“Let me tell you what we heard from young people. They want to be intellectually challenged.”
That was the message Shamma Al Mazrui, UAE Minister of State for Youth, told an audience of hundreds at the inaugural Global Media Congress.
Sharing findings of a survey that questioned younger generations from across the Middle East with anecdotes from her own conversations and family life, she told the audience that young people were not looking for an echo chamber.
"They don't want an algorithm that confirms what they already believe.”
The event, held in Abu Dhabi, gathered more than 1,200 media industry experts, influencers and investors to discuss the future of media, new trends and innovations in news. These were the men and women charged with creating the shape of media to come. And who else is that content for, if not for young audiences?
The 'big question'
Standing by The National’s exhibition space, greeting passers-by with an invitation to try our branded NFT creator tool, I was approached by a group of bright young women who asked first what my job was, then, second ― and impressively direct: what are you doing to create content for Gen Z?
It couldn’t have been more timely, not least because of the event’s thought-provoking keynote speech, but because as head of audience, leading our international social team, I have been immersed in research and workshops exploring the ways to understand, reach and meet the needs of "Zoomers".
Born in the late 1990s and 2000s and sandwiched between Millennials and Alphas, the cohort was almost called the iGeneration. A fitting moniker for the band of youth that is defined not by global political events like previous generations but by the technology it has never lived without.
The cut-off point between Millennials and Gen Z, as decided by consensus according to Pew Research, is currently 1996. For people born after this date, a culture of digital connectivity is ubiquitous.
Connectivity means communication and content. Endless streams of it. For publishers this works for us and against us. “Always on” means more eyeballs to catch (not literally, of course) but more noise to shout through.
Turning off the TV
Now back to Mariam Eldaly’s pressing question at the congress. The Middlesex University Dubai student was straight to the point, she wants to know how we are serving her and her peers. Of course I couldn’t give a short answer, but her fellow students listened attentively all the same.
TL;DR: research, formats, platforms, creativity, outreach and YOU.
An alarming amount of audience research in recent years seems to scream that younger audiences are turning off the news, no longer coming to dedicated websites or apps and turning off the TV. Add to that, the proliferation of influencers, dance routines, lip-syncs and short-form content of all kinds, and it paints a worrying picture for those of us in the business of news.
But that’s broad brushstrokes and the reality is far more nuanced. Zahrah Khan, a journalism student and one of the trio of keen students, said news just needed to be more engaging.
“Because of things like climate change, decisions now affect us more than anyone else, so we need to know what’s happening. We just want to know in interesting ways,” she said.
Are attention spans waning?
Craft researchers, who are behind The Kaleidoscope report on young people’s relationship with news, said Gen Z has always lived in a world where they are a participant in the internet.
“For young people news is not just digital, but social. They have grown up with the social, participatory web, which has conditioned their consumption behaviours, brand perceptions and attitude towards information."
The report also warns that attention spans are waning, but this is "at best misconstrued and at worst, a myth", according to Mark Egan and Justin Kings, who run specialist training courses for the European Broadcasting Union. Their viewpoint echoes Larry Milstein's, a consultant for companies looking to reach out to Gen Z: “Gen Zers have an uncanny ability to filter content.”
There are stats (we love them) that support this as a wider view. Research across 46 countries by Reuters Institute for Journalism found 43 per cent of 18-24s say that social media is their main source of news. They’re on social media for up to three hours a day. The 25-34 bracket is not far behind with 36 per cent saying social media is their main news source too.
No surprises there right? The same research found the younger generation is losing its connection with news apps and websites, suggesting they want their news to come to them in their feeds. So the carefully considered Editor’s Picks, big splashes and balanced paragraphs are lost in a space shaped by closely guarded algorithms tweaked and changed at the behest of a powerful few.
Vertical video is king
It’s been a heady month for social media headlines. Twitter seemingly descending into chaos since the Elon Musk buyout; functions axed along with its staff. Meta making record-breaking redundancies with much of its respected news products made redundant too. Ask any social media manager and they’ll tell you it is yet another month of many filled with platform tweaks and algorithm changes challenging every strategy going. If you didn’t get the memo: everyone needs to do vertical video everywhere.
Again not breaking news. But what needs to be new ― and now ― is a platform that recognises the Zoomer need for meaningful content that surprises them, smashes echo chambers and most of all asks and answers the most pressing questions in the most direct ways.
As Ms Al Mazrui said: “They want to be able to answer life's most pressing questions. They want to be able to find meaning to finding solutions for their society and their generation’s problems and they want a media from which they can borrow real-life experiences, and risk-free rehearsals of life without going through it.”