Mainstream media and younger audiences

06 Oct 2022 | Research & Business Knowledge

ICG member Konrad Collao recently conducted a study for the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ) at the University of Oxford.

The research found that mainstream news brands that focus on ‘narrow’ news subjects such as politics and economics are in danger of losing touch with young audiences who are looking for a broader range of subjects presented in a more accessible way.

The full report –  Craft & RISJ – The Kaleidoscope – Young People’s Relationships With News – Report – is based on qualitative research with 72 people aged 18–30 in the United Kingdom, United States, and Brazil.

It highlights the variety of topical and executional preferences that exist within this diverse cohort – driven by a fragmented news media landscape and a proliferation of news formats and brands. At the same time, the report suggests this presents a new set of opportunities for news organisations. It argues that:

  • News brands need to diversify their offers – not necessarily replacing what they are already good at – but by broadening topically and lightening tonally.
  • News brands should spend more time meeting those less engaged with ‘narrow’ news on their own territory – by investing in formats and products for social media platforms (and other aggregated environments).
  • News brands should more carefully consider who is creating news aimed at young audiences and how that content aligns with each platform’s unique codes and conventions.

The report highlights how growing up with Web 2.0 has conditioned how young people consume news, what they consider ‘news’ to be, and who they trust to deliver it. Its findings support data from the Digital News Report 2022, which showed that younger audiences across more than 40 countries are increasingly avoiding narrow news topics such as politics and COVID-19 – and often prefer to access news via social media rather than a news website or app.

How was the research conducted?

The report draws on qualitative research conducted by Craft with 72 people aged 18–30 (24 per country) in Brazil, the UK, and the US. This work, which took place between February and March 2022, included news diaries, screen recordings, blogging, vlogging, and in-depth interviews with young participants representing a range of demographic traits, life stages, and news habits.

What the research found

For young people, news can be ‘narrow’ or ‘broad’. Young people make a distinction between ‘the news’ as the narrow, traditional agenda of politics and current affairs and ‘news’ as a much wider umbrella encompassing topics like sports, entertainment, celebrity gossip, culture, and science. ‘The news’ is associated with mainstream, traditional media brands, who are expected to act impartially and objectively, even if there are doubts that this is achievable. ‘News’ is topically broader and afforded more tonal latitude. Alternative media is felt to operate better here.

Some young people selectively avoid ‘narrow,’ ‘serious’ news – at least some of the time. Rather than simply avoiding news, there is ‘news to be avoided’ – often to guard mental health. Because of this, young people seem to engage more with ‘news’ than ‘the news.’ Avoidance of ‘narrow’ news has implications for mainstream brands, who are felt to operate primarily at the ‘serious’ end of the spectrum.

Many factors – both contextual and personal – influence a young person’s news consumption preferences and behaviours. The proliferation of choice driven by the social mobile web results in as many pictures of young people’s news consumption as there are young people, though this report discerns a typology of hobbyist/dutiful news consumers, main eventers, and the disengaged.

  • The Hobbyist/dutiful consume news for enjoyment or out of a civic duty to know what is happening
  • The Main eventer feel a practical need to keep up with developments as they impact day-to-day life, rather than out of enjoyment or duty
  • The Disengaged avoid ‘the news’ as a general rule but feel they need to know the unavoidable ‘big’ things going on in society

Each group differs in terms of their motivations for consuming ‘narrow’ news, how they encounter it, their brand considerations, and their content preferences.

Young people are highly sceptical of most information and often question the ‘agenda’ of news purveyors, having grown up in the digital age and been socialised by older generations to be critical of the information they consume. In this sense, mainstream news brands are judged by, but not inherently valued for, their impartiality.

There is little consistency in what ‘young people’ want in terms of format – it is usually a matter of personal taste. Far from the consistent traits often ascribed to them, young people like a range of formats and media, and are drawn to information that is curated for them. There will continue to be a place for text, video, audio, and still imagery – sometimes all in one piece of content.

Konrad said:

“Much is said and written about young people, little of it based on empirically-derived evidence. Similarly, many doom-laden predictions are made about the future of news and ‘legacy’ media more broadly. Our study paints a more nuanced and heartening picture. News brands do face challenges in how young people consume, think about and feel about news. To remain broadly relevant, news brands need to respond in creative, innovative ways. They do not, however, need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Far from all being lost, our research shows that news brands have an exciting set of opportunities to evolve. They are excellently placed to fuse their skills and expertise in bringing stories to the public with new ways of telling those stories, using young talent to help that evolution.”