Editor’s note: Jeff Israely, a former Time magazine foreign correspondent in Europe, is the cofounder of a news startup called Worldcrunch in Paris. For the past six years, he’s been describing and commenting on the startup process here at Nieman Lab. Read his past installments here.
PARIS — There’s nothing to make two tweens cringe quite like having a self-proclaimed cool dad. For the dads in question, making your offspring cringe is one of the unexpected joys that arrives in your 40s. It’s the kids’ own fault really, for bringing that lolingo in ‘da house. My latest discovery is that #goals no longer means goals, or at least not exactly. I think? Well, anyway, I am always able to try things out on the 20-somethings in the office. (No, no, Dad, please tell me you didn’t!?)
But there’s also a professional motivation behind my ongoing attention to the language, likes, and habits of the younger generations. News, we should remember, used to be something almost exclusively produced by and for people of a certain age. If a teenager or young adult happened to be reading a newspaper or watching a news broadcast, she’d be well aware of entering a grownup realm of measured cadence, language, and codes. If the subject matter happened to be something youth-related, it would be flagged with patronizing clues (Tom Brokaw baritoning: “Kids today…”) and reporters trying to capture the scene and quote all that jive talk accurately.
In today’s digitally driven world, the kids have begun to set the rules for the rest of us. That means breaking long-held newsroom commandments about structure, style, tone, the writer never entering the story, the story never assuming knowledge.
This real or perceived reign of youth raises questions beyond whether it’s ever okay to put emoji in your lede or not-so-subtly tweak your tone to attract that dream millennial demographic. Newsroom and boardroom power balances aside, the generational content question is key to understanding what is happening to the news as it blends in ever further with all other bits of information and entertainment (and everything else) that float in our digital waters.
It’s true that the news bundle has always included coverage that was fundamentally entertainment. It’s also true that disruptive story forms and journalistic writing styles to shock Gray Ladies have popped up plenty of times in the past. The difference now is not only the pace at which the old rules are being broken, but that all the created content coexists in the same space and time of the flat Google reservoir and the flowing Facebook stream.
Does this mean a much welcomed smashing of AP Stylebook worship and liberation of the practice of journalism? Or is this youth-driven free-for-all bound to rob the news industry of its unique voice of authority that is ultimately the singular potential source of its value, monetary and otherwise?
It may be easy for some to dismiss a BuzzFeed listicle as antithetical to the serious role of informing the public. But what about the kinds of lists that John Herrman cranked out for The Awl? His insightful and entertaining musings in distinct (and numbered) blocks of text are a kind of post-blogging stream-of-consciousness. Though unburdened by the connective tissue of conventional paragraph form, the writing finds its own structure and voice. It is a digitally native means of communication that can be both easier to read and write in the space and rhythms of the Internet, which is increasingly consumed on your phone. (Herrman has just been scooped up by the Gray Lady herself. Will she let him keep on riffing?)The Times’ attempts to wrestle with its digital identity was summed up last year by the company’s then head of branding as the “grandpa in a nightclub” problem. Avoiding such potential awkwardness, it would seem to follow, means either not going to the nightclub or being less of a grandpa.
It’s a vivid metaphor, but ultimately both the nightclub and grandpa are bound to change. For now, this tension comes as the journalism industry (legacy and upstarts alike) asks itself how much control it must concede to a digital distribution ecosystem built and run by 20- and 30-something engineers and designers. Even while new ways of producing and sharing content are certainly welcome, there’s a potentially fatal risk in abiding, almost desperately, by the conceit that youth is always both the medium and the message.
For a small digital media like ours, produced by a mix of 20-, 30-, and 40-somethings, we are faced with the same constant questioning of how to produce, package and deliver the stories: What plays well on which platform? Who’s our target? What’s our voice? We have recently launched a feature that aims to speak with our old-school language(s), but with the feel and rhythms and tools of the social web. We think it’s cool, and we’ll see what the kids say.
How far then should we all take this pursuit of the treasured “readers of tomorrow?” One thing we tend to forget in this pile-on pursuit of eternal youth is that our target demographic of the moment is bound to grow older. In light of this biological truth, then, maybe we should start to ask what millennials — this first generation of readers/users/producers/consumers born on the Internet — will actually be like in, say, 2035? It’s hard to know if they’ll still be on Facebook; perhaps (hopefully?) emoji use and Snapchat output will have ebbed. Other new stuff we can’t imagine will no doubt be keeping them connected and competing for their attention.
Still there are certain things we can count on 20 years from now for the current flock of millennials: Few will have yet reached the risky grandpa-or-grandma-in-a-nightclub demographic. Instead, it’s safe to say there will be no shortage of onetime 20-something hipsters who have turned into 40-something dads and moms. What stories and information will matter to them? How will they want it packaged and delivered? We should be busy building those news products right now.