Publishers have historically struggled to compete for audiences’ attention when they were shifting to consuming content on social media platforms like Facebook and YouTube. Now, young people are actively avoiding the news, which was a cause of consternation among a panel of executives and editors from The New York Times, Vox Media, Reuters and Google News Lab at a Reuters event held Wednesday morning in New York City.
Roughly four out of 10 people under 35 years old – 42% – “sometimes or often actively avoid the news,” according to the 11th annual “Digital News Report” report conducted by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. Albeit, that aversion is only slightly more acute than among those 35 years old and older, 36% of whom sometimes or often steer clear of the news.
The report compiled responses from over 93,000 online news consumers in 46 global markets from January-February 2022.
“I’m very pessimistic about our current state of media in the U.S. right now. These numbers are deeply depressing and should be a very strong wake-up call for all of us in journalism,” said Vox Media’s publisher Melissa Bell during the Reuters event.
The numbers regarding audiences’ news avoidance aren’t the report’s only downers. The percentage of people in the U.S. who say they have not used any source of news in the last week (including TV, print, online, social media and radio) has grown from 3% in 2013 to 15% in 2022, per the report. But the problem is even more pronounced for 18 to 24-year-olds. Since 2015, those who said they have gone to a news website or app in the last week dropped from 29% in 2015 to 20% in 2020, Reuters Institute’s director Rasmus Nielsen said during the event. The decline for those who are 25 to 34 years old was from 34% to 22%.
Why are those under 35 turning away from the news?
The report found a few main reasons. Readers younger than 35 found the news cycle to be too repetitive on topics like politics and COVID-19. The news brings down their mood. The news is hard to understand and follow. And they don’t trust the news: people under 35 are the lowest-trusting age group in Reuters’ report, with 37% of both 18–24s and 25–34s across all markets saying they trust most news most of the time, compared with 47% of those 55 and older.
If these readers are actively choosing to avoid news content, the issue of converting them into paying subscribers becomes even more challenging for news publishers. Just 17% of those under 35 in the U.S. are news subscribers to a digital news service, the Reuters report found.
These hurdles are likely why legacy news publishers are increasingly forming teams dedicated to reaching young people. The Los Angeles Times created a team this month devoted to creating content exclusively on Instagram. The Washington Post formed a task force last August to figure out how to attract more young and diverse readers. The Post’s first Instagram editor, Travis Lyles, was promoted this month to deputy director, social, off-platform curation, moving the social teams under the Post’s Universal News Desk to centralize The Post’s curation and distribution efforts.
And The New York Times invested in a new cross-functional team of journalists last September called the Trust Team “to really think about, how can we be more transparent? And also, how can we prove every day that we’re a trustworthy source?” said The Times’ assistant managing editor Monica Drake at the Reuters event.
What can publishers do to address these significant challenges?
“You have so much information that it is overwhelming. It is exhausting. It is… sometimes anxiety-inducing and making people feel powerless,” Bell said. She believes publishers should be “a service to audiences,” to “help people feel like they have more power and control and can make… smart decisions about their lives” after reading the news.
The New York Times is working to be more transparent with its audience to improve people’s trust in news, Drake said. Headshots of journalists appear next to stories, which include an explanation of the journalist’s background and credentials. “Younger readers just really want you to show the receipts. So that’s what we try to do on a daily basis,” Drake said.
The Times is also experimenting “with a lot of different story forms that feel more native to younger readers,” she said. “We have these live blogs that help you endlessly scroll on a topic. It’s something that people understand how to do if they didn’t grow up folding pages like I did.”
Publishers can also develop journalists’ personal brands on the platforms young people use. Reuters hosts Instagram Lives with reporters going behind the scenes, said Arlyn Gajilan, Reuters’ digital news director. The Times features its reporters on its podcasts.
Google is building information literacy tools into its search products to help readers understand the credibility of different sources, said Olivia Ma, director of the Google News Lab. Last month, Google added a new label called “highly cited” on top news stories, which highlights a story that has been frequently cited by other reputable news sources, Ma said.
“We see that those are the types of things that actually really help people build their confidence as they’re navigating the web, to say, ‘OK, I feel like I have some skills and some tools now that I can apply to help me understand whether or not this is a trustworthy piece of content,’” she said.
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