It’s only May but it is not too early to announce this a dire year for digital news brands. In January, Vox Media announced it was laying off 7% of its workforce. In April, BuzzFeed announced the closure of its Pulitzer Prize-winning news division. Now . These brands were supposed to be the future. Now they might as well be sharing a grave with newspapers and television news.
There are of course macroeconomic conditions. Digital ad sales are down, with many platforms no longer hosting content from Russian-based companies and businesses, in general, tightening their belts amid increasingly volatile conditions.
Venture capitalists aren’t in a rush to support journalism, either. Shackled by , now is not the time for them to pump their cash into an enterprise that may never turn a profit.
Why the obsession with youth?
But there’s something else going on that no one is talking about: the obsession with youth. All over the world, media companies are rushing to capture the youngest market of news consumers in the misplaced hope that this will ensure their survival.
It hasn’t worked, and there’s a simple reason for it: young people don’t pay for news and they don’t particularly like it, either.
According to the Reuters Institute and the University of Oxford 2022 Digital News Report, the average age of a digital news subscriber is almost 50.
Yes, today’s 15- to 30-year-olds are tomorrow’s 40- to 55-year-olds. But such reasoning conceals the sad truth about how short the life cycle of modern news brands has turned out to be. BuzzFeed News and Vox Media both launched in 2011, barely enough time to see their young audience grow into consumers willing to pay for content. Vice News didn’t even get to see its tenth birthday before filing for bankruptcy earlier this month.
It’s not just newer platforms either. Legacy broadcasters, including those that are publicly funded, are also chasing younger audiences relentlessly. Like desperate lovers, they follow them wherever they may be, somersaulting breathlessly from Facebook to Instagram to Snapchat to TikTok in the vague hope that they’ll be noticed somewhere in the crowd.
The problem is that in a noisy place, even if you make a pleasant impression, you’ll be forgotten almost instantly. Those youngsters you’re keen to woo may be able to repeat the punchline you delivered, but they’ll never recall it came from you. The platforms they’re on today may not exist — or indeed — in ten years’ time.
There’s a reason the average age of a digital news subscriber is around 50: these are people who grew up paying for news. People who remember rubbing off the smudges of ink from the paper they bought at their local corner shop. People who gathered with their families to watch the evening news on one of the small number of channels covered by their licensing fee.
The stories of BuzzFeed, Vox and Vice are cautionary tales. The habit of paying for news starts young. It’s not something you grow into. Neglect this fact and you’ll find yourself hopping aimlessly from one platform to the other, offering your best work, for free, to youngsters who barely know your name.
Those algorithms are wasted on the young. If you want loyalty and money, seek out a 50-year-old. Maybe they’ll even tell their kids about you.
Edited by: Uwe Hessler
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