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The best practices for reaching a Millennial audience

The long-term viability of media companies today depends on understanding Millennials — a massive, influential demographic that grew up connected to the Internet, social platforms, and smart devices.

This generation, tethered to the world through technology, has developed digital routines that directly affect how they consume and share news. Younger readers have expectations about the reliability, tone, transparency, sharability, and relatability of the content they engage with.

Newsrooms must meet and build upon these expectations to captivate a generation that is shaping everything from the workplace to politics, pop culture, and media. This study explores, in practical detail, how to do that.

Millennial readers present an opportunity for publishers, not just a new set of challenges. A study we conducted with Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research as part of the Media Insight Project confirms a growing field of research showing that Millennials are interested in staying up on the world around them, despite stereotypes to the contrary.

Eighty-five percent of the Millennials surveyed said keeping up with the news was at least somewhat important to them, while 69 percent get news daily. They’re just doing it on their own terms, with a broad definition of what the word “news” means to them. And they’re craftily filtering information from multiple sources and social networks instead of sitting down with their cup of coffee and the local paper in the morning.

In this best practices Strategy Study, we interpret findings from the Media Insight Project studies on Millennials and the news and the four different types of Millennial news consumers, and interview over a dozen leaders in Millennial media. Interviewees included researchers, editors at national outlets, and people leading initiatives that legacy media use to reach younger audiences such as The Chicago Tribune’s RedEye, The Charlotte Observer’s CharlotteFive, and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune’s Unravel.

This information was supplemented with my own experience at Gannett’s San Francisco publication The Bold Italic, where I worked as editor-in-chief until Gannett closed the company and sold off the assets earlier this year. A fellow researcher, Ellen Black, also conducted qualitative interviews with Millennials for this study and quotes from those conversations appear throughout the report.

Key findings

As you work to serve these digital natives better, you will also be developing new skills and standards that will benefit all your audiences. You also will create a foundation of innovative thinking that encourages experimentation and iteration to keep adapting to rapidly changing media consumption — not only for the Millennial generation, but for generations to come.

We identified nine key strategies for journalists and publishers who want to reach this young audience, and in the chapters that follow we explore each of them and provide practical guidance:

Employ Millennials 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.”

Develop an approachable writing voice

“Sometimes with longer news events that have a larger scope, I’ll learn about them through The Daily Show or some other outlet that I use more as a curatorial news source, and then I’ll seek out harder facts about it from more legitimate news sources.”
— Oliver, age 29, San Francisco

As Millennials come to much of their news and information through personal conversations and social feeds, they expect news content in a tone that feels at home in that conversational space.

Young consumers will follow media brands expressing relevant perspectives with an approachable tone. Journalists become trusted guides for leading audiences through the saturated media landscape, for example, if they broadcast strong opinions or a sense of humor, share a similar background, prove their credibility through their reporting, report on matters that intersect with their readers’ lives, or interact with their audiences on social platforms.

Prateek Sarkar, former managing director of user experience research for The New York Times, says that Vice repeatedly came up in his studies on Millennials and the news. The media brand has become a news guide for millions of young consumers.

“What [Millennial interview subjects] were really talking about was an unfiltered and unvarnished presentation that appealed to them. They liked the freshness Vice brought, as opposed to the more staid traditional media presentation that they’re used to,” he says.

This doesn’t mean media companies should suddenly copy Vice’s irreverent tone. Vice Co-Founder Shane Smith explained to The Guardian in 2014 the failure that happens when big media companies all chase the same stories with similar approaches.

“The problem with the news cycle today and the news media in general,” he told The Guardian, “is that it’s kindergarten [kids] playing soccer. The ball goes over here, everyone goes over here. The ball goes over there, everyone goes over there.”

Vice’s success has come in large part because the editors are adamant about finding unique stories or bringing uncommon perspectives to stories, says Sterling Proffer, general manager of Vice News.

Our research for this study found that each news organization should cultivate its own voice, with some critical factors in mind:

  • Define the void not being met by other media outlets and own that niche in your coverage.
  • Allow the opinions and personalities of your writers and editors to come through in their stories and in their social media interactions wherever possible.
  • Avoid a condescending tone by addressing important issues within specific life stages of the larger Millennial generation and by treating emerging trends for younger audiences with journalistic respect.
  • Discuss audience data as a team and constantly calibrate your offerings for a readership with swiftly changing interests.

Define the void not being met by other media outlets and own that niche in your coverage

Gannett launched The Bold Italic in 2009 to fill a regional niche. The site was founded by the company’s then head of innovation, Michael Maness, who partnered with human-centered design firm IDEO to research what San Franciscans wanted in a local publication.

The answer? They craved personality.

They didn’t want some critic up on high talking down to them about what was happening in their city, they wanted stories by people who came off like well-informed friends.

And so The Bold Italic became a chorus of voices discussing what was happening around town, giving readers inside intel on the city (nicknamed “winning at dinner” moments), and sharing frustrations about things happening around us — with a healthy dose of comedy, since humor is integral in a city with multiple costumed foot races and satirical political protests.

Identifying and tracking the tone and topics that resonate with a younger audience in your region is important.

Identifying and tracking the tone and topics that resonate with a younger audience in your region is important. At The Bold Italic, that meant keeping up with issues like living with roommates, dealing with student debt, and riding public transportation.

Chris Krewson, editor of Philadelphia’s Millennial-focused Billy Penn, says his newsroom avoids stories about nursing homes and pensions and focuses on topics like rideshare and bike share companies, as well as “secret Philly” behind-the-scenes coverage. BillyPenn also features a series called “Who’s Next” that showcases the upcoming generation of community leaders.

At RedEye, former editor Tran Ha says the focus is on “the Chicago experience” as lived by a resident in their 20s, meaning pieces about bike paths, crime and safety, and early career issues.

At CharlotteFive, they practice what The Charlotte Observer’s Innovations Editor Jennifer Rothacker describes as “Seinfeld journalism,” or “what people are going to talk about around the water cooler,” such as the city’s worst intersections or most atrocious parking lots.

Each publication needs to find its own niche, to consider the needs of the young audiences in their readership, and to develop strong storytelling around those themes.

Allow the opinions and personalities of your writers and editors to come through in their stories and social media interactions wherever possible

Consider the popularity of the nightly newscaster, the morning talk show host, or the opinion page columnist in attracting a following dedicated to that person’s understanding of the news, opinions, and overall character.

