Reaching younger readers

If we’re going to reach Millennials and Gen-Z, we have to go where they are

Editor’s note:  Far too much of our conversation about reaching new readers is middle-age (and older) white men writing for other middle-age (and older) white men.  So we thought we needed to hear from a young reporter who’s part of the generation we so desperately want to reach.  Meet Brooke Crum (one of Tommy’s former students), who works as a reporter in Waco.

I recently wrote an article about a 15-year-old Waco High School student who was featured in a New York Times piece on Generation Z.

She was among some 900 Gen-Z’ers who responded to a query from the Times on its Instagram story, which simply asked members of her generation to describe how they are different from their friends. This student said she reads the news daily and takes an interest in politics.

While it was refreshing to hear of her interest in news, I was far more excited about how she connected with the New York Times – Instagram, the social media platform almost everyone under age 40 uses. According to Pew Research Center, 67 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds use Instagram and 62 percent use Snapchat, yet every news organization I have ever worked for in the past seven years has only focused on Facebook and Twitter. Yeah, they might have an Instagram account, but check out the date of the latest post. And is there a current story?

Our Instagram accounts lie stagnant, patiently waiting for the next Millennial in the newsroom to take the reins and manage the social media app that will organically allow us to tap the audience we need to survive as an industry.

I have never worked for a news organization that has truly engaged an audience, well, my age. Sure, my friends will read local news stories that pertain to them or if I bother them enough to read my latest story, but mostly they interact with national news organizations that use social media to its fullest potential. It’s just easier for them that way.

The only time we ever interact with those 18-and-unders is when we cover education and sports. They don’t reach out to us. They don’t read us.

Personally, my favorite news accounts to follow on Instagram are the New Orleans Times-Picayune and National Geographic. My love for all things New Orleans plus the Times-Picayune’s incredible photographers provide an endless stream of stunningly interesting photos, and I can witness scenes from around the world via Nat Geo photogs, who also write lengthy captions about what they photograph. I particularly enjoy Beverly Joubert, who mostly photographs big cats in Africa and writes about the importance of conservationism.

And Instagram is only one method of targeting Millennials and Generation Z – the largest and most diverse generation. We should still prioritize Facebook and Twitter. Millennials and the Gen Zs are on there, too, just much more infrequently.

But the thing is, they don’t know what a reporter does. They don’t know who Woodward and Bernstein are. They’ve never heard of the Pentagon Papers. They don’t even watch journalism movies.

I have the privilege of working with one of the reporters who cowered in a ditch for some two hours in 1993, while bullets whizzed past his head and struck the photographer’s car shielding him from the exchange of gunfire between the ATF and the Branch Davidians. He remembers using this strange newfangled device called a cellphone to tell his editor he and his colleagues were caught in the crossfire. He remembers telling another reporter whimpering with anxiety beside him to shut up. And he remembers how that photographer, who still works at the Tribune-Herald, drove that bullet-ridden car until it was totaled.

Tommy “Spoon” Witherspoon recently showed me around our museum at work, which has an entire room dedicated to the Branch Davidian coverage. He walked me through that day, how he got the tip when the search warrant would be served – on a Sunday – and how the Tribune-Herald staff followed the story from there. He did not tell me his source.

I tell friends and family about Spoon and about our work museum, which also has a room dedicated to Robert Griffin III, the famous Baylor quarterback who now plays for the Baltimore Ravens. They are fascinated. Most of them have similarly foggy memories to mine of those weeks in 1993, but we’ve never met anyone who lived through it. We’ve never heard their stories.

My parents grew up in Waco, but we were living in Dallas at the time of the standoff. They remember the news coverage, as do my aunt and uncles who still live in Waco. They don’t know Spoon, and I find that baffling. How can they not know anything about the man who has written some of the history of Waco?

On the other end of the spectrum is one of my former colleagues. She recently left the Tribune-Herald for a job outside of journalism, but you might not know it around town. People still come up to her with news tips and story ideas. They still send her Twitter messages. She deleted the Facebook account that thousands of Wacoans went to for news every day, but that has not stopped fans from tracking her down. They do not necessarily know who she is, but they knew what she did simply because she shared her job on social media. She opened up a window into the newsroom and the Tribune-Herald.

And that’s what the rest of us need to do. We need to open up the windows, claw off the cobwebs and invite the public inside. At the Waco Trib, we could invite them inside our museum and show them just how important and brilliant the journalists working for them are and how they have been honored for their work.  We can’t just assume the reading public knows what we do and how we do it — we need to show them.