This year’s report shows that 18–24-year-olds, the upper age band of the generation known as Gen Z, are the most disinterested in news, least engaged with news brands, and most likely, along with 24–34-year-olds, to avoid news. It would be easy to dismiss these findings as the recurring issue of younger people being less interested in news generally, but it does appear to be part of a growing trend in which younger people are disengaging from mainstream news in a different way than they used to.
In the 2016 Digital News Report, 53% of 18–24-year-olds in Ireland reported that they were extremely or very interested in news, but that figure has steadily declined each year with only 25% in this year’s report claiming the same. When it comes to avoiding news, Gen Z cite reasons such as a negative effect on mood, being worn out with the amount of news there is, and a sense of helplessness about what to do with the information. While we have seen both a national and international trend towards news avoidance as the pandemic reaches its latter stages, the disconnect between young people and news may go deeper than that. Young people are consistently engaging less with established news brands and, troublingly, 20% avoid news because they feel it is untrustworthy or biassed.
An interview and usage-based study from Reuters found a disconnect between traditional news brands which take a view of news as being ‘what you should know’ and younger audiences who also see it as what is ‘useful, interesting and fun to know’, qualities the authors note are not associated with most news brands. Indeed, in last year’s Digital News Report 18–24-year-olds were much more likely to report coming across news while on social media rather than seeking it out on news websites or apps. Unsurprisingly, Gen Z engages with news on social media more than any other generation, but the main motivations they gave for using platforms like TikTok, Snapchat and Instagram for news were incidental i.e., that they came across news while there for other reasons and that those platforms are a fun and entertaining way to pass the time.
The differences in behaviour, motivation and interest among Gen Z are likely not something they will simply grow out of, but rather represent a generational difference among a cohort who have grown up in a highly saturated and individualised media environment. A look at the social media data from this year highlights the vastly different online world which Gen Z is occupying. Almost one in five 18–24-year-olds reported using Discord, a platform which is practically non-existent among the upper age groups and absent from many mainstream media discussions about social media. We see a similar situation with other platforms which are heavily skewed towards youth usage such as Twitch, Reddit, TikTok and Snapchat.
The question is which news brands will make an effort to both understand and reach these younger, emerging news consumers? Attempts to do so often focus on short-form, video-based content. On TikTok, brands like the Washington Post have focused on creating humorous, informal content with Joe.ie or Newstalk taking a similar approach by using a variety of content styles such as vox pops or humorous takes on news stories. Other brands, such as Sky News , focus on breaking down their broadcast news stories into short clips, with RTÉ News and Virgin Media News both taking a similar approach here.
However, the answer for news producers may not be as simple as resorting to video either. 18–24-year-olds in this year’s report consume podcasts at a higher level than other groups and show a preference for text due to the speed with which they can gather information. Virgin Media News is one of the latest to embrace the podcast trend, launching a weekly podcast featuring three of their well-known journalists who are particularly active on social media discussing ‘the world of news and how it’s made’, a format that appears to be targeting a youth audience in a new way.
The challenge for news brands is to figure out how to engage younger audiences in an attention economy where traditional news has already lost its footing with a generation who are inundated with endless streams of information, shaped by algorithms designed to cater to their individual interests. One Study of Danish youth consumers found that young people judge the value of news services based on the ease by which they can access what they want. In other words, they are willing to engage, but it needs to be easy to find and in a format which suits them. This has implications for the design of news websites and apps, as well as content formats.
Just as news companies were faced with a challenge of early adoption and adaptation as print media declined, so there is a similar challenge and opportunity now. Learning how to reach Gen Z with news they find engaging may be an act of future proofing for news organisations and it undoubtedly requires innovation and a willingness to think beyond traditional methods of creating news. Most of all, it will require listening to younger people to understand their motivations, interests, and desires when it comes to what news they want and how they want to consume it.
Dr Kirsty Park is a Post-Doctoral Researcher at DCU’s Institute for Future Media, Democracy and Society.
This essay originally appeared as part of the 2022 Digital News Report Ireland. The full report can be accessed Here.