From Boomers to Gen Z: The surprising ways US News Media is captivating audiences across generations

Earlier this week, we held our first Future of News Seminar in North America. News media leaders from organisations including ABC News, Gannett, New York Times, AJC, Axios, News Product Alliance and Newscorp gathered in New York City to share how they address the changing needs of readers across generations. 

The cross generational divide

There is no silver bullet on how to approach this divide best. Older generations still prefer more traditional news media like TV and print publication. 

However, recent PEW research on news consumption across platforms in the US shows that these older generations are rapidly becoming more digitally savvy. This is good news in a world where publishers are focusing mostly on digital growth.

The even better news is that these generations are also expected to have more disposable income than today. It is a great opportunity for publishers to drive digital habits with these audiences.

According to the 2022 Reuters Institute Digital News Report, the average age of a paying subscriber is 47 years old. If we want to leverage reader revenue for successful digital transformation, we must understand the needs of the readers who do pay for news. 

In the context of the current rapidly aging population, these potentially paying audiences can be significant. Within 25 years, more than half of the population in the US will be older than 40 years old. 

On the other hand, Generation Z and Millennials consume their news much more on social media and via search engines and they are often reluctant to pay. Are they going to keep those habits as they are entering their 30s and 40s? Or will their lives change and will edition-based products and laid back TV news also find a place in their lives? 

Authenticity and strong brand identity matter even more on digital platforms

ABC News has learned that it is important to be present on the platforms used by the viewers. On-air TV is not enough to reach younger generations, therefore ABC News extended their presence on social platforms. Surprisingly, a traditional news TV station like ABC News was able to build the second largest audience on TikTok. 

In her speech during the Seminar, Alexandra Svokos, Senior Editor Digital at ABC News, links the TikTok success of ABC News with them keeping their very authentic tone of voice across all platforms. Instead of producing crazy dances or funny memes, ABC News invited their reporters to produce short form videos in parallel with their more traditional video coverage of major news events. These are typically not expensive, and bring the story in an adapted version to these younger audiences on the platforms they use. 

A successful example is the one of ABC News head meteorologist, who posts a TikTok at the end of the weather coverage. This has received a lot of positive feedback.

Eric Ulken, Product Director at Gannett shared a similar story of the importance of staying authentic. The USA Today team ran experiments with text summarisation using ChatGPT. The results were “amazingly good” but still “not good enough” to represent USA Today’s reputed “to the point” voice. The team is now working to develop Generative AI tools with a tone of voice more in line with the USA Today brand.

According to Eric, tools like ChatGPT will help newsrooms to become more effective and productive. However, a human will need to be in the loop to ensure the voice and language are in line with the journalistic approach and DNA of the brand. Zack McGhee, Product Director of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC) explained the importance of having a newspaper brand very visible in the targeted communities. In the past, the newspaper brand was very present: at sales points, in super markets, as sponsor of local events, etc.

“Our brand used to be everywhere. We must claim back that intimacy with the local community.”

Zack McGhee, Audience Director Atlanta Journal Constitution

These were important interactions that made the newspaper brand feel community owned and loved. Such presence is also required on digital and social platforms. To gain back community presence, AJC has created Access Atlanta, a separate, authentic digital and social brand focusing on entertainment and events in Atlanta. This digital brand has created a proximity and visibility on par with expectations of younger generations.

Anita Zielina’s comments during the panel resonated with the need to focus on brand building. She explained that publishers have a specific perceived image, especially in the minds of younger readers and we have to fight to refresh and rebrand this image.

The importance of building a strong and consistent brand identity will become an even more important strategic advantage for any newspaper. This was also the conclusion of the break-outs session, moderated by Sam Guzik, Product Director of New York Public Radio, during the Seminar. As people will be flooded with an ever increasing amount of content, the source of the content and the level of trust associated with it will eventually play a determining role in accessing and using the content on a recurring basis.

“The flexibility of a search engine with the rigor of journalism” – a new recipe for success

Tech giants have grown enormously over the years by building powerful search engines on top of news publishers’ content. Few publishers, such as The New York Times started to also invest in their own conversational search engine with promising results.

Together with a team from the R&D Department, Dalit Shalom, Lead Product Designer at The New York Times, explained how a first experimental search engine was developed in 2019. This technology uses Machine Learning to find the best possible answer to an exact question of a reader. The technology received a real boost during the pandemic when people were hungry for information. 

The team has now further extended this to power a Climate FAQ module on the New York Times website.  This is a source of very powerful and personal interactions with the audience allowing The New York Times to claim a role as partners in their readers’ lives.

The next big thing to drive reader habits

But while search is a great tool for discovery and building a stronger partnership with the brand, the team from NYT explained that it only engages a part of their audience.

Dianna Colasurdo, Managing Director of Partnerships at Axios polled the panelists on their most important sources of engagement. Not surprisingly, the inbox remains an important place for publishers to drive engagement through their newsletter’s strategies.

“We need to find a product as sticky as newsletters that can engage the 70% who don’t gravitate to the inbox.”

Esfand Pourmand, – SVP Global Product at News Corp

However as explained by Esfand Pourmand, SVP Global Product at News Corp, only 30% of the digital subscription base gravitates towards newsletters and from those only another third engages. The next big thing will be to find something that is as habit forming as newsletters but reaches the remaining 70%. In Esfand’s case this would be in app rather than in the inbox. 

Thanks to Flanders Investment & Trade for the kind support

The event took place in the amazing Flanders House, located on one of the top floors of the New York Times building. We couldn’t have chosen a better location, and we would like to thank Flanders Investment and Trade for their kind support.


Team Twipe

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