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To reach Millennials, publishers have to employ some and listen to them

There aren’t special code words — like sprinkling a few emojis or ICYMIs — that unlock a Millennial readership.

The investment in reaching this demographic starts inside the newsroom. If publications want younger readers, editors should be hiring and empowering Millennial staffers and allowing them to assert some influence in the workplace.

This means making younger hires a respected part of the team — not by excluding more experienced employees, but together with them. The journalists we interviewed listed several ways to make the contributions of younger staffers count.

  • Listen to younger team members for insights into issues that are most relevant to them and have them create content around those insights.
  • Millennials are more diverse than previous generations — reflect these communities back to readers by intentionally working with a racially and ethnically diverse team of editors, writers, and freelancers.
  • Consider bringing Millennials from your audience into the fold as freelancers and discussing the news with them on social media.

Be more relevant to Millennial audiences by listening to your young staff

With so many news sources to choose from, young readers are savvy about following the organizations that have an authentic connection to their lives, and discounting the outlets that pander to or ignore them.

This is why it’s vital to bring Millennial staffers and newer recruits into your discussions about coverage of a particular issue pertaining to their lives and those of their social circles.

“I always had at least three or four interns in the newsroom and I asked their opinion on everything,” says Tran Ha, who led a young newsroom at Chicago’s RedEye and who did a qualitative project on Millennials for her John S. Knight Journalism Fellowship at Stanford last year. “I did it in front of the staff and I made decisions based on their opinions in front of the staff, because those are the people who keep us honest when the job is to make sure that you’re relevant to young people. Very often we’d be discussing a story and I’d turn to them and say, ‘Do you guys know who this is?’”

Work with a diverse team of editors, writers, and freelancers

The Census Bureau recently reported that Millennials are significantly more diverse than previous generations. Employing journalists from different backgrounds has always been important; but these statistics reinforce that to remain relevant in young readers’ worlds, diversity is imperative.

News organizations that authentically reflect non-white perspectives in their coverage are rewarded with audiences hungry for news that mirrors the complexity of their own lives.

This American Life producer Stephanie Foo wrote a detailed manifesto for Transom about engaging journalists of color. In it, Foo writes that “Snap Judgment,” produced by public radio station WNYC, has one of the youngest, most diverse staffs in public radio — which in turn has attracted one of the youngest and most diverse audiences in public radio, a listenership of 2 million total.

Foo stresses the importance of changing what the “ideal” journalism candidate looks like in our collective imaginations — from that of a standard Ivy League graduate to people with strong voices and sharp storytelling skills from backgrounds that connect with an array of different communities.

News organizations that authentically reflect non-white perspectives in their coverage are rewarded with audiences hungry for news that mirrors the complexity of their own lives.

Tasneem Raja, digital producer at Code Switch, NPR’s “younger and browner” hub for conversations on the intersection of race, ethnicity, and culture, suggests creating a pipeline for people of color when they’re still your organization’s youngest recruits.

Code Switch forges those relationships early. Any time there’s an overflow of qualified journalists for a few open internship positions, Raja offers key applicants the chance to write a smaller piece for the site, with a deadline within two to three weeks. Her swift assignments show these young journalists that she’s serious about helping them start their careers. This connection also builds a “binder full of people” for Raja’s team to turn to when looking to fill open positions or find fresh voices to address a topic.

Tony Elkins, assistant managing editor for innovation and engagement at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, similarly empowers younger writers who have passionate feelings about the intersections of race and culture in his city.

He assigned an intern to write about her experience in a multiracial household for Unravel, the paper’s online news platform for young professionals. She was raising a son in a mixed-race relationship and had strong opinions about the lack of diversity in her city, which made for a compelling personal essay.

“You’re used to dancing around the subject of race in Florida,” says Elkins, “and she was like, ‘There are no black people in Sarasota and I hate that for my son. These are the ways I expose him to black people, which is half his heritage.’”

Code Switch’s Raja adds that newsrooms require more than a diverse pool of young writers. They also need editors who have the “insight, context, and background on the communities and voices they’re trying to share.”

This imperative for diversity in employment and news coverage extends beyond race and ethnicity — it includes the full spectrum of personal identifiers such as gender and sexual orientation.

RedEye reports on LGBT topics as part of its everyday coverage, for example, rather than relegating them to their own section. “We included gay perspectives in any dating story or any type of story where it would make sense,” says former editor Tran Ha. “It was part of the overall mix. And that really speaks to the relevance piece because it reflects what people’s friend circles looked like, and the topics and issues they were talking about with each other.”

Bring Millennial writers into the fold through freelancing and social media

Hiring new staff is expensive, but publications can also broaden their pool of Millennial writers while reflecting the diversity of experiences within this demographic by turning readers into contributors. This is especially valuable for organizations with staffing constraints and flexible freelance budgets.

At The Bold Italic, we would regularly read the responses on our stories and on social media and invite people with the most compelling comments to become freelancers. Especially if we noticed something they wrote was generating a strong response from our audience. RedEye has a similarly close relationship with its readers, and editors often ask people who wrote letters to the editor to write columns.

“We really lowered the walls between our newsroom and the public,” says former RedEye editor Tran Ha. “One easy way to create that engagement with the community and with the audience is for them to see people who are not just journalists being published alongside people who are journalists.”

Regardless of whether it’s feasible to turn your readers into writers, you can make them feel like an integral part of your team’s conversations about the news through social media.

Publications can broaden their pool of Millennial writers while reflecting the diversity of experiences within this demographic by turning readers into contributors.

Digital editor Tasneem Raja says Code Switch editors regularly conduct discussions about current events with their followers through social media channels. Her team is very transparent when they’re wresting with a story idea or upcoming radio piece, so they’ll often turn to Twitter to say, “We’re beating our heads against the wall about X thing and we want to hear what you guys have to say about it,” she says.

In one example, writer Kat Chow was grappling with her feelings about a controversial Asian character named Dong on the Netflix series “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” Some viewers reviled for him for his similarity to Hollywood stereotypes of Asian men, others loved him because he was a romantic lead on a prominent show.

Chow went on Twitter, says Raja, to say, “Help me figure out how we feel about this character.” The responses fed into an essay she wrote for Code Switch about placing Dong in the context of Asian American men on TV, which Raja says was a very successful piece.

She says Code Switch’s young audience wants to grasp all the different claims being made in a big news discussion, and these kinds of Twitter conversations map that. “They want to see the full range of opinions or perspectives about a hot topic,” says Raja. “It’s like what people are saying about it feels just as crucial as understanding the issue.”

Millennials also respond best to media outlets when they can engage with the content on a personal level instead of a one-way information flow that shuts them out.

“It goes back to them being very resourceful and being able to filter, so they want to be able to have a hand in either creating what’s out there, or at the very least having some power in the way that they receive it,” Ha says. “You see this reflected in other things like what’s going on with the fast food industry, where a Chipotle is doing a lot better than a McDonald’s. One is a set menu, one is something that you build yourself.”

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