In the modern media landscape, where young audiences may get news from friends in their social groups as often as they do from a traditional outlet, amplifying the personalities of your journalists helps amplify your media brand.

Personal essays, opinion pieces, humor pieces, and experiential stories all immediately intertwine the reader with the personality of the writer, as do stories that really target important issues in younger readers’ lives. Having reporters engage in conversations with readers on social media is another opportunity to make that connection.

There are so many different ways journalists can offer readers a sense of the real people behind the reporting, the key is to make sure your newsroom is taking advantage of them.

Editor Corey Inscoe says that all writing associated with CharlotteFive is purposely informal so the reader’s friendly association with the organization is threaded across stories, newsletters, and events. “[Editor] Katie [Toussaint] and I have to make ourselves personalities,” he says. “We put our faces in the newsletter, we’re on Twitter, we do events, and people come see us. We wanted to be like, ‘Here we are, we’re having a conversation with you each morning and letting you know what’s going on around Charlotte.’ People connect with that more than just a byline that doesn’t have any voice to it.”

Avoid a condescending tone by addressing important issues for specific life stages of Millennials and by treating emerging trends with respect

Being relevant is about more than writing style, it’s about framing the topics and explaining the details in a way that doesn’t condescend to the reader. So while not every article merits personal voice, every story should show readers that your journalists understand the subtleties of a young audience’s interests at various stages in their lives.

This BuzzFeed feature about Vine and YouTube personalities who tour the country like rock stars is a strong example of considering the reader. BuzzFeed’s San Francisco Bureau Chief Mat Honan says they recognized the subject matter was perfect for their demographic. But in the reporting, journalist Ellen Cushing also treated the popularity of these video stars with respect.

“It would’ve been easy to go in and say, ‘Look at these kids, they’re famous for nothing, isn’t that funny, ha ha.’ But Vine stars are as big as the Beatles now,” says Honan. “You dismiss them with the same peril that you dismiss the Beatles. So we are aware of [the fact that] these trends are big with younger people.”

Another important point when addressing a younger audience — don’t refer to them as Millennials. Doing so discounts the nuances between the life stages within the demographic and risks turning off your audience.

Every story should show readers that your journalists understand the subtleties of a young audience’s interests at various stages in their lives.

Former RedEye editor Tran Ha says to keep in mind there’s as much as a 20-year age difference between Millennials, which means there are a number of demographic segments that may not even relate to one another.

“As much as possible, unless you’re doing a story about generational change, don’t label the whole generation,” she says. “If you’re talking about workers in their early 20s, say ‘workers in their early 20s.’ If you’re talking about young parents in their 30s, call them that. It doesn’t help organizations to connect with that audience when they’re being lumped in with a bunch of other people that have nothing to do with where they are in their lives.”

Breaking out Millennials into more defined age groups also helps in understanding their behavior around and connection to the news.

In this typology of young news consumers, we divided Millennials into four distinct segments based on life stages and media consumption habits. We were able to discover that, for example, over half of The Explorers (18-24 year olds who actively seek out news) said they follow the news because of the connection it gives them to their community. Activists (25-34 year olds with established careers who actively seek out news) have a positive association with local news — making these audience groups strong candidates for targeted regional stories.

These sorts of findings, together with the study’s discoveries about the topics most important in each life stage, can help editors make decisions about the types of content to experiment with.

Discuss audience data as a team and calibrate your offerings for swiftly changing interests

When you’re engaging a younger audience, it’s important to understand that things change in their lives very quickly. Your content should reflect these shifting interests and expectations. “What’s relevant this year might not be relevant next year so don’t get too attached to your initiative or your beats and be able to be more fluid,” says former RedEye editor Tran Ha.

Big economic changes, for example, affect how younger residents who may have just found their footing in their careers and their housing situations are able to keep living in a city. Both RedEye and The Bold Italic started out doing aspirational stories focusing on a more affluent urban lifestyle. When the recession hit Chicago and the tech boom divided San Francisco economically, the content moved towards rent affordability and budget-conscious activities.

If you have staffers, interns, and freelancers who are living these changes, and editors regularly involve them in brainstorming sessions, you’ll have a better connection to the conversations writers should be covering in your content.

Given the transient nature of younger readers’ interests over time, journalists should also be discussing the metrics they’re receiving from their content across platforms as a team and calibrating their offerings accordingly.

Step one is giving everyone on the editorial team access to your analytics. Once the data starts rolling in, it can be challenging to figure out what it means. The answers aren’t in performance metrics for individual posts as much as they’re in the narrative the analytics tell over time, and it helps to tease out that narrative as a team.

Angie Aker, the sponsored sections editor at Upworthy as well as a writer for the site, says that Upworthy’s editorial staff sharpens its sense of what works and what doesn’t through a mix of analytics and journalistic judgment.

“A staff needs to share learnings as they come across them. It’s just ‘anec-data’ as we call it,” she says. “In order to prove it’s a rule you have to do longitudinal studies on it, which isn’t always possible. But trying to bring that in for editorial judgment and share it with your colleagues is important. It’s like trying to find your way together in the dark.”

Journalists should also be discussing the metrics they’re receiving from their content across platforms as a team and calibrating their offerings accordingly.

At The Bold Italic, we had weekly anec-data meetings as an editorial team. We broke down the main themes of the content we covered on the site into “arcs” — everything from urban development and gender identity to food and “cool things happening in the sky.” There were around 20 arcs in all, divided across four junior and senior editors, and those editors charted all the stories that fell under their arcs by pageviews.

We met weekly to discuss the high and low performing stories and what we thought was the secret to the articles’ successes or failures. From there we fine-tuned our larger understandings about the arcs. We had these meetings with our interns and photography fellow, everyone who created content for us in house, so everyone knew how to pitch and post the strongest stories.

We made informed decisions about our content from these granular discussions, phasing out fringe arcs that didn’t perform well over time, and staying on beats that soared. Together we made every component of every story count.

Tyson Evans, editor for newsroom strategy at The New York Times, says the Times is working on giving its journalists a keen understanding of who the audience is for their stories by digging into the reading habits and knowledge depth of their audience.

