- 01 Introduction
- 02 Gen Zers discover breaking news through social media first
- 03 Publishers find their stride on TikTok
- 04 While social-first, Gen Z still verifies through traditional news channels
- 05 Gen Z flocks to podcasts – while publishers struggle to monetize them
- 06 The Gen-Z news cycle: Anytime, anywhere
- 07 Gen Z wants news that relates to them
- 08 Publishers court Gen Z engagement in the comments, for better or worse
This research is based on unique data collected from our proprietary audience of publisher, agency, brand and tech insiders. It’s available to Digiday+ members. More from the series →
In their quest to capture the attention of a new generation of young readers, news publishers are experimenting with innovative ways to engage and inform Gen Z. As the first socially native generation to have the internet and social media platforms constantly at their fingertips, Gen Z is a critical group for publishers to consider when planning their future content and distribution strategies.
Members of Gen Z — those born between 1997 and 2012 — have spent their entire lives with access to a digital world. Technology is second nature to them and fundamental to their existence. Unlike older millennials who are considered simply digital natives, the social natives who make up Gen Z grew up in a world that included a social, participatory web. Now, as the oldest members of this generation are reaching adulthood — building careers and gaining more income — news organizations are turning their attention to this fast-growing audience.
In order to gather insights on the current landscape of Gen Z news consumption, Digiday+ Research interviewed industry executives at news publishers and digital media agencies, as well as university professors and students. Digiday also examined existing research data on how members of Gen Z consume the news, when they get it and what topics and themes they seek out, to provide news publishers with developing strategies to engage this maturing cohort.
According to Insider Intelligence, the average Gen Zer got their first smartphone just before their 12th birthday. Because social media apps were easily accessible to them during the critical habit-forming years of adolescence, social networks have steadily replaced news websites as a primary news source for younger audiences. A study by Reuters found that 39% of social natives ages 18 to 24 use social media as their main source of news, versus 34% who prefer to go directly to a news website or app.
This trend is even more pronounced among younger Gen Z teens under age 18, with just over half of this group (51%) saying they get news daily from social media feeds or messaging services and 40% saying they get news daily from search engines, according to Deloitte Insights. Although fewer Gen Z adults (ages 18 to 24) use social media or messaging services to get their daily news — a third of the group (33%) said this — and even slightly less (32%) said they use search engines, these were still their most used channels for news consumption.
Comparatively, TV is the go-to news discovery platform for the average U.S. adult, at 40% of respondents for millennials and 55% for Gen X, according to Deloitte Insights.
Christina Capatides, vp of social media and trending content for CBS News, said that when it comes to accessing social media news posts on the issues they care about, Gen Z is not a referral generation. “They wake up and consume their news on TikTok or Instagram,” Capatides said. “They’re not like millennials who will navigate to your link in bio and click through to an owned platform.”
Gen Zers nearly exclusively discover breaking news on their smartphones, while scrolling through social apps like Instagram or X. According to the Deloitte Insights report, 66% percent of Gen Z teen news consumers said they get most of their breaking news from alerts and notifications on their mobile phones. A slightly smaller share of Gen Z adults said the same. And more than half of Gen Z news consumers (teens and adults) said they consume news on their smartphones exclusively.
This has changed how news stories spread, with the Gen Z audience sharing and reposting stories across social networks. News organizations are meeting this audience on social platforms, often with unique content formatted for each individual platform. “In order for us to be programming to the Gen Z audience, we need to find them where they are,” said Lulu Chiang, vp of digital at ABC News. “And it’s the platforms that they are used to — and trust — which is social media.”
TikTok, in particular, has been capturing Gen Z’s attention as a news source. The percentage of U.S. adults ages 18 to 29 who said they regularly access news via TikTok rose to 32% in 2023 from 26% the year before, according to a study by the Pew Research Center. Meanwhile, only 15% of those ages 30 to 49, 7% of those 50 to 64 and 3% of those 65 and older said the same.
In February 2023, 14% of Gen Z adults reported to Morning Consult that they first turn to TikTok to start researching a major news event, significantly higher than the share of all adults (2%) who said the same.
News publishers have taken note of Gen Z’s news consumption habits and are chasing this audience across social media, especially on TikTok. According to Reuters, 49% of top news publishers are now regularly publishing content on TikTok.
A main factor driving TikTok’s popularity among Gen Z is its focus on user-generated content. Aside from paid TV subscriptions, Americans ages 16 to 40 are more likely to pay for or donate to news content from independent creators rather than digital or print news organizations, according to a study by the American Press Institute. For Gen Zers, this is likely due to a general consensus that independent creators feel more trustworthy to them than larger organizations, which they believe could proliferate misleading or biased information.
