Millennials and the news: disengaged or disenfranchised?

That said, people have been saying much the same about their youths since time immemorial: “Our sires’ age was worse than our grandsires’”, wrote the poet, Horace, way back in the heady days of the Roman empire. “We, their sons, are more worthless than they.”

There’s no doubt that dear old Horace would find very little familiar if he were to suddenly appear today and start searching for the latest news bulletins, but just as there’s little point in comparing Ancient Rome to 21st century London, there’s also not much use in using last decade’s yardsticks to measure the current state of engagement with the news. Times have changed – and continue to change at a ridiculous rate.

It’s extraordinary that we take the demise of the print newspaper as evidence that the current generation doesn’t engage with the news

A 2014 report by the Associated Press found that more than 90% of Millennials surveyed owned smartphones and around a half owned tablets. 88% classed Facebook as a news source and 69% said they checked the news at least once a day. Considering these high percentages, it’s extraordinary that traditional media takes the demise of the print newspaper as evidence that the current generation doesn’t engage with the news.

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Newspaper and print consumption rates do, after all, only tell us how many people are buying newspapers, which – though it might make depressing reading for anyone fond of the smell of print – is not indicative of the state of Millennial understanding of, or engagement with, the world of current affairs.

Even if you take into account subscriptions for digital publications, you’re unlikely to get an accurate picture of current affairs engagement. Not all news readers’ needs are the same. Someone at the start of their professional life, or for that matter someone still in education, is going to have different questions they need answers for than someone who’s retired. A quick glance at readership figures for The Times shows that the majority of their readers are over the age of 35 and even when online readership is taken into account at the more left-leaning and Millennial-friendly Guardian, it’s the slightly older readers that are clearly shoring up the business there as well.

Here’s what is true, then. In this established digital age, there are vastly more complex ways of producing news and distributing it. Trying to sell old media formats to a generation completely au fait with the digital world is, when you stop to think about it, bizarre – analogous, perhaps, to insisting that the only winter coat sales that are worth counting are the ones emanating from Harvey Nichols. You can get coats in other places as well. They’ll do the same job, albeit in a slightly different way.

“This newest generation of American adults is anything but newsless, passive or civically uninterested,” says a report about news engagement from the API; their “paths to discovery are more nuanced and varied than some may have imagined,“suggests Eduardo Nunomura.

Millennials are not vacuous, clickbait-susceptible airheads. Those who have grown up or come of age with digital technology as part and parcel of everyday life just engage with the world differently to those who expect their news to arrive with their morning coffee on ink and paper.

It’s sometimes easy to forget, caught up in the romance of print, that ‘news’ doesn’t mean The Newspaper

Delivery mechanism aside, the key is that Millennials value news. The aforementioned report found that 89% of respondents said keeping up with the news was somewhat important to them, whilst 69% got news (in one form or another) daily and 74% got their news from online sources

What this highlights, and what it is sometimes easy to forget, caught up in the romance of print, is that ‘news’ doesn’t mean The Newspaper, or even the large news organisations that once might have made newspapers.

The issue is that criticism of Millennials and their engagement with the news is portrayed as a problem with Millennials themselves, rather than one of an antiquated media sector blaming a younger generation for not upholding the status quo. “Lots of young people are asking great questions and giving their opinions, but it’s quite hard to find the right places to go to that are serving their audiences rather than themselves”, says Olivia Cappuccini, the CEO of Scenes of Reasona website borne out of a desire to find an alternative and seeks to engage and inform the Millennial demographic through short form videos and articles, mediums that are very much ingrained in everyday life for this demographic.

Despite being involved in media since her university days, Olivia found that existing news mechanisms were jargon-heavy, partisan-fuelled and inaccessible to her and her peers. She’s also acutely aware that the industry has launched into is driven heavily by advertising dollars that favour volume over true engagement. It’s a brave decision for a modern publisher to take, but SOR is determined to keep the emphasis on responding to readers’ needs over advertisers’ demands, and that, she says is the key.

“At the moment, rather than organisations and media trying to serve its audience with the best possible journalism and the best possible content to empower and educate us, we’re left with stuff which is very opinionated and sensationalized because everyone is trying to chase those clicks in this over-saturated market so they can get their advertising cut.”

The problem isn’t that Millennials aren’t using traditional media, it’s that traditional media believes it is still the benchmark by which news engagement should be measured

What’s fascinating about news consumption in the digital era is how it becomes inextricably linked with other social interactions: something borne out by reports saying the 62% are receiving news notifications via places such as Facebook. “Consumption of news is interwoven with lifestyle content, as well as interactions with their friends,” says Joe Hyrkin, the CEO  of Issuu. This is absolutely key: content needs to fit into the lives of today’s consumer, which is why places like Scenes of Reason are engaging previously disenfranchised consumers: they’re both educating their readers and innovating news distribution methods.

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Perhaps what we’re seeing is a digitally-adapted return to the ‘town square’ model of news distribution: news fed through social channels, discussed with friends and associates on social networks, in much the same way as Horace might have over a glass of wine at the Forum in between scribbling verses all those centuries ago. Our need to communicate information really doesn’t diminish; but the ways we do this communicating does.

The problem isn’t that Millennials aren’t using traditional media, it’s that traditional media believes it is still the benchmark by which news engagement should be measured. Everyone else needs to catch up.

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