In the case of a reporter covering a political debate, for example, informed writers can ask themselves questions like, “Am I writing for the audience that watched the debate an hour ago, or watched it live?” Or is the audience for a story the people who are watching the debates the next morning, “who are much more interested to have a retrospective telling with added context and analysis?” Evans adds that the answers to these questions lead to very different stories that the same reporter could write.

Speaking a common metrics language means a team can efficiently and intelligently hone its offerings. Giving ownership of those analytics to everyone on the team empowers them to take responsibility for the success of the content together and allows them to be responsive to the needs of a younger readership in real time.

Use visual journalism to stand out on social media

In our study of Millennial news habits, we found that, while there are many pathways to news for young news consumers, social media plays a preeminent role.

Looked at as a whole, 88 percent of Millennials get news from Facebook, 83 percent look to YouTube, and 50 percent stays current through Instagram. These are overwhelmingly visual platforms, where a strong graphic goes a long way in inspiring a reader to share or comment on a story.

You don’t get something like [Snow Fall] without a connection between the people who know how to build new experiences and sketch out new experiences being right next to the people who are reporting.

Dissolving the barriers between the editorial, art, and tech departments in a newsroom helps inspire provocative new story forms that transcend the page as they move across the social networks that younger audiences are populating.

Tyson Evans, editor for newsroom strategy at The New York Times, says there’s a pressing need to understand how to build, tweak, and attempt new forms of storytelling for a digitally native audience. “Snow Fall” became a verb largely because it was the first time words, longform narrative, and multimedia were welded together in a way that hadn’t been done before,” he says. “You don’t get something like that without a connection between the people who know how to build new experiences and sketch out new experiences being right next to the people who are reporting.”

Newsrooms can increase their output of visually rich stories using the following key tactics:

  • Instigate lightweight experiments that remove barriers between the design, editorial, and tech departments and locate these departments in close proximity to one another if possible.
  • If your newsroom doesn’t have a budget for developers or engineers, management could consider bringing people from the local tech community inside your organization under the umbrella of fellowships and innovation labs focused on pairing journalists with engineers.

Instigate lightweight experiments that remove barriers between the design, editorial, and tech

The Bold Italic’s visual editor produced some of our most successful content. Her stories about a 4-year-old kid food reviewer or “SF Rent vs. The Rest of the U.S. Told With Food” garnered such positive reactions from our audience in part because the playful photographic components easily translated across Instagram, Facebook, Tumblr, and Pinterest.

But we weren’t content to have all our graphically striking content come from one editor, so we strove to encourage our editorial and art teams to think collectively about new story formats. To that end, we instituted a two-month experiment called the “Design Jam” where once a week the editorial and design teams met first thing in the morning and were required to have a visual reaction to a trending topic live on the site by lunchtime.

These forced parameters were challenging at first, but they eventually got both teams to loosen up and test talents outside their assumed skill sets. Most importantly, Design Jams got us into the habit of turning rapid brainstorming into rapid content creation. The stories we created in these sessions often became the most popular content of the day, encouraging us to use our design-editorial brains more often.

Laura Ramos, The Bold Italic’s former executive producer and Gannett’s former VP of innovation & design, took the Design Jam concept back to Gannett as an example of a lightweight exercise that eases crippling perfectionism and helps test new formats for timely visual content.

Tap the local tech community through fellowships or innovation labs

An increasing number of digital media companies are consciously co-mingling their newsrooms with outside technologists in an attempt to create more compelling content.

BuzzFeed launched its Open Lab Fellowship this year, offering six tech-savvy makers competitive stipends and desks in its San Francisco office for one to two years. The fellows are tasked with creating new journalism aids, getting those tools to the prototyping stage, and then releasing them as open source. The lab is adjacent to the newsroom and the fellows will work directly with the news team.

Even before Open Lab, though, BuzzFeed’s San Francisco Bureau Chief Mat Honan says reporters worked closely with their technologist counterparts. “Not only can they contribute to what we do on the backend, but they can do things like look at a story we’re doing about data and say, ‘No, you know, you’re missing the point on this.’ Or they’ve come up with clever little hacks that have improved our ability to be reporters.” He gives an example of a tool one engineer built that captures tweets even if the user behind them deletes their controversial Twitter account.

We’ve mentioned already the digital native’s expectation to participate or interact with content on some level. Having people in a newsroom who understand how to create an audience experience around data can lead to viral content such as the New York Times’ dialect quiz.

Having people in a newsroom who understand how to create an audience experience around data can lead to viral content such as the New York Times’ dialect quiz.

So where do newsrooms find technologists interested in helping create rich content experiences? Drone journalism innovator Ben Kreimer, BuzzFeed’s Open Lab beta fellow, suggests media organizations look to grassroots groups like Hacks/Hackers, which bring together members in fields ranging from media to engineering in cities around the globe, to find fellows of their own. “Journalism organizations should start drawing from beyond the field of journalism, and in the fields of new media art, engineering, virtual reality, [and] the maker community,” he says.

You don’t need BuzzFeed’s enviable funding to create a hub for new technology in your organization. The New York Daily News’ Innovation Lab is proof that a media company can involve the local tech community in its newsroom without taxing its budget.

Run part time by the Daily News’ General Counsel Cyna Alderman, the Innovation Lab brings in one startup at a time to work alongside reporters. Nieman Lab reports that Alderman focuses on small companies that are creating tools for journalists, and allows them the opportunity to test their work in real time with Daily News reporters in return for giving the publication 5 percent equity in the startup.

Regardless of whether your newsroom has the capacity to go deep with data-rich content or can currently only handle experimenting with the pictorial components to articles, it’s important to aim for graphics-driven storytelling for an audience that makes sense of the news on overwhelmingly visual platforms.

Make room for new products and startup units

From Gannett to The Charlotte-Observer, The Chicago Tribune, and The Sarasota Herald-Tribune, legacy media companies are seeing value in creating lightweight, startup-style spinoffs that approach voice, content, revenue, and distribution from fresh perspectives, earning strong Millennial followings along the way.

By positioning The Bold Italic, CharlotteFive, RedEye, and Unravel as independent brands, these media companies gave small teams permission to reach new audiences without the entrenched routines and expectations that come with an established organization.

As the journalists we interviewed are proving in their newsrooms, legacy startups can be excellent ways to target a very specific audience, build a new culture of innovation and experimentation from scratch, involve young editors at a more senior level, and allow room for the kind of trial and error that a more traditional organization may have difficulty achieving.

