UK newspapers are investing to futureproof themselves and attract those much-prized Gen Zs and their older millennial cousins. But will any of it actually work? Andy Dangerfield takes a look.
Teenagers don’t read newspapers.
Fleet Street is doomed.
These kind of predictions have been around for years. But do they ring true? Well, there may be a glimmer of hope for hacks.
Last week’s publication of the Edelman Trust Barometer showed traditional media, including print, has witnessed a rebound in public confidence to a record high of 61% approval – that’s up 13% compared with last year.
Across the pond, there’s been an increase in 18-34 year olds reading traditional media, according to the Reuters Institute report, with the likes of The Atlantic, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal all seeing increased subscriptions from millennials.
The theory is that subscription streaming services like Spotify and Netflix have conditioned young people to be more willing to pay for quality content.
And then there’s the “Trump bump” – in the US, the proportion of people aged 18-24 who paid for online news leapt from 4% in 2016 to 18% last year.
Younger people are more likely to be on the left, dislike Trump, and subscribe to news organisations that they see challenging him.
Back in Blighty, The Times, The Telegraph and the FT have all seen a significant increase in registered subscribers.
Meanwhile The Guardian’s focus on voluntary contributions has meant it has doubled its number of regular paying supporters to 500,000 in 12 months.
But how are Britain’s newspapers trying to lure in teenage readers specifically?
Well, the FT isn’t messing about. It recently extended its offer of free subscriptions to 16-19 year olds from the UK to anywhere in the world.
The paper’s B2B managing director Caspar De Bono says it is “thrilled with the take-up” of the original scheme.
“The word of mouth affect has been phenomenal,” he says. The FT now has around 16,000 students and teachers from about 1,500 schools who have unlimited access to FT.com.
The goal isn’t to immediately try to make money out of younger readers but “to build a bridge between what students learn in the classroom and what’s going on in the real world,” he explains.
“It’s to help build a very practical connection with the journalism – we had students saying ‘oh I didn’t realise the FT covered this.’
“We found otherwise what happened is the student’s interest will dissipate. But if it’s part of what they’re learning at school, it’s got a lot more durability.”
In terms of trending topics, the students read around broadly similar subjects to other subscribers, De Bono says, but certain treatments – like PunkFT videos, where an important economic concept is explained through illustration to a Sex Pistols-esque soundtrack, have proven particularly popular with pupils.
Of course the FT is playing a long term strategic game here and hopes students will stick with them as they move on to university or their careers.
“The aspiration is that if students find the FT valuable when they’re studying, they’re more likely to be subscribers later in life.”
Only time will tell if it works.
Over at Trinity Mirror, group marketing director Zoe Harris boasts: “People are often surprised how big we are for 18 to 34s – when we add together all of our online properties, we reach over 11 million of them every month.”
And she says it’s the younger audience that value their news brands more than older people.
“Regional brands are very much part of people’s lives. If you’re a Manchester United fan and you want a fan-view of things from a credible journalist, it would be your local news site you’d go to."
“We’re also redefinining what news is.” she says. “There was red sky in Reading, and everyone in the newsroom was going ‘I wonder why the sky’s red?’
“Five years ago they wouldn’t have done anything about that but now they think ‘well if that’s what we’re talking about, it’s probably what everyone in the city’s talking about and it’s probably more appealing to a younger audience.’
“There’s a curiosity and instant fix nature to younger people. News publishers are a good source for that information and social platforms are a great way of reaching them.”
Elsewhere, The Sun is making a huge push to attract a younger audience, with big investment in showbiz news and mobile video – 51% of its readers are now female, 42% aged between 15 and 34.
The Times says it is attracting 18-24-year-olds “in bigger numbers than we have been for quite a while”.
And The Telegraph, despite having an older average reader age is, perhaps surprisingly, a partner on Snapchat’s Discover channel, which has seen increased traffic among the highly-sought 18–24s target audience.
Again, the hope is young people will get an exposure to the brand and that might pay off in the longer term.
But despite the opportunity to engage with a new younger audience on social, recent research from City and LMU Munich shows young readers are still spending nearly twice as much time with newspapers’ print editions than with their websites and apps.
Those dead-tree editions may not be dead just yet.
Andy Dangerfield was previously the head of UK news curation at BuzzFeed. He is now a freelance social and digital strategist, journalist, and speaker