The new news: How the media is attracting young readers

(Helen Quach/Design director and Maya O’Kelly/Prime art director)

By Isabelle Friedman

May 29, 2024 at 11:03 p.m.

Carmella Boykin had to be TV-ready by 3:30 a.m. each morning.

Although she didn’t originally want a traditional job right out of college, Boykin saw the CBS morning news broadcasting gig as her “Oprah moment” for launching a media career.

But standing in front of the camera live on air every morning while everyone she knew was asleep felt a bit absurd. How many 20-somethings watched TV during daylight hours, let alone before dawn? 

Boykin, passionate as she was about the journalism she produced, only consumed her news through social media. So when she took her next career step, she decided to create the news that people her age would actually consume.

Now, young people are Boykin’s primary audience as a Washington Post TikTok host and producer who creates content for its more than 1 million followers. She represents a growing trend within the news industry that seeks to bridge the gap between young adults and the news.

According to student journalists from community colleges and large public universities, young people are just as engaged with politics, controversies and cultural trends as previous generations. Rather than subscribing to newspapers or watching cable news, many young people instead use social media – especially Instagram, TikTok and X, formerly known as Twitter – to hear about events and inform their opinions.

“A lot of people assume that they’re just on their phones all day, they don’t want to read,” said Carolyn Burt, an audience engagement producer with Southern California News Group, who graduated from Cal State University, Northridge in 2022. “That’s not the case. They care about being informed. If you’re on these apps, you can see they care about being informed. We just have to find new ways to make sure we’re getting that information to them.”

Based on a 2022 Pew Research Center study, U.S. adults under 30 displayed similar amounts of trust in information obtained from social media as that from national news outlets – a reflection both of social media platforms’ growth and a decreasing viewership among traditional news companies.

For example, amid the Palestine solidarity encampments at UCLA and other universities, many protesters did not trust traditional media to relay their points of view, so thousands turned to Twitch streamers as an alternative. These streamers provided real-time, unfiltered views into the encampments, the ensuing violence and police crackdowns. 

(Helen Quach/Design director)

While social media news consumption is not unique to young people, it’s certainly heightened for that demographic, who may be more familiar with social media than older age groups. Jim Newton, a lecturer of public policy and former Los Angeles Times editor of the editorial pages, added that young people may have less disposable income, so paywalls may limit their access to many of the nation’s largest traditional outlets.

To mitigate cost barriers for UCLA students, the Undergraduate Students Association Council began funding access to the New York Times for undergraduate students in summer 2023. UCLA Library also provides access to many national outlets and other regional publications through third-party databases. Some news outlets also provide free access to articles relevant to public safety.

But not all young people have access to university accounts, nor do all universities offer the same resources. Without free access, young people are less likely to read the news.

“I know a lot of people that will click on an article, and if there’s a paywall, they just move to the next article, and like, ‘This is not worth my time. I’ll find something that’s free,’” said Kyle Garcia Takata, the 2023-2024 social media editor and 2024-2025 editor in chief at UC Berkeley’s Daily Californian.

With the internet at young people’s fingertips, their “something free” often becomes social media.

As the segment of young digital news consumers grows, many news outlets are working to meet young audiences where they are. Nearly 90% of digital news sites were on TikTok in 2023, compared with 57% just two years prior, according to Pew Research Center. The Post, for instance, has amassed 1.7 million followers on TikTok, with young people as the primary audience. The Washington Post has also added new roles focused on social media and audience engagement; Boykin’s role did not even exist when she graduated college. 

Burt said some professional outlets or reporters undervalue these platforms and their users and have not yet explored their full capabilities.

“Yes, there is dancing on TikTok, and sometimes you’ll even see reporters dancing on TikTok,” Burt said. “But if you summarize it down just to that, you’re missing out on so much. And the better we understand it and the different types of videos that go into it, the better we can be on there too.”

Some outlets have also used the personable energy of short-video platforms to build brand awareness and make newsrooms more approachable.

As trust in the media matches historic lows – with nearly 40% of Americans saying they have no trust at all in the media, according to a 2023 Gallup poll – outlets face a heightened demand for transparency. 

“I think sometimes people forget that there are real people behind the name ‘the Daily Californian,’” said Garcia Takata, a rising fourth-year media studies student.

To humanize their newspapers and appeal to their audience, student newspapers such as the Michigan Daily have posted videos showing a day in the life of a reporter at a media conference, snippets of newsroom scenes set to “The Office” theme song or clips of staffers presenting mock awards to different teams at the outlet. 

The Washington Post has also leaned into trends and humor to create relationships with viewers via recurring characters and inside jokes. Boykin developed a trio of Boykin cutouts known as the Carmellas for her TikToks, who ask questions and act as Boykin’s hype girls. They provide familiarity and a light-hearted layer to traditionally cut-and-dry topics from an institutional newspaper.

In order to attract younger audiences, outlets also must consider their coverage topics: Are they writing about points young people care about?

Most outlets already cover climate change, social justice and other areas that affect young people. But creating content for younger audiences also requires clear explanations without condescension.

“The danger in this is if it’s done by older people who think they know more than the people they’re writing about, it ends up coming off very badly,” Newton said.

He recalled one professional outlet’s previous attempts at reaching young people via a “Campus Edition,” which he felt was indicative of a layer of condescension that can be built in when newspapers try to be “young.” Newton added that by nature of working toward a degree, a college-based audience is already more educated than the majority of the country.

