Three years ago, PolicyMic was being run from what CEO Chris Altchek calls “this pretty gross couch.” Then last October, the company, which creates content written by and targeted at millennials, raised $3 million in seed funding. Six months later, it raised another $10 million. PolicyMic now has a staff of more than 30 people—mostly 20-somethings living in Brooklyn—an office in midtown Manhattan, and Altchek says, no space for a couch.
PolicyMic is far from the only millennial-mobilizing company that’s attracted money lately. Vice Media is doing so well that its leaders are thinking about taking it public. In October, Disney/ABC launched Fusion, a TV network that’s meant to reflect “a smart, diverse, and inclusive America,” targeting a “young, vibrant, and media hungry audience”—essentially, Hispanic millennials.
As millennial and millennial-adjacent journalists—those of us 32 and younger, plus all you slightly older allies who, you know, “get” us (hi, guys)—age into editorial and entrepreneurial roles, it’s no longer enough to shrug that The Kids seem to get their news from Facebook and leave it at that. (Once sucked into its system, every group of people likes getting news from Facebook.) The problem, media companies are realizing, may not be that millennials don’t want news (or won’t pay for it)—it’s that industry leaders enamored of the pre-digital world haven’t tried all that hard to sell news to millennials. Now that we’re grown up enough to start being a little louder and clearer about what it is we might read or watch or share, media outlets led by millennials, targeted to millennials, and writing stories about the issues millennials care about are getting not only traffic, but the money to continue growing it.
Part of what’s enabling this rush on millennial media is that there are stories to be told for/by/about this rather large group of people—at 80ish million, we outnumber Baby Boomers—and those stories are not being told well by legacy media.
“Not to pick on anyone specifically, when you look at how The New York Times writes about Brooklyn, you feel like they’re writing about Mars,” says Altchek.
This problem goes deeper than man-buns and Lena Dunham, though. This month, for example, the GroundTruth Project, which trains young reporters as international correspondents, launched a project called “Generation TBD: Despair and opportunity for millennials in an uncertain global economy.” It will deploy 21 reporting fellows in 11 countries to dig into an issue legacy media has, at times, treated like a joke—the place of millennials in the economy today.
Although GroundTruth Project isn’t explicitly targeted towards any generation, it is distinctively millennial in its desire to make a difference in the world.
“It’s such a rough time—it’s risky to care too much. We’re trying to build an environment in which caring is fine,” says Kevin Grant, the managing editor.
GroundTruth Project grew out of the international news site GlobalPost; the initial idea was to raise nonprofit funding to cover social justice issues in more depth. The project, says Grant, works “to identify these big stories that impact a lot of people, and we try to identify them before our colleagues at other organizations.” And for “Generation TBD,” the GroundTruth Project, with its team of young reporting fellows, has an in and an angle to this story that older media organizations might not.
And this distinctly millennial tension—our desire for big change, both driven and hampered by economic insecurity—is actually another big part of what’s driving funding to millennial-targeted media companies. Though we care, maybe too much, about making the most of our lives, we’ve lived through two very weird wars and a recession. As a cohort, we’re not inclined to trust anyone who tells us they’ve got just what we need. And in particular, we don’t respond well to traditional advertising.
As much as millennials have struggled in the recession, right now they are perhaps the demographic most coveted by advertisers. In the next few years, we are expected to have $200 billion a year to spend on…whatever it is that millennials want. Whoever can deliver millennials and their money up to advertisers stands to make a lot themselves.
If there’s any agreement on what it is that millennials might want, it’s that dry won’t do. We don’t want to be treated like adults, in some stuffy, formal set-up; we respond better to being talked to, not at. It’s clear that millennials look at their phones—a lot—and that anyone who wants to talk to one needs to find a way into the streams of information that they’re chugging like cheap beer at a college party. Past that, it’s still anyone’s game.
Fusion’s game plan is to look at TV as roughly analogous to print: a luxury product that can charge a premium for advertising space but that will never have the audience of a digital platform. It describes itself as a “multiplatform, digital-first cable network, which is trying to reach an audience that is digital-native.” It recently hired some of the smartest people who made their names on the Web—Margarita Noriega, whose social media skillz are universally recognized by media Twitter elite; Anna Holmes, who reinvented “women’s media” as Jezebel’s first editor; Felix Salmon, who’s been one of the smartest bloggers on the Web basically since bloggers became a thing. It’s not totally clear what they’ll be serving to their digital-native audience—there’s been some talk of “post-text” content—but it’s unlikely to be like anything on TV today.
PolicyMic’s current approach is to focus on stories chock full of counter-narrative, that prod readers into engaging with complicated topics by playing devil’s advocate. The site reads like BuzzFeed for nerds—emotion-grabbing headlines about the conflict in Syria (“What Would New York State Look Like if It Endured the Syrian Conflict”) or school shootings (“There Have Been 5 Major Shootings in the U.S. in the Past Week Alone”) or climate change (“Finally, President Obama Takes a Bold Stand Against Climate Change Deniers”). Part of the company’s pitch is that millennials are nerds—hyper-educated people who care about the world and want to feel engaged in trying to fix its problems.
If any of these projects get this right—convince mercurial millennials that they’re the real deal—it’ll be lucrative in the long run. “When millennials get excited about a brand, they stick with it,” Altchek argues. “Millennials have been loyal to Starbucks and Whole Foods and even Apple.” Whichever media companies works its way into our suspicious little hearts will be able to tell advertisers that they, and few others, can deliver us up.
“People didn’t take ESPN or MTV or CNN very seriously in the ’80s,” says Altchek. “The media companies who figure out social today will be like the companies who figured out cable.”