For the country’s three major broadcast networks, 2005 could have been a landmark year. In the span of only six months, CBS’s Dan Rather, NBC’s Tom Brokaw, and ABC’s Peter Jennings all stepped aside from their evening news anchor desks, opening the door for transformative change at a time when many media critics believed it was desperately needed. Between 1980 and 2004, nightly evening news viewership dropped from 52 million to 27 million — a 48 percent decline — and research suggested that many young viewers were turning away from the broadcast networks altogether. In a 1998 study, for example, Stephen Earl Bennett found that 45 percent of respondents under 30 said they’d watched a TV news show yesterday, compared to 86 percent of people over 30, revealing a generational gap that threatened the long-term viability of broadcast news.
The three broadcast networks might have used this moment of transition to overhaul their formats, or to invite young, edgy news anchors into the roles previously filled by boomers. Instead, the networks played it safe by promoting Elizabeth Vargas, Brian Williams, and Bob Woodruff, three establishment news anchors in their mid-40s, and the evening newscasts continued to lose audience share and relevance, slipping to a record-low 21.4 million nightly viewers by 2010. Viewership has inched upward in recent years, but the future remains foreboding: According to a Pew Research study, the median age of evening news viewers in 2014 was over 50 years old. (By comparison, the average viewer of The Colbert Report that year was only 33.)
The struggle to attract young audiences is not confined to broadcast news. In 2016, the Pew Research Center found that only 5 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds and 10 percent of 30-to-49-year-olds often get news from print newspapers, compared to 48 percent of the 65-and-over demographic. This discrepancy can be largely attributed to a shift from print to digital readership — young audiences were more than twice as likely to get news from websites or apps — but the data revealed that regardless of medium, Millennials and Gen Xers were consuming significantly less news than their older counterparts.
As for the prediction that young Americans would begin consuming more news as they got older, Pew found little evidence to support it: “Today’s younger and middle-aged audience seems unlikely to ever match the avid news interest of the generations they will replace,” the report concluded, “even as they enthusiastically transition to the internet as their principal source of news.”
One popular explanation for this trend is that young people are simply less interested and engaged in public affairs than older generations. It’s hardly an original theory: In a July 1990 cover story, Time sounded the warning about a generation of Americans who “crave entertainment” and have attention spans “as short as one zap of a TV dial.” That article was lamenting the apathy of Gen Xers (who are now in their 40s and 50s), but it just as easily could have been written two decades later about millennials, the most recent target of boomer scorn. As retired Washington Post columnist Robert G. Kaiser wrote for The Brookings Essay (with characteristic disdain): “Today’s young people skitter around the internet like ice skaters, exercising their short attention spans by looking for fun and, occasionally, seeking out serious information. Audience taste seems to be changing, with the result that among young people particularly there is a declining appetite for the sort of information packages the great newspapers provided.”
Kaiser’s critique mirrors the hand-wringing of many industry insiders, who place the blame for legacy journalism’s shrinking reach at the feet of “apathetic” and “disengaged” millennials. However, this argument is increasingly running into conflicting data. For one, although millennials are less likely than older generations to trust the news media in general, that trust gap disappears when examining specific news sources, such as the Daily Show and Politico, which millennials trust in greater proportions than both Gen Xers and baby boomers. Meanwhile, according to a 2015 survey by the Media Insight Project, 85 percent of millennials say keeping up with the news is at least somewhat important to them, and nearly 70 percent consume news daily. “This newest generation of American adults is anything but ‘newsless,’ passive, or civically uninterested,” the report concluded. “Millennials consume news and information in strikingly different ways than previous generations, and their paths to discovery are more nuanced and varied than some may have imagined.”
Rather than disengaging from civic life, it appears millennials may actually be turning off David Muir to start watching John Oliver, Trevor Noah, and Samantha Bee; ditching the Sunday sports section for The Ringer, The Undefeated, and Bleacher Report; trading in newspaper opinion columns for essays on Salon and Slate; and replacing 1,500-word business stories from the Wall Street Journal with a series of 20-word bursts texted to their phones by Quartz. “Today’s young people (the ‘Millennials’) are interested in local, national, and international issues,” Christopher Sopher, a Truman Scholar and news-consuming millennial, wrote for Nieman Lab. “Most news outlets simply aren’t very good at reaching or serving [them].”
In 2015, the American Press Institute outlined a series of best practices for reaching millennial news audiences, which included adopting a more approachable writing voice, investing in visual journalism, and embracing new platforms. These strategies can be seen in operation at digital-era startups like Buzzfeed and Vice, as well as at legacy outlets like the New York Times and the Washington Post, which, recognizing the need to adapt, were quick to hire social media editors, build mobile apps, and experiment with podcasts and other new media formats.
This all bodes well for the future of national media outlets, many of which, after years of uncertainty, appear to be trending toward sustained profitability.
However, the outlook remains less cheerful for another pillar of journalism, local news, where growth and evolution have been largely overshadowed by a different concern: survival.
This article is an excerpt from Reimagining Journalism in a Post-Truth World: How Late-Night Comedians, Internet Trolls, and Savvy Reporters Are Transforming News, forthcoming from Praeger in January 2018. The next installment of this series will address the decline of local journalism amid economic disruption and media corporatization.