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April 4, 2024

How under-35s’ interest in news has collapsed and what we can do about it

Data shows scale of collapse in young people's interest in news - and which news organisations are doing best at keeping them.

By Luba Kassova

Ever since I started working in the media industry two decades ago – initially as a research expert – the question of how to engage young audiences with news has been one of the most frequently deliberated issues within news organisations and at news conferences. We all agree that the news industry must do better. But I did not appreciate just how poorly the industry had done in the last decade until I researched this article: since 2013, millennials’ and Gen Z’s engagement with news has simply collapsed.

In the UK, interest in news among all adults has declined by a quarter since 2013, while it has halved for under-35s, with data indicating that the younger the news consumer, the less interested they are in the current news offer.

While the Reuters Institute Digital News Reports showed 64% of under-35s (and 59% of 18-24s) claiming to be extremely or very interested in news in 2013, by 2023 those figures fell to 32% of under-35s.

The picture is similar in the US, where 36% of under-35s (and 27% of 18-24s) now claim to be extremely or very interested in the news vs. the majority (56%) in 2013.

If the current trend continues it is possible that by 2034 less than 10% of under-35s will be extremely or very interested in the news in. the UK and USA.

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Percentage of 18-34s extremely or very interested in news in the UK & USA (2013 to 2023)

Percentage of 18-34s extremely or very interested in news in the UK & USA (2013 to 2023)
Source: AKAS analysis of Reuters Institute Digital News Reports (2013 to 2023)

Among news outlets, the research narratives on how to appeal to younger audiences have typically centred on which platforms (e.g. Tiktok, Instagram) or what news formats to use to land different news stories.

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Rarely have they centred on how to make the big and important stories relevant to millennials or Gen Z, and almost never on identifying and eliminating the organisational challenges that lead to producing news that disengages younger generations.

Put simply, younger generations are not seeing themselves reflected in the news often enough. The newly-released Next Gen News report, based on 45 ethnographic deep dives with 18-25 year-olds from across the globe, argues that their news needs are not sufficiently met.

Part of the problem is the storytelling distance between news providers and their younger audiences that manifests in insufficiently relevant stories/story angles and inaccessible language, which generate a feeling of disempowerment that causes younger audiences to recoil.

Why are news organisations disconnected from young audiences?

Why are those who make the news increasingly disconnected from millennials and Gen Z? Too often it comes down to editors and reporters being of a different generation and background.

According to the Worlds of Journalism study (2013-2023), journalists’ average age is 43 in the UK and 47 in the US. They are also likely to be highly educated: 86% of journalists in the UK hold a university degree.

In addition, editors and reporters are more likely to be men. In 2024, men accounted for 60% of journalists across 12 markets studied by the Reuters Institute (including the UK and US), and 76% of top editors across 240 news brands globally. In countries with multiracial populations top editors are also much more likely to be white.

It is perhaps no surprise then that the news tends to overserve the over-represented group of men who are older, white, educated and richer (MOWERs). Their relatively homogenous lived experiences bring a raft of biases that inhibit progress when it comes to serving the young. If left unchecked, they make it inevitable that millennials and Gen Z will remain underserved. Amongst the different biases in play, two are highly significant: in-group favouritism and youngism.

In-group favouritism shows up in our unconscious affinity towards and rewarding of those who look and think like us. This bias is universal and not confined to one group. Consequently, the over-represented group of MOWERs, who diverge significantly from millennials and Gen Z, are more likely to dictate what constitutes a story, to navigate successfully the unwritten cultural rules that their cohort has established within the news outlet, to promote other MOWERs faster, and to overserve audiences who look and think like them.

Youngism is essentially the reverse ageism that affects younger journalists and editors within news outlets. It manifests in an authority gap between younger and older leaders/journalists, with competence being disproportionately attributed to age.

Often it combines with gender bias, resulting in a wider credibility gap between young female journalists/editors and their older colleagues. Younger editors and journalists are also more likely to be judged purely on their last project, a phenomenon known as prove-it-again bias. Similarly, young women are more likely to experience lookism which links their perceived value to their appearance.

All these biases lead to substantive organisational challenges, including the under-representation of young editors and reporters, the intersectional invisibility of young female employees, and content of reduced relevance to young audiences.

Which news outlets are doing best at attracting younger audiences?

Are some UK and US outlets serving younger audiences better than others? To answer this question, AKAS ran analysis using Similarweb data from January 2024, measuring the absolute reach and percentage profile of under-35s for the top 25 UK and top 49 US newsbrands (those for which age data was available).

In each country, three newsbrands dominate in terms of absolute numbers of website visits from under-35s: BBC (225 million, although this includes everything at BBC.com including entertainment), The Guardian (139 million) and the Daily Mail (116 million) in the UK, and The New York Times (253 million), MSN (220 million) and CNN (167 million) in the US.

Three of these news outlets also attract a higher proportion of visits from under-35s than the average: 39% for the BBC and Guardian and 40% for NYT, compared to the 35% UK and 32% US averages.

In the UK, the top three performing brands in terms of proportion (but not volume) of visits from under-35s are Channel 4 (46%), ITV (41%) and Evening Standard (41%). Figures for Channel 4 and ITV both include their entertainment offerings, not just news. In the US the top three are Wired (48%), Esquire (47%) and Vice (47%).

For comparison, 18-34s made up 27% of the UK adult population in 2022 and 29% in the US - although data also shows the young are much more likely to be online than older audiences.

How to get millennials and Gen Z interested in news

There are numerous solutions to improving millennials’ and Gen Z’s interest in the news. But they rely on news leaders recognising and accepting the existence of inherent organisational biases that hold the news outlet back from getting the best out of its young workforce and from serving better the needs of young news audiences. Three stand out as worth sharing here.

Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, is the need to endorse a deliberate age-diverse approach to the strategy and values within an organisation, including setting targets for young reporters, editors and audiences, as well as tracking output performance disaggregated by age.

Secondly, fostering intergenerational, mixed-gender professional relationships and teams is key. Recent research shows that age diversity in the workplace yields better organisational performance, including better engagement and satisfaction. Thus news outlets that adopt this approach are more likely to succeed in delivering engaging news that interests millennials and Gen Z.

Thirdly, to learn from and empathise with each other, news leadership teams should create voluntary mentoring and reverse-mentoring programmes for editors and journalists. These programmes would facilitate a much-needed and currently lacking intergenerational understanding of audience needs.

In the words of a senior news leader I interviewed for the From Outrage to Opportunity report into missing perspectives in news: “Some of the younger people coming in now are coming in with a much, much firmer and more passionate sense of identity, and the stories and things that aren’t being talked about. We need to go to those people and say, ‘What are we missing here?’”

Millennials and Gen Z hold the key to their own news engagement. All they need is a news industry that sees, listens to and consults them.

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Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
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