If you are part of a legacy newsroom that’s considering a Millennial-focused spin-off, the following are important keys to success:

  • Parent companies should allow these spinoffs to establish unique Millennial identities and related processes separate from the larger organization.
  • Consider locating the new team in the middle of the newsroom so the larger company can share story ideas and be infected by a spinoff’s sensibility.
  • Support from leadership at the umbrella organization is vital, not only in the initial phase but as significant positions need to be filled over time.

Parent companies should allow these spinoffs to establish unique Millennial identities and related processes

None of the new media spin-offs mentioned above deny their corporate connections, but only RedEye is explicitly connected to its parent company. There’s a reason for that semi-independence — to allow the startup to be judged by its audience on its own merits.

Editor Tony Elkins says the Sarasota Herald-Tribune learned from focus groups that if Unravel became little more than a Millennial marketing wing of the larger paper, they’d lose everybody right off the bat.

“[Younger readers] would not have anything to do with us because they know the Herald-Tribune proper didn’t have their voice in mind,” he says. “The point of not advertising [the connection] was to say, ‘This is for you.’ It has to be its own product so people know that we’re speaking to them.”

Millennial-focused spinoffs often start small, generally with between two and five staffers at launch. But even with limited resources, the initiatives thrive when employees are allowed room to experiment, and to learn from their failures as much as their successes.

Innovations Editor Jennifer Rothacker says CharlotteFive editors were allowed to go outside the Charlotte Observer’s content management system and use a more agile WordPress site, and to be creative with the newsletter content by using MailChimp over the company’s standard vendor.

[Millennial-focused initiatives] thrive when employees are allowed room to experiment, and to learn from their failures as much as their successes.

These sorts of allowances are creating a buzz around the newsroom, she says. “To get things through a big corporation you have to go through channels, and we were given permission to go off on our own, hire a designer, get it out there fast, and then we put our tracking codes on it,” she says.

The successes of legacy spin-offs can be templates for the larger organizations as well.

Rothacker says the Observer has created an environment where the CharlotteFive team has the freedom to try “crazy things.” The standalone publication, which officially debuted earlier this year, has already produced results that help the Observer.

“The newsletter is so big we’re now looking at other newsletters that the paper offers,” Rothacker says. “We’re thinking, what could we do with those to make them more must-have? We actually just did that with our Carolina Panthers newsletter; we added more voice.”

Small teams are by nature more nimble, with fewer schedules to coordinate for meetings, fewer approval bottlenecks, and the room to take ownership of whatever your mistakes are teaching you.

“Being at a small organization, especially doing something new, it keeps you really flexible,” says Sarah Frank, executive producer at NowThis, a venture-backed startup that publishes only on social networks, aggregating the video news of the day. “We can change direction in a day, whereas at a larger company it can take a week to set the meeting to have the conversation to start something to change.”

Consider locating the new team in the middle of the newsroom

Ideally a legacy startup becomes an idea lab for the larger company, with its successes and failures informing the company as a whole. Locating this spinoff within the traditional newsroom means journalists working for both the standard and Millennial-focused organizations can share approaches, resources, and values as a news team.

Tasneem Raja, the digital editor for Code Switch, says NPR strategically located her team in the center of the digital newsroom, in a place people from other departments are constantly walking by.

Their physical location, she says, sets the tone that the Code Switch staff could “infect the rest of the newsroom” with the ethos of the stories her editors are trying to tell. By being a central part of the open office, Raja says Code Switch is able to suggest story ideas to other teams (and vice versa), talk about why her writers approached a story a certain way, and generally become part of the mix so people in the larger organization know they’re around.

“Our job is to talk to everybody,” she says, “and bring some of our sensibility to the rest of NPR’s DNA.”

Support from leadership is vital initially, and to support growth over time

One of the challenges of legacy startups is that they don’t have the backing of venture capitalists, so they’re often sharing personnel resources with the rest of the company.

The heads of these spinoffs often double as the innovation leads. There’s risk of burnout — or losing key players — if there isn’t the financial support to grow the team when needed.

“You have these people who are doing two jobs but are being held to the standards of people doing one,” says Unravel’s Tony Elkins. “Until newsrooms start to break out teams and solely focus on these projects, I don’t think you’re going to see true innovation because people are just burned out. Until you figure out how to manage this strain you’re not going to be successful.”

Engage with Millennials on the platforms they're on

“Any time there is a reporter on Periscope that goes live, I will tune in. It’s raw and unedited and unscripted and usually has a more personal perspective. You’re getting the closest you can and there’s no time limitation on interviews. It leaves time for emotion, and a real story. Not a story as a reporter sees it or as a news company sees it, but as the people experiencing it see it, which has been lost from news for the better part of the century.”
— Ben, age 30, San Francisco

Most media companies know by looking at their analytics that the days of audiences coming straight to a homepage are rapidly disappearing.

Prateek Sarkar’s research for The New York Times showed that even with national brands such as the Times and BuzzFeed, Millennial readers visited stories through the filter of social media.

He says his user experience research team put together a video for the Times newsroom showing interviewers asking Millennial subjects, “When was the last time you went to the homepage of a news site?”

The response from younger readers? “There were a lot of blank stares and a lot of those, ‘I don’t even understand the question’ reactions,” Sarkar says.

Millennials stay connected to current events through personalized social media feeds from their favorite sources. Newsrooms ignore these networks at their peril. Social media is more than a marketing tool; it’s the way digital natives make sense of the world.

As mentioned in an earlier section, our study of Millennial news habits found that digital natives are starting primarily with Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram. These habits become more specific if you look at younger Millennials (who use an average of four social platforms) versus older ones (who average three).

Millennials stay connected to current events through personalized social media feeds from their favorite sources. Newsrooms ignore these networks at their peril.

“For most Millennials,” the study’s authors report, “the way they learn about the world is a blend of actively seeking out some news and information and bumping into other information as they do other things throughout their day. Many of their encounters with news occur online.”

In short, publications need to be distributing work on social media and making their work highly shareable, so it is among the news that Millennials “bump into.”

Social networks also double as valuable sources for reporters looking for news tips, trending topics, and breaking stories. Following the most popular content creators on each network offers a sense of the nuances of engagement there too. Editorial teams should be connecting with readers on social media as well, engaging in conversations as time permits while connecting with readers on their turf.

