FT Strategies: building news media companies fit for 2030

How can news media companies integrate the needs of younger generations in their content strategy?

A recent report by FT Strategies, Financial Times’ media consultancy, delves into the news needs and preferences of younger generations, putting forward steps news media companies have to take in order to build a closer relationship with younger consumers. MediaCat Magazine talked to George Montagu, Senior Manager & Head of Insights at FT Strategies, about the report’s details and implications for the wider media industry.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

FT Strategies just released a report on how news media companies should change for newer generations to be able to relate to them. From the findings, what can you say about how newer generations differ in news consumption habits? Are there lessons from these results for the wider media industry?

George Montagu

When we spoke to younger news consumers, really what we saw and what we learned was that they exhibit these emergent behaviours that are a lot stronger than the previous generation. To give you an idea, the first is that these consumers involve themselves in what we call ‘digital simultasking.’ First of all, they’re mobile only. If you speak to many of these younger people, they barely know what laptops are, let alone use them. They’re literally mobile-first and mobile-only. When they’re interacting with the news or with content online, they’ll switch between completely disparate tasks in a short period of time. They may be reading the news. All of a sudden they switch to messages from their friends. Then they’re buying something, and then they’re searching for something... all of these behaviours really condensed and quite distracting.

The second is they filter information through trust networks. Young people are overwhelmed by the amount of information that’s available online. They use people to do the filtering for them.

In the past, that may have been done by an editor, but now that’s done by their favourite influencer, their friend at school, another creator that they may listen to, which we found really interesting. The third is they don’t almost always trust their own opinion on things. What they want to do is make sense of situations or the news based on what others think. You may know when you click on an article, you scroll straight to the bottom to read the comments to see what people’s perspective is. People want to understand all these different perspectives before forming their own world view. They’re almost less interested in the perspective of the author than they are the people reacting to the author, which was quite interesting.

Then finally, they have their own searching mechanisms that we haven’t seen before when it comes to the news. Google Search isn’t necessarily really a thing. They’ll use Instagram or TikTok or other ways of finding information, basically in the formats that they like rather than necessarily about the topics that they’re interested in.

I especially find the credibility section interesting because, like you said, almost the author doesn’t matter, even though all of these… well, at least the brands that I’m thinking of, they’re trained journalists with a credible institution behind them. But then consumers prefer random people that they know nothing about, and they almost believe their opinion over trusted journalists. And also that younger generations trust lived experience more than the alternative. This seems to contradict traditional journalism, where the journalist tries to remove themselves from the narrative. How does objectivity fit in this new framework of credibility?

This is the million dollar question, right? How do what young people want fit in with classical journalism standards and ways of thinking? I think there are clashes. Younger people are quite interested in people’s experience, their opinion and the emotions, for example. Journalism is traditionally focused on objectivity and removing yourself from that situation.

But that isn’t necessarily a storytelling format that evokes feeling amongst young people. That doesn’t mean throw away the rule book. It just means bringing more of those lived experiences into the content that you produce that sits alongside more of your objective reporting and being really clear about those boundaries. I know at the FT, for example, during the cost-of-living crisis, we invited someone that was suffering from poverty in the UK and was struggling to pay their bills and in a lot of debt to write an incredible opinion piece on what their life was like on a day-to-day basis and how changes in benefit rules, for example, impacted their lives.

Just being clear and raising different voices beyond those who are just traditional journalists is a really powerful thing to do. We still definitely need objective reporting, but we need to maybe change the balance a little bit more between objectivity and more opinion.

The report mentions that platform preferences rarely regress and that media companies should essentially learn how to produce news or content that fits the popular social media formats of the day. But in recent years we’ve also seen an inclination towards older media formats, whether this be a return to collecting vinyl or the resurgence of print magazines. As much as consumers say they prefer digital platforms to acquire information, there’s also a digital fatigue. How do you read these two inclinations?

A great question. I think there’s a difference between what people say they like and what they do. We observed through the behaviour of the young people that were included in the research that none of them were picking up a newspaper. None of them were directly visiting news sites out of choice rather than out of incidents. I do think that in terms of what people do, it is very digital, it is very online.

There is definitely a small fraction of people that still return to those more traditional products such as paper and TV broadcast, but I think that will be a small segment of an already news-loving population. It’s not like someone that’s not interested in news suddenly becomes interested in reading newspapers. That’s what I would say there.

I do think in terms of the digital fatigue, maybe it’s less turning off digital and more making digital work for them, rather than platforms deciding what the digital experience is. Can you customise your own algorithm? Can you turn your news feed off in terms of no longer using algorithmic suggestions? I think those things could bring people back to more analogue, digital experiences if that makes sense.

In the early 2000s when digital media companies like Vice and BuzzFeed were gaining traction, a lot of older mainstream news media companies decided to pivot to that model of delivering content. For a lot of them that meant releasing a lot of their journalistic content for free. I feel like we’re still living through the ramifications of that shift to go with the trends. Do you see a similar danger? Because the report also mentions that companies should start producing content that fits the social media formats, and maybe those will at some point turn into subscribers. But from the digital media revolution we saw that that model didn’t work. A newspaper’s website might have millions of visitors, but very few of them were actual loyal audiences. We are seeing a lot of mainstream media companies pivot to the TikTok format of delivering news. Is there a danger that what happened 20 years ago might repeat itself?

