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Newsless or Newsworthy? Millennial Media Consumption in an Age When Social Media Is King

In the early 1980s, personal computers began entering the homes of average Americans. In 1993, America Online (AOL) sent out its first disks to the public. On New Year’s Eve in 1999, everyone wondered if the Y2K bug would cause a world too reliant on computers to crash. And around or between those dates, the Millennial generation was born. Members of this generation, while not quite digital natives (that would be Generation Z), were still reared on digital technology—I was nine when my dad first installed AOL on our family computer. And they often turn to digital first for their media consumption.

Now, Millennials are in their late teens to early 30s, and it seems like everyone is trying to figure them out. Do Millennials care about the world and take the time to read about it? Or do they spend all their time online, Snapchatting friends, posting selfies on Facebook, and laughing at GIFs on BuzzFeed? How do you reach a generation of people who consume so much media that they barely seem to have time to digest it?

Before we get started, let’s take a look at the following quote:

“They have trouble making decisions. They would rather hike in the Himalayas than climb a corporate ladder. . . . They crave entertainment, but their attention span is as short as one zap of a TV dial.”

No, that’s not about Millennials (the TV dial might be a clue). The quote comes from a 1990 TIME feature on Generation X. Ample journalistic evidence reveals that it’s in the nature of each generation to be concerned about the attention spans, morals, etc. of those coming of age after. So it’s not a question of if Millennials want to read the news, per se, but how.

Closeup of two teenage girls with smart phones. Two young women with hats and shades using smartphones against colorful painted wall outdoors in summer.The Social Media Junkie

A number of studies have found that Millennials aren’t as interested in reading newspapers or watching television as previous generations, and that they’re not likely to seek out news websites, either. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that Generation Y is “newsless.” With so much information floating around thanks to advances in digital technology, it could be argued that Millennials constantly read news media—and that they care about it, too.

A Media Insight Project study on the media consumption habits of Millennials, released last month by the American Press Institute and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research at the University of Chicago, reveals that the majority of Millennials consume news. Eighty-five percent believe in the importance of keeping up with news, while 69 percent consume news daily—just not necessarily in more traditional forms.

If you’re thinking that social media is where Millennials tend to get their news, you’re right. Facebook is the most common avenue, with 88 percent encountering news via this channel regularly. But don’t switch to Facebook for all your news sharing just yet; while 47 percent of Millennials say that they visit Facebook for news purposes, younger Millennials are turning away from the social media service. To quote one 19-year-old, “It’s dead to us. Facebook is something we all got in middle school because it was cool but now is seen as an awkward family dinner party we can’t really leave.”

Things may not be that extreme (yet), but the point is, multiple social networks exist for sharing content. So go where your audience is, which is likely a mix of social media networks. Older Millennials use an average of three, while younger Millennials use four, according to the study. That might include YouTube or Instagram, given their popularity, or networks that encourage active conversational involvement, such as Reddit or Tumblr.

Accidental vs. Purposeful News Exposure

Due to their presence on social media, are Millennials “accidental news junkies,” as The Atlantic puts it? Perhaps, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Before the days of digital sharing, news often spread by word of mouth, and that’s still the case today—it’s just sometimes through tech. If Millennials really like a story, they’ll share it with their friends. And given the large networks people often have through social media, that leaves ample opportunity for audiences to be exposed to a variety of viewpoints, rather than getting stuck in a “filter bubble.”

Not all news is accidentally discovered, either: 45 percent of Millennials regularly follow at least five hard news topics, according to the Media Insight Project, and 40 percent pay for a digital news subscription or an app. They may not be the majority, but they’re not a small minority, either.

Social media and networking concept: group of color signs with social media services isolated on white backgroundTwitter: The Journalist Favorite

You might notice that I haven’t yet mentioned Twitter. Don’t worry—it’s still relevant. Many Millennials are active on Twitter, and they tend to use this social media service to see what news and conversations are trending, whether they’re about a video posted by a celebrity or serious news updates from a social influencer. Twitter is also where lots of stories first break (unlike Facebook).

Twitter is the journalist’s preferred social media space for breaking stories, reading breaking stories, and researching. In a nutshell, journalists spend a lot of time reading and interacting with other journalists on Twitter. In fact, it’s the most popular social network for UK journalists at about 75 percent, according to the 2015 Social Journalism Study conducted by Canterbury Christ Church University and PR and marketing company Cision. Facebook follows at about 57 percent. Other studies note journalists’ prevalence on Twitter as well: A 2014 Indiana University report titled “The American Journalist in the Digital Age,” for instance, reveals that a third of US journalists spend 30 to 60 minutes each day on social networking sites, the most popular of which is Twitter at nearly 54 percent.

Let’s compare that to the Media Insight Project’s findings about Millennial media consumption: 88 percent get their news on Facebook, while 33 percent get news from Twitter. And 51 percent report being mostly or almost always online. Yet journalists are spending less time on social media than they used to. Regular use of social media among UK journalists, defined by the Social Journalism Study as more than four hours a day, declined from 24 percent in 2012 to 13 percent in 2014.

There’s a definite disconnect between the two groups. Given these trends, it may be time for journalists to figure out not only how to bridge that gap, but how to capture Generation Y’s attention—and keep it.

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