The experts and examples we studied show that even newsrooms with limited resources should be crafting and improving upon a social media strategy that fits the organization, focusing on these key factors:

  • Experiment with different strategies for social content by platform.
  • Don’t be late trying to understand how a social network works long after your audience and your competitors have made it second nature.
  • Hand responsibility for specific social networks to employees personally engrossed in the nuances of engagement there.
  • Use social media to cover breaking news and events in new ways, or to offer the public behind the scenes perspectives.

Experiment with different strategies for social content by platform

The first step in making sure your organization has a compelling social media presence is realizing each platform has a different value for its user.

The editors we interviewed generally found that their audiences currently go to Twitter for breaking news, to Facebook for more emotional content and graphic-heavy videos, to Pinterest and Instagram for visually-focused stories (think interior design and outdoor lifestyle), and to YouTube for a more raw, intimate reporting style.

So editors should be tailoring the content strategy for each network, and then testing how those approaches are working.

Sarah Frank, executive producer at NowThis, says editors should be asking questions like, “Is this a platform where you go to share, or where you just want to look and observe?” and “How do we use the platform and how do our users use it?”

Understanding these kinds of nuances between networks helps ensure that your engagement on a platform feels authentic.

Don’t be late trying to understand how a social network works

As editors decide which social networks to spend energy on, first consider where you will reach the most valuable people. Who you reach is more important than direct measures of monetization and referral traffic — at least at first.

“We have to be on Snapchat because that’s where our fans are, so if we want to keep learning about them and keep up with them, we have to be where they are,” says Jennifer Corbett, vice president of audience development and marketing for Discovery’s Millennial-focused Discovery Digital Networks. “Snapchat could be super big and if you aren’t on it and you’re trying to catch up and learn the platform, it’s too late. You’re already lost in the market.”

She adds that gaining a foothold in these platforms now means that when they are monetizable, media companies that innately understand how they operate will be top players.

NowThis’ Sarah Frank says for her team, reach is the metric that “lifts everything.”

Who you reach is more important than direct measures of monetization and referral traffic — at least at first.

“On Instagram there is no actual ‘share’ feature, but we notice tons of our users tagging their friends in the comments,” she says, “and we think it’s a great signal that something resonated so much with our audience that they wanted to tag a friend.”

Enterprise stories should move across as many platforms as possible, with editors targeting the relevant visual or emotional or newsy piece that caters to that specific medium.

This was the case for New York magazine’s groundbreaking cover story on Bill Cosby; after the website got hacked, the editorial team was forced to publish relevant pieces of content across Instagram, Tumblr, and Twitter, and they discovered a new strategy for enterprise stories in hindsight. By preparing your approach in advance, you can capitalize on social media audiences even further.

Former User Experience Researcher Prateek Sarkar says the New York Times editorial team wasn’t just launching its expose on nail salons into the world and hoping it would go viral. For enterprise stories like that one, audience engagement teams identify influencers and communities for whom a particular story will be important and make sure as the piece comes out, they are publishing it to those targeted groups. Reporters should be very active on social media discussing enterprise stories and having a dialog with readers.

Hand responsibility for specific social networks to employees personally engrossed in them

Discovery Digital Networks’ Jennifer Corbett describes handing over the company’s involvement on Reddit to a 19-year-old on her team because he’s immersed with the platform on an organic level. “Not many news places would hire a 19-year-old,” she says. “But I’d rather have someone who knows the audience super well and knows the content and can speak the language.”

This works even when your editorial team is tiny. Unravel operates with “two or three people,” says Tony Elkins, making it tough to create a robust social strategy. Yet he understands the importance of giving the publication a presence on platforms popular with a Millennial audience, so Unravel’s Instagram feed is managed by a photographer, for example.

If you’re going to have a large social footprint, let the people who love those platforms work on the content.

”She’s a Millennial who’s kind of my deputy editor at Unravel, but she also manages Instagram because she’s a photographer who gets it,” says Elkins.

At both NowThis and the Millennial news and culture site Mic, the newsrooms are full of people who spend much time on social platforms.

“Everyone in our newsroom is active on Twitter and Facebook and Tumblr and Snapchat and all these different apps,” says Slade Sohmer, director of editorial strategy at Mic. “It’s not a situation where someone wakes up and says, ‘We should really do something on Snapchat.’ We know this stuff so well and our newsroom is really made up of people who actually have to go out of their way to not see this stuff.”

“If you’re going to have a large social footprint, let the people who love those platforms work on the content,” says NowThis’ Sarah Frank.

Use social media to cover breaking news or offer behind the scenes perspectives

NPR’s Social Media Desk recently documented how it successfully turned a story about drought in Australia into content for Snapchat, with behind the scenes snaps viewed by 8,800 people in 24 hours. The social team also temporarily changed NPR’s Twitter avatar to its Snapchat icon in order to drive awareness to its account, adding hundreds of new Snapchat followers in the process.

Another recent example of successful experimentation: a journalist for the German newspaper Bild humanized the Syrian refugee crisis by using Periscope to report on people fleeing Syria. The Guardian reports that Paul Ronzheimer used the live-streaming app to offer an unvarnished look at the communities he was crossing from Greece through Europe with, and to take questions from viewers in real time.

Ronzheimer’s Periscope footage also became content on other mediums for Bild — he turned it into video clips, and his news team mined those clips for screenshots that could accompany his stories.

We do a lot of research at newspapers, because we’re reporters, and sometimes we analyze things too much instead of taking a risk and doing it.

The editors we interviewed have conducted numerous experiments in social content, including covering big events and festivals via Snapchat; streaming protests, private media events, and going behind the scenes with their sports teams and newsrooms via Periscope; and reporting on a new public transportation option in a humorous YouTube video.

Editor Corey Inscoe says when Charlotte installed a new streetcar, CharlotteFive decided the best way to inform its audience was to film his co-editor racing the streetcar and post the clip to YouTube. “We thought, I wonder if Katie can beat it, so we just tried it,” he says. “And that one did really well. The streetcar was an example of something that everyone knew was opening but [we had] a fun, interesting new angle,” he says.

In the end, the key is to get social and editorial teams out there experimenting.

“We do a lot of research at newspapers, because we’re reporters,” says Unravel’s Tony Elkins, “and sometimes we analyze things too much instead of taking a risk and doing it.”

