4 lessons about Millennials and news

March 16, 2015

Millennials care about current events.

That statement shouldn’t be news. But a study released today by the Media Insight Project, a collaboration between the American Press Institute and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, confirms as much about the first generation of digital natives. Eighty-five percent of respondents said that “keeping up with the news is at least somewhat important to them,” while 69 percent added that they consume news daily.

The survey, which polled 1,046 18- to 34-year-olds across the country, offers a glimpse inside the collective consumption habits of Americans who reached adulthood amid seismic shifts in the media landscape. It casts doubt on some stereotypes — that social media expose users to only a narrow range of opinions — and supports others, including that younger generations consume news periodically throughout the day.


Though 87 percent of respondents reported having paid for an online service in the past year — think Netflix — just 40 percent said they had done the same for a news subscription or app. Oddly enough, print magazines and newspapers ranked foremost among them, while their digital competitors lagged behind.

The study’s findings will be presented Monday at a Newspaper Association of America conference in Nashville. Here are four more takeaways from the report:

The real competition for attention

News organizations attempting to court a younger audience aren’t just competing with one another for eyeballs — they’re competing with Gmail and Netflix. About 64 percent of respondents said they regularly keep up with world events when online, making news consumption the fifth most popular activity among nine offered by the survey. That compares favorably to shopping, playing games, and checking the weather, though not so much to email, keeping up with friends, and streaming music, TV, or movies.


That’s not altogether surprising, as the Web has revolutionized personal communication and entertainment. The upside for media outlets is that among respondents who said they regularly keep up with news online, 69 percent do so at least once a day. That’s similar to the proportion who socialize with friends and stream content daily.

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Different sources for different types of information

The study divided online information into 24 different sub-categories, ranging from pop culture to international news to how-to advice. Social media was the primary point of entry to softer news topics, including food, fitness, fashion, and celebrities. The lone exception is sports news, for which Millennials gravitate toward more traditional news organizations.


Respondents generally turned to search engines and aggregators to find more practical information, including price comparisons and professional advice. And for hard news topics, such as political or economic news, they utilized media outlets that feature original reporting. That latter category isn’t without exceptions, most notably information about faith and social issues such as race. On those topics, respondents leaned mostly on social media to find information.

Facebook is king

The social network has revolutionized how Millennials interact, and it also dominates the way we absorb information. “Of the 24 different news and information topics asked about,” the report said. “Facebook ranked as the No. 1 gateway for 13 and the second-most popular choice for seven others.” Though most of the former category comprised softer lifestyle topics, Facebook was also the top access point for a majority of respondents seeking information on social issues, crime, local news, and natural disasters.


Though the study suggests that social media use by younger Millennials may be splintering among more options, it also highlights Facebook’s dominance as a tool for learning information. Its utility as a news provider towers over that of YouTube, Instagram, and even Twitter, where many journalists spend a disproportionate amount of time. Facebook’s primary draw, stated by 76 percent of respondents, is that it allows users to see what their friends are talking about.

The importance of search

Millennials who use the Web to research a topic “fairly deeply” primarily explore hard news topics or news you can use, such as how-to advice. Search engines were far and away the respondents’ first choice for deep dives. “And when Millennials do dig deeper,” the report said, “the most important qualities that make a destination useful are that they know the source well (57 percent) and that this digital source is transparent and rich with references and links (52 percent).” Those preferences for links and transparency suggest that Millennials are more actively engaged in their news consumption — more constructively skeptical of what they read — than many observers have speculated.


Search engines allow users unmatchable freedom and reach in exploring the topics they choose. Millennials’ reliance on such a tool for contextual information suggests that news organizations should focus more attention on how to take advantage of it. This could hold real potential for legacy outlets, whose archives on various topics stretch back decades or longer.

David Uberti is a writer in New York. He was previously a media reporter for Gizmodo Media Group and a staff writer for CJR. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti.