Among younger generations, social media has become an increasingly common and valid way to consume news. Partly this is because younger audiences see that news can be shared (and engaged with) in several different ways: what you should know (obviously), but also what is useful to know, what is interesting to know, and what is fun to know.

Our two penny’s worth: for many people, the way content is being formatted and published is becoming more and more important. Social media highlights the possibilities in using short form, video, interactive elements and alternative formats. For traditional media companies, that should be reason enough to start changing the way they traditionally think about formatting and publishing news.

For starters, here are some compelling findings from the Reuters Digital News Report 2022:

  1. Social media has become the most important source of news for the younger audience.
Main source of news among younger audiences
Source: Reuters Digital News Report 2022

2. A breakdown among the same audience but per social channel shows a clear decline in Facebook but growth in TikTok and Instagram.

News consumption per social channel
Source: Reuters Digital News Report 2022

3. If we take the same graph, but look at all generations, you can see clear differences: smaller decline for Facebook and Twitter, and smaller increase for Instagram and TikTok.

News consumption per channel for all generations
Source: Reuters Digital News Report 2022

4. Text vs. video: watching the news is a way of news consumption that’s more adopted by younger generations than by older generations.

Stats of reading vs watching the news
Source: Reuters Digital News Report 2022

What can we learn from all this?

The internet smashed down traditional news schedules, so now it’s possible (and quite normal) for us all to get news on demand, on whichever platform we happen to be logged into and using at any given time. And the younger audience is the one adopting the new way of news consumption the fastest.

Another report by Reuters outlined this behaviour, and it makes for fascinating reading. Among the findings they report that:

  • 56% of Facebook users say they see (and read) news when they’re on the platform for other reasons
  • 30% of Twitter users who primarily use Twitter for news say they enjoy the debate and comments that go alongside the headlines
  • 43% of Instagram users say they pay most attention to internet celebrities when it comes to news
  • On TikTok, 40% of users under the age of 35 pay most attention to news via internet celebrities.

There’s much else to unpick in that report. We’ve talked before about how newsrooms must sit up, take notice and react to this. Changes in behaviour need to be met with adjustments.

Often, they’re not.

Two (maybe three) things to consider right now

In spite of the frustration, there’s a learning opportunity here that’s ripe for the picking. Newsrooms should consider two things in order to be able to operate across these new[ish] platforms.

  1. The first is timing and channel considerations. There’s always a reason people choose to use TikTok over Twitter, or a newspaper over a news app - and it’s not necessarily down to merit. Often this has to do with timing: what’s available and convenient at the time you need or want the information.
  2. The second is not so much about the danger of fake news or the encroachment by celebrities or Joe Public into this arena as it is about building trust. Really, the two are related.

An understanding about both of these things leads us to this simple conclusion (and the possible third thing): quality content is the thing that will sustain and grow news organisations. And that starts with understanding readers’ motivations for engaging with content elsewhere. The attractiveness of the content (as well as the way follow up content is commissioned and published) and ease of use also determine if your audience is likely to choose TikTok over the paper newspaper, or Twitter over radio.

Why does this matter?

Your news brand needs to become a non-negotiable part of your users’ daily routines and lives. If you can do that, you become essential. And, if you are deemed essential, you’ve also proved you’re valuable. And, if you can do this, you’re much more likely to become financially sustainable because where the quality and relevance of content is on point, people will pay, and keep paying.

So, if the long term plan is building and growing your reader revenue, every incremental step you take now must support that.

Be where your audience are

Where are you publishing? When? Is your strategy an everywhere-at-once approach? Or, do you take a more nuanced view?

If you want your articles, videos, podcasts or whatever other content you produce to get the traction it deserves you need to fall into the latter camp.

  • A few years ago Buzzfeed tried an experiment. They realised that people were reading stuff at the bus stop, as part of their daily commute, so they sent their journalists to a literal bus stop to make content. The idea being that if you can appreciate the environment, the distractions, and the window of time available you’re going to be more able to write to suit that ‘news moment’. People at the bus stop - literally or metaphorically - are in a hurry, easily distracted - and it’s a noisy environment. Seeing all that in front of you might make you think twice about how you approach content. Automatic audio playback is probably not as useful as subtitles, for example. Something that’s super short form, in a larger font likely makes for a better mobile experience. Maybe serving better recommendations so the reader would be able to dive deeper into topics that interest them (when they’ve got more time) would help too.

What is user behaviour telling you about your own output?

Build trust, not clicks

So, Reuters tells us that people are often more likely to follow or engage with internet celebrities. The question is, why?

In the office recently we heard a radio discussion about the decline of soaps. There's a theory that they’re disappearing because that itch is being scratched elsewhere: by people like Kim Kardashian and her family on places like Instagram and TikTok.

Those celebrities or individuals appear to be more relatable and real. There’s something of the confessional about the direct-to-camera style of TikTok videos that makes users feel part of the conversation or community. That’s quite a different feeling to watching someone behind a news desk, reading from a teleprompter.

Perhaps people are experiencing news fatigue? Or maybe there’s been so much ‘update me’ news that readers have become switched off from legacy publishers and are looking for a different approach to news sharing.

  • We spent much of 2021 working on a research project about news consumption, using the user needs framework first popularised by Dmitry Shishkin at BBC Worldwide. Our work together showed that newsrooms tend to overproduce ‘update me’ news, while other needs often generate better engagement. Every newsroom and news brand is unique, and it’s time well spent looking at what the best and more efficacious balance is for you. Trust comes from having needs met, and now it’s possible to see what’s working where (and how it’s working), it seems silly to ignore that golden nugget.

What does quality content mean for your audience?

Social media, the rise of the influencer, celebrity commentator or citizen journalist isn’t a blip. It marks a shift in the relationship news provider and audience. Instead of fretting about poached traffic or users, it’s helpful to employ what the Dutch call ‘Omdenken’ (flip thinking). What is user behaviour (and the change of that behaviour) telling us about your own output? What are they getting from that TikTok user that they’re not getting from you?

What’s going on on TikTok is worth paying attention to - even if you’re not currently using that platform. Success there is linked to clever visuals, succinct storytelling and ‘realness’. An ‘image first’ approach to producing content for younger generations should therefore be a no-brainer.

Traditional new organisations may find adopting these newer formats challenging. Perhaps there aren’t the people or teams in place to own those tasks yet. Perhaps it also hasn’t been a priority.

It’s not always going to be possible - or even desirable - to cover all bases, but as Yogi Berra famously said:

If you don't know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else.

yogi berra

Yogi Berra Famous baseball player