If the little square boxes on our phone screens are candy, then news apps, to young users, are the equivalent of chewy, high-fiber granola bars. They're on the screen, sure, but 18- to 35-year-olds will almost always swipe past them in favor of the more sugary, more seamless social media apps, says a new report from the British-based Reuters Institute and consultancy firm Flamingo Group.
If and when these millennial and Gen Z readers click on the apps from The New York Times or The Washington Post, the report adds, it feels more like a chore than a treat.
Researchers tracked the phone usage of 20 respondents ages 18 to 35 from the United Kingdom and the United States as part of a larger project that surveyed more than 75,000 people on their digital news consumption. Through a two-week qualitative study, they found that respondents were spending 350 to 400 minutes, or about six hours a day, on their phones, but often less than 1 percent of that on news apps. No news apps, with the exception of Reddit, broke the top 25 apps used.
So why aren't younger audiences using news apps?
According to researchers, young adults, and particularly those raised as "digital natives" as part of Generation Z (ages 18 to 24), have high expectations for a "flawless, seamless, personalized online experience" that news organizations are not often able to provide.
This "seamlessness" refers to the user experience of the app -- including, for example, the desire for features such as customizable news feeds with an endless scroll -- but also to how news organizations integrate themselves to platforms such as Instagram or Twitter. Often, said Matt Taylor, a strategist at Flamingo who worked on the report, news organizations struggle with striking the right tone.
"It's like a person and how he behaves at different social circumstances," he said. "At the moment, it's either that this person is behaving similarly in all the places, so they're not fitting in, or they're trying way too hard to fit in, sort of like a dad trying to be cool at a party."
The key, Taylor said, is for news organizations to retain their brand but adapt it across multiple platforms. These instincts are embedded into the way young people use the Internet, which is why they expect it from other individuals and organizations.
The other challenge for news organizations, researchers say, is that for young users, there is a near-constant level of "background" or "indirect" exposure to news that not only dulls the desire to actively seek out news through dedicated apps but can cause fatigue that drives them to seek out content that is explicitly not news -- such as, you know, oddly satisfying "slime porn," or this video of a leather-clad motorcyclist in Belgium saving a tiny kitten.
"To be online today is to have these currents constantly hitting you," said Lucas Galan, head of applied data science at Flamingo. " ... Just by osmosis, you can quickly become tired with a story without really engaging with it in depth."
According to the study, many respondents found traditional news organizations "negative and depressing" and "actively looked for more entertaining or uplifting news in social media or aggregators."
Paula M. Poindexter, a communications professor at the University of Texas at Austin, agreed, adding that based on her research, it is not just that young people are shying away from news apps but also that their general interest in the act of reading the news seems to be waning.
In the past, children used to look at their parents or teachers reading the physical newspaper, which implicitly signaled to them that reading the news is an important part of adult life, she said. Since most American users -- not just millennials -- now get their news from social media and websites rather than the print product, children are growing up looking at adults staring at their phones, with little sense of what applications they are actually on. The "modeling" for news consumption that used to be present no longer exists, Poindexter said.
Uh-oh. So now what?
The researchers from Flamingo emphasize that their research does not suggest that younger audiences no longer have the appetite or, as frequently alleged by older pundits, the attention span for important journalism. They pointed, for example, to the growing interest among young adults in longer-form stories and podcasts as evidence that there is a "thirst" for deeper engagement with hard-hitting news. It just needs to be delivered on the right terms, they added.
News organizations need to make their apps "as simple and intuitive as Facebook or Netflix," the report states. They also need to adapt to the platforms that younger users have already integrated into their lives -- but without losing the authority of their brand.
Some organizations are already trying to do this: The New York Times launched a weekly documentary TV show on Hulu and FX earlier this year and more recently aired the pilot of "Diagnosis," another documentary series on Netflix. The Washington Post runs a TikTok account that, among other highlights, got into faux "beef" with Trevor Noah's "Daily Show."
Whether these efforts will pay off remains to be seen. Poindexter said she has been monitoring the news consumption habits of young users for close to a decade and still has not figured out whether active, meaningful engagement with news is evolving or fading altogether.
"If we do nothing -- and there's a lot of nothing being done -- (the latter) could very well be the outcome," she said.