Shira Lazar, co-founder & host of the live YouTube series What’s Trending, says successful media companies have shifted their social strategies from being driven by executives to working off the feedback and responses they’re noticing from the consumers and communities using these networks. “When you see something that works, be quick to move toward that thing,” she says. “Leave your ego at the door because this space it rewards people that are curious, creative, and collaborative.”

Create content readers can consume on the go

“People read the news beyond just wanting to know what’s going on in the world; [it also] has to do with keeping up with their peers. I want to know what’s going on because it almost feels like a disservice to the people I’m hanging out with to not be aware of what’s going on.”
— Will, age 23, San Francisco

In our research on Millennials and the news we found that nearly all of them — 94 percent of those surveyed — have smartphones with Internet connections.

These devices are constellations of information, and are often the first point of contact a digital native will have with your content. It’s vital that your articles and visual elements translate well on a smartphone.

Millennial audiences are often roving consumers, both physically and between sites, platforms, and services. Newsrooms are mapping their content creation, delivery, and distribution to these mobile consumption habits by implementing these key practices:

  • Make sure the mobile experience with your content is seamless.
  • Work off the assumption that Millennials have information FOMO (“Fear Of Missing Out”) and cater your offerings to their need to miss nothing in the news worlds they orbit.
  • Consider smaller bits of content — limited bursts of breaking news as it’s happening, links to other publications’ stories — ensuring that your organization becomes a trusted source for everything your readers need to know at any given moment.
  • Consider creating a daily newsletter that bundles the top news stories for your audience; give that newsletter the same unique voice as your content.
  • Identify trends from streaming services, popular TV shows, and other entertainment sources Millennials are devouring

Make sure the mobile experience with your content is seamless

Any team creating content for your organization should be focused on giving users the maximum mobile experience.

Designers should be optimizing visual assets like photos, illustrations, charts, GIFs, and graphs for smartphones. Editors should be monitoring content on mobile devices so they can immediately make any necessary fixes before a story is socialized. Video content creators are becoming so attuned to the smartphone experience that they’re even experimenting with vertical clips at places like The New York Times and AJ+ to better map to users’ mobile habits.

People should always think of the phone as the first screen, because that’s how people are going to find [your content], is via their phones.

“People should always think of the phone as the first screen,” says BuzzFeed’s Mat Honan, “because that’s how people are going to find [your content], is via their phones.”

At BuzzFeed, journalists preview how their articles will appear on mobile screens — both iOS and Android — in the draft version of a story; they also have the option of sending the story to an actual phone to proof it before it goes live. Honan says that mobile “isn’t an afterthought” in his newsroom.

Former RedEye editor Tran Ha warns that a mobile strategy is not the last word on a Millennial strategy, though. “Mobile is just basically the delivery mechanism of choice right now,” she says. “It could change.”

Take advantage of FOMO (“Fear Of Missing Out”)

Before we get into how to package news for a Millennial audience, it’s important to understand their habits. They’re consuming news throughout the day instead of at fixed times.

“It’s a constant stream of news that’s happening and in a very nonlinear way,” says former New York Times User Experience Researcher Prateek Sarkar. “They’re going from email to texts with friends to catching up on news and back to the work email. So there’s constant patter throughout the day.”

Another big insight from Sarkar’s research was that Millennials chafed at the idea of relying on a single or even a small selection of sources for their news.

“They wanted to make sure that they were getting it from a variety of different sources,” he says. “I think that speaks to the idea of FOMO; people don’t want to miss out on the story people were talking about because it wasn’t covered in the Times. They wanted to make sure they were casting a broad net that involves a variety of sources so stories were coming to them.”

They wanted to make sure that they were getting it from a variety of different sources. … People don’t want to miss out on the story people were talking about because it wasn’t covered in the Times.

That fear of missing out connects to a concern that someone in their social network, in their community, or at work (especially for younger Millennials, according to Sarkar) will be talking about something that wasn’t on their radar. This anxiety drives people to regularly check in with the outlets they trust will update them on everything from the latest ISIS developments to the trending beefs between musicians on Twitter.

There’s also a need among older Millennials to be seen as an expert on a topic by their peers at work and among their social networks, says Sarkar.

Your newsroom can ease those Millennial worries through practices like aggregating links to the important news of the day, reporting breaking news in real time, and making sure you’re producing content segments that consumers on limited reading schedules can still digest.

Note that none of these practices should happen at the expense of longer form reporting, which still is valuable to a resourceful generation that uses search engines to dive deep into the topics they bump into on social media.

Consider smaller bits of content

“I like to stay up to date on the basics. I’ve never been the type to need to know every current event, everything about politics. I think that’s why the short headlines give me an idea of what’s happening and then if something bigger comes along, I’ll look into it. I think it’s just because there is so much out there, it’s really overwhelming.”
— Ariana, age 25, San Francisco

With such a high volume of information available at their fingertips, savvy young audiences turn to their trusted sources for quick hits of news at different moments during their days. The more media companies can match that need to be updated on the important stuff in real time, the more successful your content will be with this demographic.

NowThis has turned the bite-sized news niche into a business model. Editor Sarah Frank says their Millennial demographic is underserved by traditional media — they’re ”disgruntled news consumers,” as she calls them, who are frustrated with how poorly information has been packaged for them.

“People don’t want to have to seek out news and information. They don’t want to deal with appointment television, they don’t want to have CNN on in the background all day, but they want to feel like they can easily know what’s going on in the world and it fits easily into their day,” she says. “When news can seep in where you already are — on Facebook, Vine, Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram — that makes news a lot less intimidating.”

The New York Times has instituted new practices around timely reporting and news alerts to fit these needs. Its current formula for breaking news is to create four to six bullet points, with reporters being transparent about the fact that a story is still unfolding, instead of constantly reworking the same 600-word story, says Tyson Evans, editor for newsroom strategy at the Times.

And in the morning and evening, the Times offers daily briefings. “It’s an acknowledgement that if you’ve got five minutes, rather than making you pick from a lot of stories, any one of which can fill your time span, [you can] get a quick hit of all the day’s top stories and what you need to know about them before you go into a meeting or go out to a dinner party,” Evans says.

Consider a daily newsletter that bundles the top news stories and has unique voice

For years editors have been focused solely on driving traffic to their own websites, but that mission is shifting.

