Some analysts believe that young people are no less trusting of high-quality news brands than were previous generations. “Mistrust is not necessarily any stronger than it used to be, when you adjust for life stage,” argues danah boyd, 35, a senior researcher at Microsoft Research (her formal name is lowercase). “Adults have a different level of trust than teenagers.” Baby Boomers, too, were suspicious of mainstream media when they were younger (remember Abbie Hoffman’s famous admonition not to trust anyone over 30?). As they mature, today’s teenagers may develop trust for certain news sources, but perhaps not the ones their parents favored.
The New York Times, hoping to remain one of those brands, is already targeting the next generation. In February, the newspaper revealed that it is prototyping a pared-down digital subscription offering—with less content and at a lower price point—intended to appeal to teens and twentysomethings.
Participant Media, an Oscar-winning film and documentary production company, plans to launch a millennial-oriented cable network, called Pivot, this summer. Evan Shapiro, president of Participant Media Television, says its programs “will be more about conversation and less about one person speaking from a pulpit, giving their opinion.” He cites the shows of MSNBC’s Christopher Hayes and Melissa Harris-Perry as models of respectful discourse, featuring a range of panelists sparring with wit rather than belligerence. “The shows that millennials look to usually have a point of view, with a bent they are interested in, like The Daily Show and Colbert. They are interested in politics, but not partisan bickering.” Alas, the first program announced is a gimmicky-sounding show described by its host, the notably unwitty pundit Meghan McCain, as a “cross between Meet the Press and Jackass.”
The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are frequently cited as popular news sources by teenagers and preteens, according to Alan Miller, president and CEO of the News Literacy Project, which works to teach middle-school and high-school students how to approach the vast array of news sources they encounter. He warns that snippets of information or video are often posted online and linked by blogs and shared on social media, without relevant context. Miller cites the cautionary tale of Shirley Sherrod, the Department of Agriculture official who was forced to resign after conservative commentator Andrew Breitbart posted misleading video showing selective portions of what she said in a speech. “Getting information from so many sources underscores the need for skepticism,” Miller says, “especially because there is a tendency to believe things that come from friends, and that is especially true among young people.”
A new level of engagement
Eli Pariser, 32 and a former executive director of MoveOn.org, last year launched Upworthy, a site aimed at fostering the spread of content it considers important. “Upworthy is an effort to ensure that people getting their news through social feeds see content about the topics that really matter,” explains Pariser. “The New York Times often promotes articles on the front page that, if you look at the Web metrics, do very poorly. Articles about Afghanistan get very low social traffic—they get hundreds of shares, compared with thousands for other topics—but the editors make a decision that people need to know about a war in a foreign country. As we move into the Twitter and Facebook era, how do you make sure people stay on top of topics like that?”
The answer, Pariser believes, is to showcase essential aspects of important stories: “It’s about finding shareable bits of content and dressing them up with great headlines and page design so they can compete with the cat photos that fill up people’s news feeds,” he says. “There’s a chart about media consolidation—when you got people to look at it, they got really interested and wanted to share it. But it’s hard to get people to care about media consolidation. The hook of the headline was ‘The Real Reason They Still Play “Mrs. Robinson” on the Radio.’ Eighty percent of stations have the same playlists across the country, because they are owned by the same company. Several hundred thousand people came to check out that chart. But if you had a headline that said, ‘Here’s a Chart about Media Consolidation in America,’ obviously it wouldn’t do as well.”
For young people who are already interested in an issue and want to address it, there are websites that plug right into social-media platforms. On Change.org, “someone starts a petition, and they’re asked who in their networks they want to share it with,” says Matt Slutsky, 32, the site’s managing director of business development. A recent Change.org petition asking the Boy Scouts to accept gay members got 1.4 million signatures and was covered by major media outlets such as CBS News.