Why millennials at The Economist behave like they work for a startup

The Economist: it’s a stuffy publication about stocks and shares. It’s only for people interested in finance and the world of business. Right? As a 25-year-old millennial living on cereal and casual freelance work for local newspapers, I used to think the same.

And I suspect many other millennials may have a similar perception. We’re described as a complex bunch but I think we’re great at a number of things: travelling, celebrating diversity, being curious about the world, and finding new ways to produce and consume news. Somehow, this fits with the 173-year-old ethos of The Economist. Our editor-in-chief asks correspondents to file “mind-stretching journalism for the globally curious” (this mission is a million miles away from my previous work as a local news reporter covering road deaths and school fairs).

Our editor-in-chief understands that one of the ways we can reach more globally curious people is through social media. Being part of The Economist’s social media team is eye-opening: we are a diverse group of nine, seven based in London, one in Hong Kong and another in Washington, DC. We differ in backgrounds, education, ethnicities and, yes, we’re millennials! (With the exception of one, but he’s young at heart.) To quote my Justin Trudeau-loving boss, the social media team at The Economist feels like a startup. What binds us together is a globally curious view and a thirst for presenting news in novel ways beyond the bog standard replication of print. And like all startups, we’re experimenting. We’re making mistakes, our stats are sometimes spiky, and we have up days and down days. The lesson of social media is: there is no magic formula.

As well as taking a millennial attitude in what we do, it’s worth noting that as a media organisation we also know that we need to attract younger audiences into our world of politics, business, science and the arts. So what do we know about them? Firstly, it’s not possible to generalise about “millennials”. The only thing that unites millennials is the accident of their birth: the group is roughly defined as people born between the early 1980s and 2000. On top of that, we can generally say that as a group millennials tend to have more education and greater social freedoms than previous generations. There are 1.8 billion of us — 25% of the world’s population.

It’s not all selfies on social

Secondly, not all of us are endlessly posting selfies on Instagram. We have interests as broad as The Economist’s story slate, and often broader. It is true that young people seldom vote. Does that mean a 25-year-old from London is not interested in Brexit or exclusive interviews with Saudi royalty? On the contrary: political movements about female genital mutilation, women’s rights, workplace ethics, housing, and saving for retirement are often led by the young.

Thirdly, they are smart. As The Economist’s special report on millennials said in January, they are “brainier than any previous generation. Average scores on intelligence tests have been rising for decades in many countries, thanks to better nutrition and mass education”.

My team’s challenge is to convert The Economist’s sharp analysis into posts on social media that reach this demographic. We’re not thinking about second-guessing tastes, but presenting our top-notch journalism in ways that set different senses alight. The many ways we are doing that include Facebook slideshows, which help us to re-tell our stories through captivating images. As someone who browses his Facebook timeline at sonic speed, I can say that bewitching photos and videos stand out. Here’s an example of something cooked up last week in celebration of the Holi festival, full of colour, credits and slides:

Young people are natural innovators. Say what you will about the media — you have to agree that young people will be running journalism in a few years’ time. By integrating a new generation into the fold, the challenge of finding readers is easier to meet. Since The Economist set up an editorial social media team last summer we’ve moved a step closer to our goal of delivering the full breadth of our journalism to the full range of our readers. And yes, that includes articles about business and finance.

Shafi Musaddique is a social media writer at The Economist.