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Embrace a culture of experimentation to find methods of reaching young audiences

In the end, successfully reaching Millennial readers requires a process of continually striving to understand this audience — by empowering younger staffers from diverse backgrounds in your newsroom, by writing in an authentic voice, by creating strong visual components to your content, by meeting their needs for news on busy schedules, by understanding as a team the data you’re receiving about them, and by interacting with your readers on social media and in person.

All of which is more than a Millennial strategy.

These tactics help organizations understand a variety of emerging news consumers. But to get there, management has to foster a culture of egoless discovery inside the newsroom as much as it fosters one for the world outside the office.

“BuzzFeed really thinks of itself as a place that’s embracing experimentation,” says San Francisco Bureau Chief Mat Honan. “The thing is when you’re really risk averse as an organization, that may help you save money short term but it can really hurt you long term.”

We outlined suggestions for innovation in another strategy study but we’re adding specifics for newsrooms targeting a Millennial audience here:

  • Listen to what your team is learning from data and be agile when all signs point to change; demonstrate at a management level that numerous trial-and-error exercises are crucial to success.
  • When you have the opportunity to hire new employees, seek collaborators.
  • Offer your team focused time out from the daily grind so they’re able to connect individual strategies to big picture strategies and prioritize their workloads.

Listen to what your team is learning from the data and be agile

Editor Tony Elkins says Unravel experienced its first major failure early on. The team trusted themselves over the very clear feedback of their audience.

He describes running focus groups for the new publication only to turn around and create the news site his team wanted instead of the one these groups described a need for.

“We listened to them, we took notes, and then we went, ‘Ok, we know what they want’ and we reverted right back to the old gatekeeper model,” he says.

When they brought the focus group back, the audience didn’t like the direction Unravel was moving toward. “They were like, ‘This isn’t what we talked about,’” says Elkins.

We learned our lesson to stop thinking like a newspaper. That is the hardest part of all this — is to stop our institutional thinking.

So the Unravel team started from scratch on the concept for the site. “It was worth it because that was when we started acting like a startup,” he says. “We learned our lesson to stop thinking like a newspaper. That is the hardest part of all this — is to stop our institutional thinking.”

User data shouldn’t lead everything a newsroom does, but savvy editors are using the rich analytics available to shape and iterate content for a generation whose habits and interests can shift quickly.

This change can be off-putting for journalists used to making decisions based solely on decades of experience and not on the data before them. But the direction has to come from the top down that it’s OK to make mistakes, it’s OK to change course, and that sometimes editors don’t know what’s best compared to learnings gleaned from the young readers you’re trying to engage.

It’s a matter of creating those guardrails so your team isn’t experimenting without a learning curve.

“Address your culture first,” says Unravel’s Tony Elkins. “If you don’t give your team the ability to pull this off in the way you think they should, they’re going to fail. Your team has to be confident that they can find out what the problem is, address the problem, and then manage that long term.”

When you have the opportunity to hire new employees, seek collaborators

In an environment where it’s critical to build bridges between departments and much of what can be learned about young audiences is being processed by teams on the fly, having true collaborators in your newsroom makes a huge difference.

Editor Chris Krewson says that BillyPenn looked for team players over alpha reporters when expanding its staff.

He describes putting a call out for writers and then inviting all the candidates into the office at the same time. The thinking wasn’t so much about creating a competitive vibe as it was about finding people who could work on breaking news with a small team with limited space.

“The idea of having the lone wolf reporter wasn’t going to work,” he says. “I need collaborators who can take a handoff and almost be like the same person.”

The two reporters he hired, he says, “started to build on each other’s ideas and they were starting to work in the same direction. You felt the chemistry in a way that really validated the decision.”

Modern journalists need a collaborative attitude for more than just delivering breaking news — this attitude affects your team’s ability to meet your audience’s needs on every level of engagement, from compelling visual content to social strategies to events you may choose to host.

Offer your team focused time out from the daily grind

Valuing experimentation at all levels of editorial and homing in on the collaborators out there are essential components in reaching a young audience. But so is giving a news team time out from the day-to-day during work hours so they can stay connected to the big picture and free up creative brainpower.

Taking a break from routine can be one of the toughest things to do in a climate where competition is fierce and the attention for news is infinite. But newsroom managers need to put the daily grind on hold so journalists have space to consider big new ideas.

The Design Jam experiment mentioned earlier grew of out of a rut-breaking, team-building idea The Bold Italic organized called the Staycation.

The Staycation pulled the Bold Italic team away from our daily activities for a week so we could hear experts in design, digital media, and comedy speak on topics ranging from removing your ego from a critique to moving quickly on new ideas. We also broke out into teams and focused on issues that kept getting buried, like what our Wikipedia page should say or what our writers’ guidelines should be.

Our team had a stressful week leading into Staycation — we had to frontload all our stories in advance and we only had short breaks during Staycation to check in on breaking news. But it was worth sacrificing a dip in one week’s traffic to give the team permission to connect back to our mission of being an evolving, innovative media brand. The Design Jam was just one of many positives to come out of Staycation.

Tech startups often organize similar sorts of daylong activities such as hackathons where employees put regular duties aside to team up and build tools that could end up benefiting the company in the end. Newsrooms don’t block off time for teams to be creative together in this way nearly enough.

Newsroom managers need to put the daily grind on hold so journalists have space to consider big new ideas.

Often there’s only room to add new ideas when you take other things off an employee’s plate.

This is where “Start, Stop, Continue,” a classic analysis tool used to optimize the workplace by identifying low and high value tasks, can be really effective.

We conducted an assessment of our editorial duties at The Bold Italic annually using this process, putting every editorial task onto a Post-It note and then arranging the notes into things we needed to either start, stop, or continue doing but do a little differently. By having these conversations as a team, we were able to eliminate duties that had become deadweights on our workloads without us noticing, and maximize the work that we felt was connected to our success.

These processes can also help teams feel like there is some wiggle room in an industry where workloads are only increasing and young audience habits are constantly shifting. And finally, while Start, Stop, Continue doesn’t relieve a team of all its stressors, it sends the message that the well-being of the staff is being considered, which is vital to convey in an era where management is asking journalists to examine so many new things at once.

However your organization structures the processes through which experimentation can flourish, though, the most important thing is to start making innovation part of your newsroom’s DNA immediately. Everything else your team is creating and your audience is consuming depends on it. Tight budgets aren’t the excuse; this one is all about attitude.

“When you see all these next generation companies that have $50 million to spend, it’s easy to get overwhelmed,” says What’s Trending’s Shira Lazar. “But we need to start having that conversation that even if you don’t have $50 million you can still evolve and innovate. That’s really important.”

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