“We’ve been seeing this transition in the works for a long time, but I think Gen Z is going to mark a very real transition from brand content to creator content,” CBS News’ Capatides said.
Capatides added that this may cause a shift in how news organizations create content. “Brands are going to have to figure out how to produce content that looks and feels more like creator content, which means it’s probably going to be less produced, less edited, and perhaps less editorialized,” Capatides said. “It can have all the necessary content context, but Gen Z is going to want to come to their own conclusions about what’s happening in the world.”
For its part, CBS News has embraced TikTok’s green screen format that allows a reporter to talk in front of supporting images and videos in order to engage viewers visually while they’re relaying facts. “On TikTok you see a lot of creator content of a person in front of a green screen walking through the news and breaking things down,” Capatides said. “We can create videos with our anchors and correspondents functioning in that role. They can walk [viewers] through the video and break [content] down in a way that feels authentic. That’s just creator content in a very smart, high standards way of doing it.”
Capatides said replicating a recent top CBS News website story in a 33-second TikTok video brought in a large amount of social media views. “In under a week, it had 6.5 million views on TikTok and 1.5 million views on Instagram,” Capatides said. “That’s 8 million views and over 100,000 likes. That proves if you take a web story and you evaluate, ‘How am I making this as interesting and authentic as possible to this audience?’ then you see the traffic payoff.”
ABC News has taken a similar approach to producing social content. “We take content from our established brands, establish correspondence (people who are very engaged in the subject matter and who are experts in the subjects that they’re covering) and we’re able to tell that story in a very cohesive, detailed way,” ABC News’ Chiang said. “It doesn’t matter what platform you are on, the most important thing is great storytelling.”
Kate Archibald, CMO of social media management platform Dash Hudson, said that it’s important to “have the right content on the right channel, authentic content that doesn’t look like it was shot five months prior in a studio, something that really connects with consumers and what they want to see in that channel.”
Despite their affinity for discovering breaking news on social media, Gen Zers do connect to multiple alternative news sources to verify that the news they’re exposed to on social media is accurate, including traditional formats like owned news sites.
Text- and audio-based content play a big role in the Gen Z news diet. Audiences under 35 largely said they prefer to mostly read (58%) rather than mostly watch (15%) news, according to Reuters.
“For news publishers, it’s about being very cognizant of those realities — that the expectations now of a digital and social audience are many,” said Blathnaid Healy, executive news editor of growth and social at the BBC. “And we have to think about [audience] segments consuming in different ways [in order] to have appropriate products for those different groups.”
With such diverse preferences, there is no one-size-fits-all approach or ideal news medium for newsrooms to use to attract younger audiences. “You need to reach them where they’re at rather than expecting them to navigate to you essentially,” CBS News’ Capatides said.
“I’m really into different post formats because I just think it’s more practical and I prefer them,” said Mona Durand, a member of Gen Z and a student at Kedge Business School. “I get kind of fed up with videos after a while. I know friends that will wake up in the morning and read full articles on a specific subject of interest. Another friend will watch dozens of videos and check their news with podcasts. It really depends, but it is true that we do stay quite informed.”
Just because Gen Zers are using more accessible social platforms to discover content on topics they care about doesn’t mean they want watered down content. “Brands [initially] were trying to be funny or entertaining in a way that news brands normally aren’t,” Capatides said. “But what we’re seeing is that Gen Z doesn’t need the content to be lighter. They don’t need the content to be dumbed down. They really want smart content about the topics that other generations also care about — they just want it packaged in the way that they’re used to.”
Podcasts are a favorite among young audiences as an alternative source to traditional news outlets to verify the information they’ve seen on social networks — and to go deeper on topics of interest. Gen Z is the largest demographic group engaging with various audio platforms. According to the Pew Research Center, 18 to 29 year olds are the largest audience of weekly podcast listeners by age (67%).
Last year’s Spoken Word Audio Report conducted by NPR and Edison Research found that Gen Z was the largest growing group of audio listeners, spending more time with the spoken word (i.e. AM/FM radio, podcasts or audiobooks) than 13 to 24 year olds did in 2014. The study found that Gen Z spent 22% of their time with spoken word audio, compared with those aged 13 to 24 in 2014, who spent only 7% of their time with spoken word audio.
These young listeners are often seeking expert sources to explain more difficult or complex topics in detail. Sixty-six percent of Gen Z podcast listeners use podcasts to stay updated on the latest current events, while 61% tune in to stay informed about social issues, according to a study by Insider Intelligence. In Spotify’s 2023 Culture Next Report, nearly three-quarters of Gen Zers in the U.S. (72%) agreed that podcasts take them deeper into any topic, bringing listeners to the core of many subjects.
