(Daniel Chang)

My first encounters with journalism were the same as most American males: through the sports pages. Sometime in middle school I started picking up The New York Times on my parents’ dining table during breakfast and reading the Sports section to catch up on the Yankees and Knicks. West Coast games were frequently too late for the home-delivery edition, and the standings were a day out of date, which would probably strike today’s middle-schooler as comically archaic or incomprehensible. Despite that shortcoming, a deeply ingrained habit was formed: The day starts by perusing The New York Times. And now I read the Times for the same reason that I eat Hebrew National hot dogs, tie my necktie in a schoolboy knot, and aspire to buy a brownstone: because it’s what my parents did.

But I’m 31, a dinosaur browsing the Internet on my computer. Today’s 23-year-old—never mind a 12-year-old—probably doesn’t get his news by perusing the homepage of the website of his parents’ favorite newspaper. And even I click on more daily news links on my smartphone or from Twitter and Facebook than from website homepages.

This is simply the norm for the generation that entered adulthood in the age of the Internet: adults born between 1978 and (depending on whom you ask) sometime in the 1990s, now aged 18 to about 34—a group Madison Avenue has dubbed Generation Y, or the millennials.

Of course, change is never uniform across ages and social groups, or even within a specific group. Wealth and education correlate with early adoption of expensive new technologies. And those in certain professions—journalism, public relations, finance, and politics, to name the most obvious—must always stay ahead of the information curve.

However, studies show that several emerging shifts—from print and broadcast television to digital news, from computers to mobile devices, and from homepage browsing to social-media filtration—are all widespread among millennials.

How does it change the value of journalism to strip away the context that a credible publication provides? A reader who comes through a social-media side door is given no sense of a story’s relative importance. A blog post on the latest fad diet that would never have made it onto the front page, or even into print at all, can go viral and attract far more readers than the latest news from Syria. Readers who no longer page through a newspaper or sit through the evening news are bound to miss some information they might not click on but could benefit from knowing nonetheless.

To get a sense of these evolving patterns of news consumption, and their implications, I interviewed some two dozen young journalists (mostly editors of new digital publications), as well as social-media directors, digital-media executives, academics, and researchers.

I found four overlapping, and mutually reinforcing, trends:

  • Proliferation of news sources, formats, and new technologies for media consumption
  • Participation by consumers in the dissemination and creation of news, through social-media sharing, commenting, blogging, and the posting online of photos, audio, and video
  • Personalization of one’s streams of news via email, mobile apps, and social media
  • Source promiscuity Rather than having strong relationships with a handful of media brands, young people graze among a vast array of news outlets.

Here are some specific insights, as well as a few nascent trends worth watching.

They’re an intrinsic part of the process

Social-media tools allow anyone with a Facebook or Twitter account to play a role in determining how many readers a story reaches. And online communities such as the heavily trafficked Reddit enable readers to submit links to their favorite content, and vote up or down the content submitted by others, thereby changing a given item’s prominence on the site. The result is that the mainstream-media oligopoly is now just one force deciding what “the news” is and how important a story or image might be.

“Over the last 100 years, you go from a point when a newspaper would be able to set the tone and the five top stories of the day, to what Walter Cronkite and his cohort would say on the evening news, and then to the explosion of cable news, and now the Internet,” says Gabriel Snyder, 36, the editor of The Atlantic Wire and former editor in chief of Gawker. “We’ve gone from having just a few handfuls of places that might set the agenda to this proliferation that is reaching a near infinite number of people who can define what the top story is today.”

Ben Adler covers climate-change policy for Grist and is a contributing editor for CJR