However, young people are not opposed to more approachable journalism – in fact, student journalists expressed interest in truly explanatory content.

“I’m not an Einstein,” said Cebelihle Hlatshwayo, the editor in chief of the Corsair at Santa Monica College. “The biggest thing I’ll look for is if you can explain to me something in the simplest terms that makes sense for me to consume.” 

Boykin, who graduated from college just three years ago, knows herself and readers may have so-called “stupid questions,” but said they’re not stupid just for having them.

When O.J. Simpson died in April, Boykin realized while making a TikTok video for the Post that most young people were not even alive during Simpson’s infamous trial. So instead of creating a video on the circumstances of his death, she answered the basic questions: Who even was O.J? Why had he been on trial? How are the Kardashians related to him?

Student newspapers – most of which direct their content primarily to students – serve as examples of news outlets considering alternative methods to connect with younger audiences.

“There’s a little bit more creative freedom where you know the audience you’re giving that information to is probably going to be younger,” Burt said. “If it’s students, you know that they want to see more fun things with that too – a less traditional mentality with it.”

Even if the topic may not be something young audiences seem inherently interested in, such as state or local politics, student journalists said news outlets can still attract young audiences if they demonstrate the topic’s relevance. The Daily Cal, for instance, covers Berkeley’s City Council and reported on two council members resigning within just a few weeks of each other. With two special elections, Garcia Takata said the Daily Cal’s coverage has made students consider local politics and its relevance in ways they perhaps hadn’t before.

Takata’s social media team also earned recognition for their Twitter coverage of gunshots on-campus in February. Their coverage of the event beat the school’s own emergency warning system, quickly informing students of an ongoing safety threat when timeliness mattered most. 

But not all outlets or accounts follow these same principles. By relying on social media, consumers risk misinformation or incomplete information.

Journalism already has few professional barriers compared to medicine or law, for instance, which pose specific education and testing requirements. But especially on social media, anyone can contribute to the spread of free information and exchange of ideas. Many student and professional newspapers are trained in journalistic ethics when posting on their social media accounts. However, friends, family and other social media creators don’t have the same rigorous fact-checking process as these institutions.

“The downside to that is that the airways now get filled with opportunistic, pseudo-journalists, who are merely feeding off the carcass of society,” said Francis Steen, an associate professor of communication. “It’s not feeding society. It’s not educating citizens to make good decisions.” 

But even if your TikTok ‘For You’ feed doesn’t send you down a rabbit hole of “fake moon landing” or “birds aren’t real” videos, algorithms feed off social media engagement habits to bring you content similar to what you’ve already expressed interest in. It’s not in social media’s nature to challenge users, so when an echo chamber of agreeable opinions doubles as your news source, consumers lose the variety of perspectives found in traditional media.

“It’s so easy for you to get into this cycle of just whatever is making you feel better and … doesn’t feel overwhelming,” Hlatshwayo said.

However, when users are on social media for hours each week amid high-tension news cycles, algorithms’ echo chambers can become all-encompassing. The news becomes unescapable.

Some college students, such as Milan Rafaelov, an editor in chief of The Valley Star at Los Angeles Valley College, feel an intense news cycle can be a wake-up call, as they noticed with the ongoing Israel-Hamas war.

“We’re not going to pretend it’s not happening,” Rafaelov said. “We’re going to focus on it even more because it’s so awful and because people should know about this and we should be educated on this topic. … I had a feeling of both the news can weigh you down but they can also be empowering at the same time.” 

But other students expressed a sense of burnout from the news.

As COVID-19 death tolls rose in 2020, Tina Yu, now a co-managing audience engagement editor at the Michigan Daily, started to lose the sense of magnitude. Hearing higher and higher case numbers every day desensitized her.

“I kind of feel like I need to pull away in order for that number and the things that are happening in the country or around the world to still have meaning,” said Yu, a third-year communication and media and information student.

(Helen Quach/Design director and Maya O’Kelly/Prime art director)

Outlets must also remember that like any group, young people are not monolithic. Not all young people are even on social media after realizing that it is exhausting or unhealthy after being exposed to it for their whole lives, Burt said.

Some would simply prefer not to get the news from social media. Cole Martin, Yu’s co-managing audience engagement editor at the Michigan Daily, likes to get a laugh when he scrolls. Martin, a third-year communication and media student, said he doesn’t really keep up with the news – except in the context of his job at the newspaper, of course.

Kyra Magda, a first-year communication transfer student, relies on word of mouth, search engines and Apple News – in particular, the widgets on her home screen. She also receives updates about UCLA happenings via emails or from clubs’ social media pages. Sometimes she would gather in front of the TV to watch big events unfold, such as the eclipse or daily coverage of COVID-19.

Forgoing social media almost entirely, Hlatshwayo often gets news via WhatsApp – her main form of communication with friends and family. She also downloaded Snapchat to communicate with her nieces and follows some accounts such as “The Philip DeFranco Show,” a news commentary program. She prefers news that is concise and clear, but the Snapchat snippets often make her interested enough to want to view a more complete video on YouTube.

Regardless of platform, UCLA professors and professional journalists agreed that a degree of responsibility lies with both readers and outlets to engage with each other. 

Burt said students should make conscious efforts to go beyond social media to learn from professional news outlets about their community. But journalists also need to demonstrate the relevance of news to consumers’ lives, and meet readers on the platforms they rely on most.

“What can news sites do to make the news interesting, to make it relevant?” Steen said. “This is just the craft of journalism. That task has always been there.”

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