Linking out to other publications in apps, newsletters, and in aggregated blog posts is a throwback to the early Blogspot days when the goal was to become a reputable curator, says James Allen, VP of communications & strategy at Mic.

Mic’s app and newsletter both include suggested reading from other sources, a trending habit for Millennial-leaning publications generally. “People should trust where we’re sending them that they’re going to read the highest-quality stuff because we want them to believe that we have the highest-quality stuff,” Allen says.

This brings up another way to engage Millennial readers: a daily newsletter. Newsletters can show off your brand’s voice and news angle in a delivery method that’s convenient for your readers and maps to their digital consumption habits while feeding that desire to stay connected.

“[Newsletters] come into your inbox, you know they’re there, they summarize the news for you. It’s very powerful,” says BuzzFeed’s Mat Honan. “It’s the same sort of action as having the daily newspaper on your doorstep.”

In our study of Millennials and the news, we found that 72 percent of interviewees named “checking email” as the digital activity they engaged in most often, followed closely by keeping up with current events at 64 percent. So it makes sense to capitalize on the combination of these activities with a daily newsletter.

The women behind The Skimm have found success in this formula. Their morning emails give a mostly Millennial readership a rundown of the top news stories in a voice that sounds like a smart, gossipy friend is giving them the scoop.

Founders Danielle Weisberg and Carly Zakin told Nieman Lab that they created their 1.5 million strong email digest for people like themselves — busy professional women who want to stay current and who grab their phones first thing in the morning to scan emails from family, friends, and selected news sources.

“The goal of The Skimm,” they told Nieman Lab, “is that you can walk into any meeting, any interview, any social or professional event, no matter if you’re meeting with someone who works in finance or education or politics, and be able to converse with them, to be able to be well rounded.”

CharlotteFive’s newsletter is founded on a similar understanding of its readership. The editors load the daily email with five stories that can be read quickly, introducing the digest with a short, chatty letter from the editor. The goal, says Editor Corey Inscoe, is to give their audience everything they need to know about Charlotte in 15 minutes or less.

“We’re not spending too much time on any given story, we’re just giving you the information you need to know and getting out of the way,” he says. “It’s the ‘Charlotte smart, fast’ idea. You can do deeper reading with the links we provide.”

Identify trends from streaming services, popular TV shows, and other entertainment sources Millennials are devouring

When modeling news content after the digital routines of Millennials, it’s important to understand their media consumption beyond news.

In our report on Millennials paying for media, we found that streaming television and music services like Netflix or Spotify are the main types of content younger consumers are willing to pay for themselves. Those spending habits could map to news media over time if we can identify and create content around the services Millennials are supporting financially.

The first step in testing this theory starts with content experiments shaped by destinations that gave grabbed Millennial attention — such as The Daily Show.

Mic’s Director of Editorial Strategy Slade Sohmer says his team produced a Daily Show-style series called “Flip the Script” with Liz Plank that covers hard-hitting topics in short, concrete, fun ways. Sohmer says the series garnered 33 million viewers over eight episodes. “Those [videos] were shared better than we ever could’ve imagined,” he says.

“We’ll look at bigger data trends in terms of what platforms people are spending their time on and we’ll try and come up with ways in which we can do something similar,” says Sohmer

Based on the Netflix user’s binge-watching habits, The New York Times experimented with a series called “Summer of Science” that offered what Tyson Evans, editor for newsroom strategy, calls “hundreds of really fascinating, standalone, fully-baked stories — everything from underwater volcanoes to gender studies and breaking down the science of these reports.”

When modeling news content after the digital routines of Millennials, it’s important to understand their media consumption beyond news.

“We already have a weekly science section, so it’s not like we have to start from scratch,” he says. “It’s just a question of can we start to change our rhythm, or tone, or cadence to see if that attracts a different type of audience and creates a different type of expectation, in the same way that a weekly print section creates a certain expectation.”

The idea, he adds, is to use and understand trending digital services in order to create similar sorts of hooks around newsroom audience expectations. “That’s something other sites do so smartly,” he adds, “and news has been a little bit on the sidelines of that game.”

There’s even something to consider in Amazon’s ability to learn about its customers and offer suggestions based on that data, which has created the expectation that other services will likewise understand their users and guide them towards the information they want.

Naomi, a 26-year-old living in San Francisco, tells us in an interview that she appreciates the customizable news filters the BBC offers and wishes that would extend to other news outlets.

“I’m sure there is a way, in our world of big data, for news sites to kind of select what you read [based on] the kinds of things you read often,” she says. “For example, Google Now does that. It will be like, ‘You searched for Donald Trump recently, so here’s an article about him.’ It allows you to stay on top of politics or whatever interests you have. If other news sites could start to do that it would help a lot.”

Interact with Millennials through offline events

“If I get [news] through [peers and social media], it’s more personal and I’m more inclined to follow up about it and prioritize that over some potentially equally valuable news item. If it’s more important within my social group, it’s more important to me.”
— Oliver, age 29, San Francisco

With so many media outlets competing for Millennial screen time in the digital world, events and meetups are excellent opportunities for newsrooms to break from the pack and create a sense of connection, loyalty, and engagement with younger communities in person.

The experiences your team creates for people offline can build their trust in your brand as one that’s applicable to their lives, their values, and even their sense of humor.

Events can be an excellent source of revenue, as we reported in a 2014 strategy study that also breaks down best practices for producing them. Our study also notes that The New York Timesleaked innovation report specifically discusses the need for enhancing the face-to-face connection between reporters and readers in person. “Deepening our connection with them both online and offline is critical in a world where content so often reaches its broadest audiences on the backs of other readers.”

Newsrooms can grow their Millennial audiences through events by concentrating on these important steps:

  • Choose event topics you know your Millennial readers are most engaged with.
  • Staff events with editorial personnel to further emphasize audience connection.
  • Host events that reinforce the personalities and interests of the journalists on your team.
  • Use small events to test audience interest in a topic that could translate into new forms of audience engagement.
  • Partner on or sponsor events with organizations that have a strong Millennial following.
  • If your organization has one, construct creative ways to get people to sign up for your newsletter at your events.

Choose event topics you know your Millennial readers are most engaged with

The Bold Italic, where I was the editor until earlier this year, was founded as a “360 brand” — the idea that you could read us online, buy San Francisco “artifacts” through our shop, and experience the city through our unique lens at our events.

