deals with aggregators, more Tumblr posts (we’re all pivoting back there from Twitter, right?).

But “reaching audiences where they are” is more than a tech question — it’s also a philosophical one. There’s a reason young people are looking to graphics in Instagram carousels to explain news topics to them. News organizations haven’t fundamentally evolved in how they tell the news, despite that audiences have changed with the internet, and often fail to discuss issues in an authentic way that younger people actually care about.

When it comes to how we tell the news, Axios’ bullet-point summary model is a good exception; it gives frenetic online readers a quick summary they can choose to dive into with the full article. It’s also proof you don’t need to overhaul a CMS to rethink how you tell stories. Honestly, we journalists could stand to learn from those viral IG carousels — quick bites, easily digestible and shareable.

Similarly, news organizations should consider the tone of articles. Trust in media is low, and I’d venture to bet part of that is because we don’t write the same way we talk — which creates a disconnect, and thus mistrust, for the audience. Call a quote untrue when a source says something untrue. Live a little with your word choice. How much bothsidesism do we really need when one side is founded on spreading misinformation or hate-grounded rhetoric? Some of what I’d recommend is just basic good practice: Read your writing out loud and see if it sounds like something a human would say.

When it comes to the news we’re telling, I hope in 2023 we’ll see some sprouts growing from seeds planted in 2020. That’s a bad metaphor to say: Keep remote journalists — who can tell stories that are important where they are — on the payroll. Local news is failing as a business model, but people still crave geographically close stories. So major news organizations should invest in remote workers around the nation and trust their news judgment about what locals are paying attention to. That would help eliminate the problem of news orgs parachuting in and misunderstanding a place. Plus, ya know, save $$$ on office space.

Finally, we should be reporting even more on climate change, social justice, and systemic financial crises like housing unaffordability and student debt — and not just in wide-eyed “millennial women aren’t having kids for reasons NO ONE HERE can guess at” stories. That means investing in a group of reporters and editors who are diverse across measures (geographically, racially, by gender, age, and identity, etc.) to tell smarter stories for audiences who connected the dots years ago. And while we’re at it, continue support for diverse leadership in newsrooms.

Journalism has an opportunity to engage with generations craving information. That’s an exciting prospect, and one I hope news organizations put some work into if they want dedicated audiences in the future.

Alexandra Svokos is the senior editor of digital at ABC News and an MBA candidate at NYU Stern.

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