I Was a Self-Hating Millennial. This Is How I Learned to Embrace My Generation’s Readers.
I entered the workforce amid an onslaught of negative coverage about millennials. As someone who always felt beyond her years, I made it my mission to conceal my age. I was hired full time at CNN before I graduated from college and constantly dodged age-related conversations. The fact that I was raised on a steady stream of Nick at Nite reruns really helped my act. No one needed to know I saw “Cheers” on Nick when my parents thought I was asleep or that I was born the year “Murphy Brown” first hit the silver screen. These cultural references were my armor against millennial typecasting. I fancied myself the anti-millennial, the kind who worked hard, respected her superiors and knew she had a lot to learn.
I held true to this belief system until four months ago when the topic of “millennial content” came up during Flipboard’s quarterly business review. The assumption by those older than me, by those at the same boardroom table as me, was that millennials wanted to content snack, mostly on low-quality videos. I could feel my blood boiling. So I did the “millennial thing” and pushed back in defense of my age group. I said they were news and information hungry enthusiasts and for the first time “publicly” labeled myself a millennial. It was my version of “word vomit,” the phrase coined by Lindsay Lohan’s character in “Mean Girls” to describe the opinions you can’t help but share, even if you shouldn’t.
While I may have stood up for those aged 20–38, I also realized I’d spent so much time distancing myself from my poorly labeled peers that I never took the time to understand or appreciate my generation.
What I learned in the weeks and months that followed was that they were in fact news and information hungry consumers, with varying interests and tremendous drive. Eighty-three percent of those aged 19–29 read to keep up with current events. Ninety-two percent of the same age group read to research a specific topic of interest. Those are the highest percentages of any age demographic polled by Pew. While digital outlets unsurprisingly reign supreme for a majority of those under 35, according to Reuters, the top read publications are some of the most respected in the country.
On Flipboard, the most read topics by millennials are news, business, technology, Donald Trump, science, entertainment, politics and celebrity news, which are in line with non-millennials. Among women, the list shifts slightly to include health, relationships and skincare, among other topics.
When you break it down by engagement, recipes, food, travel, skincare, science, self-improvement, happiness and business are among the top shared stories by women. Among men it’s recipes, business, science, food, travel, self-improvement and investing.
My conclusion? Millennials want to read about the world around them and share content related to their place in life. They — we — are deeper than we’re often given credit, and we crave quality storytelling, whether through short videos or long reads.
To dig into this further, I gathered a group of editors at “traditional” and “new” media organizations during this year’s SXSW to tackle the challenge and opportunity posed by millennial readers. What was quickly clear was that we all feel the pressure to serve these tech savvy readers with deeper reporting and more creative storytelling.
“Social platforms are forcing us to be better, forcing us to meet our audiences where they are and at the end of the day, forcing us to be innovative,” Sara Fischer, Axios’ media reporter, said during the panel.
“This is what we should be paid to do or challenged to do, is to deliver amazing stories to people,” PureWow Editor in Chief Mary Kate McGrath responded. “Just because the platforms change on a dime, doesn’t mean that our quality should change. It’s just another challenge that actually keeps you really fresh.”
These are the major topics we discussed concerning how different storytelling forms are helping reach more diverse audiences.
The challenges PureWow’s McGrath mentioned above include staying true to the authenticity young readers demand. She said the “truth mantra” is something core to millennials’ world views, adding that they’re looking for leaders and colleagues who practice what they preach in their lives and work.
“You also have to fill your newsroom with people who are part of the audience you’re trying to reach,” Clary said.
2. FOCUSED STORYTELLING
Phoebe Connelly is the deputy director of video at The Washington Post, where they’ve invested heavily in video storytelling. While the editors at The Post used to first ask what the headline of the story should be, they’re now asking what the 10 second clip will be that is published on social platforms.
Connelly said the onus is on journalists to be really “transparent about the process of journalism.” “How did you approach that? How did you interview people? How did you go after or why did you go after this story?” she asked. “That’s part of the work we have to do to reach an audience.”
At Mic, that meant figuring out why readers aren’t interested in a particular story and either shifting the lens to be more “macro” or more “micro.” Clary referenced their coverage of Syria, a topic that didn’t engage their readers. To fix that gulf, Mic shifted its coverage to a macro trend and published a piece explaining why people are “numb” to the atrocities in Syria. That piece went viral, Clary said.
The other option is to go micro and really put a human face on an issue in a “relatable” way, like Mic did with immigration. It comes back to creativity: “We’ve got to be more creative about how we tell [a story],” Clary said.
3. DESIGN CUES
Visual cues are a big part of how to tell a story creatively, particularly as the line between news and opinion is muddied. At Flipboard, we work hard to label what’s news opinion and what’s news reporting. That’s something The Post has also tackled with its increase in labeling and visual cues. Connelly said they will often publish the same clip twice, once in its raw state and once in its “fact-checker” state with black edges and accompanying text that explains what’s taking place. That treatment allows the reader to decide how to engage with the videos, Connelly said.
Clary said the differentiation between news and opinion was incredibly clear in a newspaper, but now all types of media are on the “same playing field.” She said publishers can’t count on platforms to differentiate on their behalf and instead must have strong labels for what their content is and for their own individual brands.
“This is such a Flipboard thing — the concept of intersecting design and editorial cues is something that we never thought about when we launched Politico 10 years ago but now is something we think about every day,” Fischer said about Axios.
4. LONG-FORM ARTICLES & VIDEO
As the publisher and media landscape has shifted, so too has the focus on long-form content. We at Flipboard saw this trend rise and adjusted our programming patterns: While we serve readers straight news in the morning and explain that news throughout the day, we then surface long reads and deep dives in the late afternoon, via email and in our app. Those long reads were among the most read stories on our platform last year and lead to a spike in evening readers, especially female readers, hungry for immersive storytelling.
McGrath described the current rush to long form as the “nice backlash to all that snackable content.”
“It’s a joy to flex that muscle again,” she said.
But Connelly wondered if we ever really lost the taste for long-form or if we instead “got so distracted by the promise of short form that we thought people no longer wanted long-form.”
She said the pressure is on the editors, especially when it comes to video, to tell a compelling story that doesn’t drag.
“It can’t be a false promise,” Clary said. “You can’t drag them along with a slide show that doesn’t end anywhere.”
5. DEMOCRATIZING CONTENT
Editors have started listening to readers more, listening to their millennial audiences. It’s why Clary asked Mic readers what questions they wanted asked in Parkland and why she predicted there will be only more “two-way conversations” going forward.
“We can’t keep being this voice of God,” she said. “We have to be open minded…and be willing to shift our assumptions quickly based on that.”
Connelly said the rise of the #TimesUp and #MeToo movements proved there’s a “desire to have the communities affected by stories be the ones leading the coverage.” She pointed to The Lily, the new vertical under The Post umbrella, produced for and by women.
Media companies are listening to their audiences because of data, Fischer said. It has enabled reporters and editors to see niche areas of interest and serve those interests.
“If it weren’t for the advent of being able to understand people’s individual communities, people’s individual groups, I think there would still be a trend of producing journalism from the top down,” Fischer said.
Instead, it’s imperative that editors at “traditional” news organizations, “new” media news organizations and tech companies, like Flipboard, find their audiences, serve their audiences and also push their audiences to more deeply understand the world around them. That’s what millennial audiences demand and it’s what I, as a millennial editor, pledge to do.
There are no uninteresting stories, only uninteresting editors. It’s a good thing a generation of millennial editors are at the helm to guide our consumption. Consider me a proud convert.