Everything connected under the umbrella that our site could help people “be a better local” by becoming familiar with all the subtleties the city has to offer.

We started very small with the experiences we offered, beginning with block parties designed to get people to explore different parts of San Francisco.

We launched a series called the Microhood, where we focused on one pocket neighborhood, got local businesses on board as sponsors, and offered readers incentives ranging from live music to free beer for one evening on those targeted blocks.

This wasn’t an official block party, and didn’t require expensive permits and street shutdowns. Instead it gave attendees, many of whom we’d learn were young transplants to the city, an excuse to become familiar with different neighborhoods.

At every Microhood, we set up a Bold Italic table so the editors could meet our readers, which really personalized our brand, and we eventually attracted so many people to these events that major sponsors underwrote them.

Over the years, The Bold Italic experimented with different formats, but our most successful events were centered around three main themes: taking online conversations offline in a series of panels, customizing big life events in a San Francisco way, and giving our audience insider access to the city.

The way people are getting information is changing all the time so you have to meet them in their space.

Our tech panels gave a largely Millennial community a monthly space in which to network while discussing trending themes their industry. Our bridal expo personalized the normally monolithic mainstream fairs by presenting local, independent artists, designers, chefs, and vendors. And our F-Line parties gave residents the chance to spend happy hour on a private historical streetcar as it moved along Market Street.

We heard repeatedly from our readers that events were one of their favorite aspects of The Bold Italic.

CharlotteFive’s underground series focuses on getting readers into places they normally couldn’t access, reinforcing a similar concept of being a well-informed local. Innovations Editor Jennifer Rothacker lists the venues they’re considering for different parties, ranging from private events spaces owned by the pro football and basketball teams to a “crazy workspace with a bowling alley.”

Rothacker aims to bring the CharlotteFive audience together while getting the editorial team in front of the readership.

“I think you constantly have to get out there in the community and talk to people,” she says. “It’s a guerrilla effort to get people to read something. Going out to events and making connections with people and hosting events that are genuinely going to be interesting and fun for this audience is the best way to gain audience.”

She adds that journalists should use events as a place to get feedback about content as well, to ask users what are the big conversations in their lives right now, what do they need from your publication, and what should your team be working on next?

“Ask them how do you learn about stuff?” she says. “The way people are getting information is changing all the time so you have to meet them in their space.”

Host events that reinforce the personalities and interests of the journalists on your team

Events sometimes require a fair amount of footwork to produce, which can be one of the biggest challenges to hosting them. Journalists who already feel stretched thin aren’t always thrilled to spend their free time working an event.

The first step in shifting that reluctance, though, is to host the types of events they’d want to attend anyway. If you’re creating experiences that your staff is motivated to be part of, there’s a better chance that your audience will be excited about them too.

At The Bold Italic, our events started as joint productions between editorial and marketing, which set the precedent that these gatherings had editorial support from the beginning.

If you’re creating experiences that your staff is motivated to be part of, there’s a better chance that your audience will be excited about them too.

Another step in encouraging a newsroom’s presence at events comes from editors emphasizing the importance of creating a personal connection with your audience. Increasing your publication’s relevance in readers’ lives means meeting them on their turf. It can make the difference between being seen as a static publication and one that’s an active part of a community.

Events can be lightweight brand builders, too, showing your organization’s sense of humor and informal nature.

One example from CharlotteFive is “KatieCon,” where an editor named Katie set up in a popular coffee shop during the morning rush and offered free CharlotteFive mugs to anyone who shared her first name. The concept attracted a dozen Katies and a lot of other people curious what this KatieCon thing was all about. CharlotteFive has also hosted meetups at the breweries around town.

“Readers came out who wanted to meet us and talk to us about stuff,” says CharlotteFive Editor Corey Inscoe. “People like knowing who you are and then there’s more trust when we write something. They know who it’s coming from. It’s not some random person here, it’s like, ‘Corey wrote this and I feel like I know him.’”

Use small events to test audience interest in a topic

Not every event has to be a revenue generator, or even be organized by a traditional marketing and events team. Lightweight meetups involving a single editor or small editorial groups can be effective ways to target specific audiences and test out their interests in relation to your organization, while building reader engagement along the way.

Nieman Lab reported on a nightlife reporter at the Arizona Republic named Megan Finnerty who started a series of Moth-style storytelling nights in Phoenix that took off in popularity.

She knew the venues around town well and wanted to test if personality-driven storytelling could connect the newspaper with a new audience. She had very low expectations for the event, which ended up being so successful that it has inspired management to rethink its events strategy in other areas. 

Partner on or sponsor events with organizations that have a strong Millennial following

If your organization doesn’t have the capacity to generate your own events, combining forces with a Millennial-focused organization that does can also help boost your readership and face time with your audience.

Editor Chris Krewson says BillyPenn grew its social reach by hitching on to The Franklin Museum’s Science After Hours series for a 21+ audience. BillyPenn also sponsored CollegeFest2015, which Crewson says gives his organization access to an email list of “29,000 people all in our demographic.”

If your organization has a newsletter, construct creative ways to get people to sign up for it at your events

What you do once you’re at an event is vitally important to growing your audience.

Creative newsletter activations are key, since parties, expos, and panels are huge opportunities to solicit a high volume of emails at once.

Billy Penn’s Krewson says at The Franklin Museum’s Science After Hours gatherings, his team set up a booth with a couple iPads and an app that turned people into emojis.

“We had a line 40 people deep within five minutes of opening the gate,” he says. “In order to get your emoji you had to give us your email address, so we walked away with 200 new email addresses.”

Make sure your organization’s presence at events involves some level of personal connection between your team and your audience.

The Bold Italic built an interactive character to solicit emails for our newsletter, a wooden robot-like booth for our Microhoods that we nicknamed “Uncle Jesse” after the Full House character. The booth was just big enough to conceal one person inside, and only revealed their gloved hands to the outside world.

Microhood attendees would add their emails on an iPad, push a button, and Uncle Jesse’s silver-gloved hands offered some sort of schwag (chocolates, San Francisco patches) in return.

The activation showed our sense of humor and gave us a huge advantage in soliciting newsletter signups over our previous method of trading emails for free beer.

When you’re aiming to connect with a young crowd that responds well to interactivity, make sure your organization’s presence at events involves some level of personal connection between your team and your audience.

Embrace a culture of experimentation

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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