Give youth its head

Volume 34 Number 1 March 2023

Scrolling through The News Movement’s stories, you can’t help but notice something different about the outlet’s coverage. The start-up, founded in early 2021, is clearly not targeting your typical middle-aged male news consumer.

On TikTok, explainers about the imprisoned ex-US marine Paul Whelan and the Sistah Space CEO Ngozi Fulani get tens of thousands of views alongside reporting from the NHS nurses’ protests and a face-to-face interview with disabled British gymnast Natasha Coates. Each video is slickly cut and engaging, overlaid with bright graphics and catchy text.

Over on Instagram, you’ll find more of the same: a light-hearted review of some electric roller blades at the CES consumer tech summit in Las Vegas, a vox pop on dating apps, and a video of how to cook cheap but delicious pasta. On YouTube, there’s a 15-minute mini-documentary about Hoda Muthana, the US-born Yemeni women detained in a Syrian camp for joining ISIS.

The stories aren’t a million miles away from the kind that most newspaper publishers put out on social media nowadays. The difference is these channels are not a second thought, used as a place to share a link back to a 600-word article on the website. They are its main means of communicating with its audience of millennials and Gen Zs. The News Movement is a “social-first” publisher, a term given to the successful start-up NowThis News back in 2012 and used to describe similar mobile and social focused publishing companies. Owned by Group Nine Media, which was acquired by Vox Media in 2021, NowThis makes a reported $100m annual revenue from partnerships, direct advertising and indirect ad revenue from tech platforms.

The News Movement (for which I did a week of consulting in 2021) is the latest in a spurt of “social-first” start-ups attempting to attract younger audiences and address the increasing news avoidance that threatens traditional brands. The 2022 Reuters Institute Digital News report found that four in 10 under-35s “often or sometimes” avoid the news, compared with a third (36 per cent) of those 35 and older. The number of 18-24-year-olds who actively avoid the news is increasing sharply, triggered by the effect it has on their mood.

Media bosses are clearly on high alert: in the recent Journalism, Media and Technology Trends and Predictions report by the Reuters Institute at the University of Oxford, 72 per cent of executives surveyed said they were worried about selective news avoidance and sought to counter it by investing more time and energy into the visually led social media networks. Interest in TikTok, in particular, is 19 percentage points higher than this time last year, despite concerns about its Chinese ownership and data privacy. These execs know that their business depends on adapting to these changing consumer behaviours, and fast.

It’s not just English-speaking markets where this is an issue and social-first publishers are cropping up. One example is the Italian outlet Will Media, which has grown a large audience of under-35s since launching in 2020, including 1.3million Instagram followers. Its modus operandi is to “tell you things you can use when you go out with your friends tonight” and it has won praise for its election coverage, where it helped its disheartened younger voters understand the big issues. Its website is an innovative directory of everything it has published on social media platforms, a giant signpost of its work elsewhere. Others include Openly, a globally minded information platform for LGBT+ rights, with a focus on Instagram and TikTok, and Curiously, a brand launched by Reach in September last year “built specifically for younger audiences”.

Francesco Zaffarano, former editor-in-chief of Will Media, has compiled a directory of more than 750 media brands using TikTok, including the likes of Vogue, Toronto Star and Tempo. However, many of them are using tactics from the same playbook: a combination of need-to-know explainers and raw, sparky reporting fronted, or at least produced, by smart up-and-coming journalists and presenters.

It’s an old-fashioned editor’s worst nightmare. Let the youngsters run loose without multiple layers of senior input? Allow them to publish to the world without rigorous subbing? It might sound horrifying to editors of old but in many ways, it’s the secret sauce of these social-first outlets. When Zing Tsjeng, the newly installed editor-in-chief of Vice Media, was recently asked about the secret of attracting younger audiences, she said: “I think it’s really simple – just, you know, hire them, commission them, give them the resources they need to report the stories they want to report on. And then the rest kind of falls in place.” The secret is, in fact, letting loose.

What’s interesting about The News Movement is that the brains behind it aren’t some Silicon Valley tech bros rallying against the current state of the information ecosystem. They’re experienced executives with backgrounds in established media. Will Lewis, former editor of The Daily Telegraph, CEO of Dow Jones and publisher of The Wall Street Journal, is one of four co-founders (the other three are also former Dow Jones executives). He was joined in 2021 by Kamal Ahmed, the vastly experienced former BBC economics correspondent, who acts as editor-in-chief.

In an interview last year, Ahmed explained how he joined the start-up because he saw the changing behaviours first-hand. “When I look at my son, who is 18, and my daughter, who is 22, they live in an environment of social media,” he said. “And that needs a different way of considering what is the news. How do we engage particularly younger audiences in what matters and why?” He, like so many others, has identified a need to do journalism differently to achieve a different outcome and find a new audience.

The good news is that every newsroom has keen 20-somethings loitering in its workforce, eager to make a mark. The News Movement is simply trying to show that letting them loose isn’t the risk that we might think it is.

Ben Whitelaw

The writer works for FT Strategies, the consulting arm of the Financial Times, and is a member of the BJR editorial board.

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