A qualitative study commissioned by the Reuters Institute has found “no evidence” that young people are less interested in news than their elders.
But the research did confirm younger audiences engage with news, and in particular traditional publishers, differently to older consumers.
Instead of seeking out news from a particular website or broadcaster, the study found young people were encountering a mix of news media “in a kind of brand soup” online.
Presenting the report into young people’s relationships with news, author Konrad Collao also said that rather than widespread, steady news avoidance, his research agency Craft found “lots of people avoid some of the news, some of the time”.
Young audiences want news – but not always ‘the’ news
Collao was speaking at an event held jointly by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, Oxford University and the BBC at Broadcasting House in London on Tuesday 27 September.
Craft carried out the study as a qualitative follow-up to some of the quantitative patterns that emerged in the Reuters Institute’s Digital News Report this year.
The research asked a representative group of two dozen 18 to 30 year-olds in the UK, US and Brazil to carry out a mix of tasks designed to assess their attitudes to, and consumption of, news.
Collao said the findings did not indicate there were absolute truths about younger news audiences: “Some people still sit down and read a news website longform. It’s not true that young people don’t do some of the things that might be looked at as more traditional in the digital space.”
But he added: “What we might say is that [while] there is lowering engagement with ‘the’ news, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence in our report of a lowering engagement with news.”
Collao distinguished between “narrow” and “broad” news.
“Narrow news is ‘the’ news – mainly current affairs, politics, geopolitics, finance and economics. The stuff that we all recognise, you know – turn on Radio 4 in the morning, listen to the Today programme, that sort of news.
“But actually, in [young people’s] minds, it can be much broader than that, and defined as anything new – any new development, anything new that’s happening in any of the areas that I might be interested in.”
Aggregators create a ‘brand soup’ of news
The author emphasised that these developments are encountered in a social media environment that “fragments” the news.
“If a brand is operating in a third-party environment, sometimes young people have no idea what brand they’re consuming from. You ask them where do you get that from, they say ‘Oh, Facebook’. Misattribution is rife.
“Not only are these platforms fragmenting the news landscape, they’re also aggregating it in a kind of brand soup. So if you’ve gone to Apple News, you might have The New York Times and The Washington Post sitting next to the Daily Mirror. And again, this creates this dizzying array of brands that lead to a very flat landscape that young people navigate.”
Encouragingly for some brands, the study did indicate young news consumers are not necessarily wedded to video.
The report quotes one 24 year-old Brazilian participant saying: “I prefer to read, because it is quicker to open a website and get to know what I need.”
A 22 year-old American, similarly, said: “I don’t like videos that clearly don’t need to be videos and just include random pictures and random highlighted words (that are already being said) just as an excuse for there to be a video.”
Collao said: “We think there’s a lot of rubbish spoken about young people and formats. ‘They all need video, nobody reads anymore!’ Not true.
“What we’re seeing is an absolute explosion in the number of formats that can be used… every platform has got its own codes, every social platform’s got its own conventions.”
Publishers were better advised, he said, matching content to format: short videos might do well for explainers or round-ups, but a news article may be more appropriate for a serious story on a breaking development in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
‘Lots of people avoid some of the news some of the time’
Addressing signs of growing news avoidance uncovered in the Reuters Digital News Report, Collao said Craft had found a more complicated picture.
“The working hypothesis that we went into is that there is a group of people who just avoid news. And that didn’t come out, really, in our research.
“What came out is that lots of people avoid some of the news, some of the time. And they are quite selective, and this is not a linear relationship – there are spikes and troughs in people’s news consumption.”
Respondents who reported avoiding the news said they would skip over negative topics to protect their mental health: “What was being selectively avoided was often these long-running stories that were causing fatigue and never seem to be any resolution over,” for example Covid-19, the war in Ukraine and the culture wars.
In questions after Collao’s talk and an ensuing panel discussion, an audience member from ITV News said that, unexpectedly, the brand’s conventional news clips which it uploaded straight to Tiktok “have performed substantially better than the social-first content” they had attempted to engineer for the platform.
Nadine Forshaw, the head of reader identity and engagement at The Sun, said: “I think a big part of that is that it’s a real, true representation of what your brand is. They know what they’re going to get with you and it’s authentic. And when they look for you elsewhere, they can see it elsewhere.
“Like we wouldn’t do a Sun-beebies and make our Tiktok super young, because they’d come to our website and it wouldn’t match, and it would be quite a confusing experience…
“They know what they’re getting from you, they know that they like it, so they’re going to come back.”
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