I think it’s important to separate a couple of things in that question. One is, can you build a sustainable business model on top of free-to-read content that is targeted at young people? I think you can build a business model on that. It’s just not a business model that has 400 journalists around the world and a huge cost base that’s VC-funded. In answer to that question, I think there is a viable free-to-read model, but it’s probably single-digit employee numbers built on top of free-to-use platforms like Substack or YouTube.

I think that is one thing. In terms of whether if incumbent news organizations pivot to put more of their content available for free and whether that harms the business model of those organizations, I think, yes, there is a risk, definitely. I always think of the use of social media formats for news organizations as ways of showcasing your content beyond the paywall that brings people into your funnel, ultimately.

We’re quite specific in the report about the wording around social media formats. So it’s using social to build direct relationships. If you’re just putting stuff on social media because your audience is there and not building relationships, that’s when you have problems. Because it’s working for the social media company but not for you; because you’re not generating any revenue, you’re not building your subscription funnel, etc.

Do you think these findings can be applied to other types of media companies as well? Or do you think there’s something special about news and how news is delivered that makes this the status quo?

It’s really interesting, actually. We designed this work very much with news in mind. But some of the outreach that I’ve had off the back of publishing has come from technology companies that are interested in improving their algorithms to promote content creators that have a great shot of engaging younger audiences. That’s one interesting group that falls outside of news. The second is sports organizations that want to build direct-to-consumer relationships with their fan base.

They realised that a lot of these principles are quite applicable across other areas. Also definitely streaming broadcast television. I think a lot of a lot of TV segments have been produced on the basis of what’s gone before rather than necessarily any audience data. I think this could be an interesting shift in that regard. It’s being way more audience focused when it comes to content production.

What do you think the findings of the report mean for the current business models in news media?

I suppose this is less the business model and more the operating model… I see a massive opportunity in incumbent news organisations partnering with creators to scratch each other’s back. News organisations want to build affinity and connect with younger audiences.

A creator can do that overnight by producing a piece on their behalf. There are some great examples from The New York Times of how they’ve done that with creators. Also, it works for creators because they ultimately love brand recognition and acknowledgement, and it helps shine their ego.

In terms of the business model, I guess it’s really difficult to say. Being more audience-centric should work for building a successful subscription business. But there’s big debate over whether the next generation will pay for news and content. The evidence I’ve seen suggests that young people actually pay more regularly for news and content than older generations. So it’s quite a misnomer. I just don’t know if they’ll pay the same amount long term.

Can you give us examples of media companies that are doing this well, in terms of being fit for 2030?

I can give it a go. Let’s hope these companies don’t collapse after I mention them. Different companies are good at different things. It’s difficult to say that one company is just good at engaging the next generation. One company that I really love is a newsletter company called Fix The News. They provide solutions-related reporting on what’s going right in the world. And whilst it’s probably still got a long way to go and doesn’t attract every single type of reader, I just love the fact that they’re more focused on what’s going right in the world than what’s going wrong because so many of the people that we talked to said that they felt hopeless, they felt tired, they felt disengaged with the news because of that tone that it adopts.

Another good example is TLDR News. They’re a YouTube channel that creates 10-minute explainer videos of most recent content. Jack Kelly was on our advisory board for the project. The style is so perfect. They explain things almost from the point of an eight-year-old, and they always start a story from the very beginning. If they’re producing a piece on the Ukraine war, they may explain where Ukraine is and why Russia invaded Ukraine, etc. I think that’s really engaging.

Then you could talk about loads of people on TikTok that are doing good things. I was talking to a brand, Mediagen, from Romania that’s creating amazing TikTok content.

Finally, what can newer media companies do to be successful in the next 10 years?

If I were to create a media company tomorrow, I would make it almost entirely personality-led. I would just use the brand almost as the thing to register with the taxman, and I almost wouldn’t use it for any promotion.

I would take a selection of individuals that I thought had great expertise on the topic and lived experience. I would give them the autonomy to connect with the audiences that they want around very specific niche areas. [I would] only use the central organisation as a way of making sure that [journalistic] standards are upheld and that business operations are handled on their behalf. It would be very small in terms of the operational side of things. I would leverage a lot of tech to make it cheap to run and easy to use. I would try to bring people into direct channels as much as possible. So that would be probably newsletters, podcasts and personal types of media.

What happens when those people leave? Because newer generations also don’t spend that much time in one single company, right? They switch jobs, which is good for them. But if your entire brand is built on the individual, what happens when they leave?

I think you try to solve that problem before it happens. You would give individual journalists equity within the company and incentivise them deeply to stay. If they were then to leave, obviously, that is a real challenge for you. But ultimately, a big part of the organisation should be talent spotting as well. Rather than an M&A team looking for companies to buy, you have a talent team looking for talent to bring in and represent the brand. You should always have a backlog of talent that you can draw upon.

Featured image: nappy / Pexels

Nazli Selin Ozkan, Head of Content & Partnerships at MediaCat Magazine

Selin is Business Editor at MediaCat Magazine. After graduating from Duke University with a degree on political science, she started working at the content department at Kapital Media, working on events such as Brand Week Istanbul and Digital Age Tech Summit. She took on the role of Business Development Manager at Kapital Media, working on Kapital Media's several products, such as MediaCat Magazine, Polaris Awards, Brand Week Istanbul and Digital Age Tech Summit. She regularly contributes to MediaCat Magazine, covering media and tech.

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