To appeal to Gen Z, get them in the room
After spending six weeks with a group of teens from social mobility cold-spots, Sunday Mirror editor Gemma Aldridge has come away not only with a new respect for the cohort, but excitement for what traditional newsbrands can achieve by respecting and working with them.
‘The youth of today…’ — it’s a trope flung about with sneering abandon and eye-rolls by middle-aged grumblers. Disengaged, apathetic teens with no stake in society and no drive to change it, that’s the usual subtext.
My experience has run completely counter to this. Gen Z is the most fired-up, interested — and interesting — generation we’ve seen for decades, and it remains the biggest untapped opportunity for growth in newsbrands today. Yet somehow, almost two decades after the social media revolution promised a portal to the post-millennial world, the media industry is still failing Gen Z.
There’s no question whoever cracks the market will tap into a huge consumer base and reap the rewards for years to come. So why has no traditional media brand achieved it convincingly yet?
Spoiler alert: I don’t have all the answers, and I know many businesses, mine included, have made great strides in learning more about Gen Z. But having spent part of the summer working on a Reach-wide outreach scheme, I have new insight into what most major newsbrands are getting wrong.
Wanting to be ‘involved, not just spoken to’
The Changemakers Media Challenge scheme aims to introduce teens from social mobility cold-spots to the prospect of a career in media, but what I learnt from it actually had less to do with their backgrounds, and much more to do with how their generation interacts with the news.
Over six weeks, our students worked to create a multimedia campaign aimed at improving society for young people. With mentoring from Reach journalists, they produced written pieces and video and social content, then came to our London office and pitched their campaigns to us. I was blown away by what these young people came up with, and not in a “aren’t they cute” kind of way, but in a way that really made me rethink my assumptions.
There were campaigns on everything from sustainable fashion to blood donation, mental health awareness and teaching personal finance skills in the National Curriculum. They made their cases so passionately and their content — especially for TikTok and Snapchat — was engaging, funny, smart.
But when we asked them which newsbrands (any newsbrand!) they would target to give their content maximum impact, we got tumbleweeds.
When we asked who they trust for their news, they repeatedly pointed to social channels, leaning heavily on user generated content and on other young voices.
One pupil explained that he wanted to be “involved, not just spoken to”. They expect a two-way street; a symbiotic relationship they can take part in.
Loss of confidence in traditional voices of authority
It was clear that this generation is not looking to an authoritative voice to impart knowledge. You can’t blame them for having a problem with the establishment. If you were born in 2005 and will reach adulthood this year, you’ve spent the majority of your conscious existence being let down by figures of authority.
You’ve lived through a pandemic that curbed your freedoms and destroyed your education while those in power were flouting the laws and lying about it. You’ve watched criminal police officers go unchecked while stopping and searching you and your peers if they don’t like the look of you. And of course, the traditional media hasn’t been untouched by scandal during this time either.
Fundamentally the traditional voices of authority from Westminster to Fleet Street have lost the confidence of the younger generation. Gen Z no longer believes we have the power to make meaningful change — or that we’re brave enough to act.
But my ray of hope is that they haven’t lost confidence in affecting that change themselves. If we can harness that passion and confidence, we can become their allies, and that is how we win them over.
Get younger voices in the room
It’s not enough to speak to young people, we need to listen and challenge our own ideas about “how things are done”. That means employing them, commissioning them, and making sure they have a voice when they do arrive in newsrooms. If we want to reach 18-year olds, we can’t run a news conference where the youngest person is 30.
We need to keep innovating and creating content that combines our knowledge and experience with a fresh perspective. We need to enlist Gen Z in the development and testing of our UX and make sure they are at the heart of all that we do. Only when they can see themselves in us will they trust us again.
Schemes like Changemakers will hopefully cultivate a new talent stream from a generation who can work with the experience of our existing newsrooms to give them a new perspective on the ways we can deliver content.
If we’re willing to face change – sometimes difficult change – in order to reflect all of the people we’re trying to engage, I think we have a fighting chance to reach this generation and show them why we deserve to be part of their lives.
Gemma Aldridge is editor of the Sunday Mirror.