Because Gen Zers are looking for new ways to learn and interact with digital media outside of social media apps, podcasts could potentially be a strong channel for news publishers to add an additional point of engagement for young audiences.
To connect with this younger group, the BBC began experimenting with a new podcast, “Reliable Sauce,” inspired by the questions users most commonly ask on TikTok. “It has been a really interesting experiment, we’ve learned a lot from it,” Healy said. “It’s a really interesting arc of trying something that is very native to a platform, but figuring out another way for us to connect with this audience. We are really aware of the trends around podcast listening and the types of podcasts that tend to be most successful in connecting. In this case, really high quality journalism that is directly grappling with the main questions of the week.”
Similarly, The New York Times’ podcast “The Daily” reaches listeners searching for quick daily tidbits of knowledge. Shows like “The Daily” are sold on a CPM basis, with an average of $25 to $35 per thousand impressions, according to NYMag. “The Daily” has an average of 2 million listeners per episode, meaning the show could ideally make $50,000 per ad per episode.
In May 2023, The New York Times launched an audio app called NYT Audio. At the time of writing, the app ranked No. 17 in the Apple App Store’s top chart for free apps and it offered exclusive content across The Times’ top podcasts, including “The Daily.” “[The New York Times] made these niche audience decisions and had this discovery of what people aren’t reading,” said Ava Seave, associate professor at the Columbia Journalism School. “The New York Times has a lot of really good news on cooking, games and puzzles and essentially dropped local news. They [target] people who they think are going to be interested in different kinds of [niche content].”
However, podcasts can be difficult to get off the ground. Most podcasts don’t make money at the start and require a dedicated team to turn out content regularly. “Advertising [on podcasts] is just really hard,” Seave said. “[Video podcasts] seem to be the way to attract people in podcast advertising.”
The most common ways to make money from podcasts are through sponsorships and affiliate sales, direct support including premium content, and merchandise sales. Some news publishers have had success monetizing video podcasts, as products are easier to display via video and studio backdrops can include sponsorship imagery. Additionally, because news organizations have established audiences and followings on social media, their podcasts may receive more downloads when a show launches.
For generations prior to Gen Z, there were generally set times for engaging with news and entertainment media, such as when the morning newspaper was delivered or when TV stations broadcast the evening news. But for Gen Z, anytime is “prime time.” With technology integrated into all aspects of Gen Z’s life — and push notifications turning any second into a breaking news moment — their information consumption habits are more fluid than their parents’ and their millennial siblings’.
Gen Z’s attention is spread across multiple platforms at all times of the day and night. According to Tremor Media and Hulu, Gen Zers are 80% more likely to always be multi-screening compared to their parents. “Our content is always on,” said Wesley Bonner, svp of marketing and audience development at global media company Bustle Digital Group. “We are producing dot-com content throughout the entire day and our social feeds are scheduled 24 hours a day.”
Unlike TV or newspapers, social media allows for content to be viewed and revisited whenever and wherever. “Because of so many changes in social algorithms, especially over the last year, our content really can surface for a mass amount of people all throughout the day and several days after it’s published,” Bonner said. “So, while something may seem newsworthy and do well on day one of it being published, we do see a lot of engagement and traffic days after, even though it might be considered old news at that time.”
Posting evergreen content on social media platforms allows for greater accessibility to the news because publishers don’t have to catch audiences at the perfect time — content won’t disappear and news reports can be referenced and shared across various social networks for longer periods of time. “A year or two ago, you could tell if a video was going to go viral in the first hour,” Bonner said. “Now, a video will go viral days or weeks later.”
Brevity and relevance of content is extremely important to capture Gen Z’s shortened attention span, but once they’ve discovered a topic of interest, Gen Zers will venture to other platforms that house longer-form content, such as YouTube or owned news sites, to learn more.
Because many of these new platforms aren’t traditional news environments, news publishers are rethinking how they frame news stories. “We have to conceptualize our journalism in a very different way,” the BBC’s Healy said. “We have less than a second to connect. And if we don’t, then we’re gone.”
According to YouTube and Ipsos, 59% of Gen Zers agree that they use short-form video apps to discover longer versions of content to watch later. Therefore, industry experts don’t recommend eliminating current news mediums in favor of social media, but rather adding more accessible channels, according to the Columbia Journalism School’s Seave.
“The sad truth about media is, you can almost never drop any format because if you do that, you’re going to miss a bunch of people.” Seave said. “It’s best to keep adding different formats and try to optimize the production of the news that fits on those channels. Write once, publish many times — that’s how media companies make money.”
Gen Zers see a difference between “the news” and news. “The news” refers to serious topics like politics or sustainability, while news can mean general information on pop culture matters like celebrities, sports or entertainment. A diverse array of topics appeals to this young generation of news consumers — including subjects like cooking, art and culture, which were not traditionally covered extensively during prime-time TV news broadcasts or in daily newspapers.
“What is news is a big question, right?” Columbia’s Seave said. “The way news has developed over the last 50 years is that it’s getting more and more fragmented. If you want to make money, you have to cover more and more channels, period.”
With the internet at their fingertips, Gen Zers turn to technology to have meaningful connections and discussions with others, including established news organizations and industry experts. “Gen Zers always want to understand, ‘How does this relate to me?’” ABC News’ Chiang said.
According to Chiang, having anchors and correspondents in the same generational cohort as Gen Z deliver the news to them has proven helpful in creating more engaging content for the demographic. “Gen Z wants to hear information from Gen Z,” Chiang said. “The information may resonate more because we have someone that’s in their demo delivering content to them.”
Although social media has widened the reach of breaking news, it’s also allowed for niche interests to thrive in online communities. “TikTok shifted the utility of social media away from ‘finding things you already like’ to discoverability, and Gen Z is more interested in finding new trends and opportunities, or learning things they don’t already know,” said Michael Boccacino, senior director of content partnerships at digital media publisher The Soul Publishing.
Endless scrolling, a common habit among young social media users, can be good and bad for news organizations. “The discovery process is a bit easier because someone’s out there endlessly scrolling,” Seave said. “It used to be that you had to get them to come to the water, then you had to make them drink. Now you don’t have to get them to drink the water.” Since the advent of social media, news publishers aren’t struggling as much to physically reach audiences with their content. However, they still have to find effective strategies to make sure readers care enough to engage with the news itself and come back for more content.
Therefore, breaking through the noise of a crowded social media space with original and engaging content remains top of mind for publishers. “We still want to be intentional,” Bustle Digital Group’s Bonner said. “We want people to stop, and we want to grab their attention, and we want to create something that’s original.”
“We examine the intent behind the content,” he added. “Is it to entertain them? Is it to serve them? There’s so much competition on the platform, every creator is a publisher essentially. So, we want our content to be as original as possible.”
Because Gen Zers have such diverse news interests and preferences when it comes to digital platforms, it’s most effective to capture their attention with content that dives deep into a niche interest or topic, according to media experts. “The consistent theme is that a lot of these publishers or media companies are really tapping into a niche,” said Dash Hudson’s Archibald.
In addition to gravitating toward niche content, Gen Z audiences are very outspoken online about what they believe in. They use their social media presence to remain informed about topics that interest them and to express their personal opinions. “The thing about Gen Z being digitally native is that, yes, they are hyper-aware, but they are also way more critical,” said Christian Kenoly, a junior cultural strategist at Sparks & Honey, Omnicom’s tech-led cultural consultancy. “They expect the most out of their content.”
Despite this young generation’s tendency to critique online content, most news publishers do not censor their engagement on social media posts. “It’s against our news standards to censor the comments,” CBS News’ Capatides said. “We don’t view conversation between people on social media as detrimental to the brand.”
Instead, publishers are monitoring online conversations to better understand the topics that are of interest to their social audiences. “They provide a lot of helpful feedback, especially in the comments,” Bustle Digital Group’s Bonner said. “They are eager to participate in those conversations, which does allow us to get a lot of insight into types of content, people, shows, movies, fashion, etc., that they’re interested in because they’re telling us that they are or they’re not.”
Gen Z’s engagement style marks a shift toward more actively interacting with curated content from influencers and brands. “They’re not just passively liking content, they’re telling you what they really think of it in the comments,” Capatides said. “They don’t mince words, or hold back. And that’s surprisingly beneficial to brands. It functions as a real-time barometer for audience sentiment, which you can use to make informed decisions and tweak your strategy moving forward.”
News networks would be wise to tap into the insights Gen Z is loudly communicating on social media to capitalize on future news consumption trends and interests, according to Dash Hudson’s Archibald. “Leverage your data and insights of what types of videos are working,” Archibald said. “Every brand is going to be different.”
Because the internet experience for this Gen Z audience is fundamentally different than for older generations, news organizations like the BBC are paying close attention to the online trends they’re seeing. “Someone under the age of 25 is having a radically different experience of what it means to use the internet, versus somebody who is over the age of 50,” said the BBC’s Healy. “We’re seeing broader trends across [social media] platforms and then picking up on those and making sure that we’re creating that supply.”