News faces an age crisis: it cannot attract young people. In the minds of the young, serious journalism has the same status as picking up the phone or drinking Horlicks. We young folk are not renowned for buying newspapers or making time to watch Newsnight. So what can the industry do to win our affection?
It will not be easy. We are a flighty and suspicious bunch. We must be coaxed gently to accept the wisdom of our elders, for what if this thing you have made for us, is a trap? We fear it will ruin our carefully cultivated coolness. So, the sad fact is, the harder you chase us, the faster we run.
Face it, we are even prepared to abandon what was once ours. We quit Facebook in great swathes when our parents joined. Even those among us who stuck it out use it only sparingly, and not at all to achieve the purposes for which it was designed.
Facebook is meant to be a way to stay conveniently connected, to update those close to us about our lives. But we don’t do that anymore because our parents do. For us, Facebook has become a rarely disturbed home for nostalgia. We use it to preserve photographs taken in our school days and status updates from when we were taking GCSEs. Now, our feed is devoid of genuine updates, it’s full of memes.
Memes are humorous, often satirical, sometimes cynical images shared on the internet. They are likely to be overlayed with words that give a new context to a photo, changing its meaning. They are self-referential, intentionally generationally-exclusive, a kind of droll social commentary. It’s a form of humour that has come to define our generation. It is an expression of our disillusionment with mainstream narratives.
In its hunt for young consumers, the news industry might find it useful to understand that insincerity is this generation’s favourite form of rebellion. We are fed up with the propulsion of tired narratives, so we satirise them and share them among ourselves.
Remember Jeremy Corbyn’s 2017 general election “youthquake”? Though the psephological impact has since been debunked, it remains true that Corbyn crafted a persona that resonated with young people. He did it better that any other modern politician.
For examples of his extreme “meme-ability”, see the 23k-strong following of the “Depressed Vegetarians for Corbyn” Facebook page. It was made after an article in the Independent revealed that Corbyn voters tend to be “depressed vegetarians” whose favourite comfort foods “include vegetarian dal and vegetarian bangers and mash”.
Corbyn, the revered icon, became the frontman for this community of depressed veggies and the subject of varied and hyperbolic meme-ing. He was even pictured with a comically large courgette. In the comments below, young people “tag” their friends, spreading the content like wildfire across the platform - a feat of which traditional news outlets can only dream.
Followers of the page pursue comic disillusionment and seek to reposess the established news media’s caricatures of young people. “Corbynistas” took the way they were characterised in the news and ran with it, stretching the joke to absurdity. Our millennial sense of humour is practiced in the reappropriation of the older generation’s efforts to pin us down; every renewed effort is a new meme.
What can those trying to make content for young people take from this? The young are clearly, and contagiously, sharing their disillusionment with mainstream narratives. This is evident beyond the anecdotal. The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism recently reported that young people are among those most likely to distrust the news and consider it biased.
This piece is not a directive to abandon sincerity entirely, nor do I suggest editors should to replicate the millennial sense of humour. Indeed, that would probably not win any of the young listeners, readers or viewers the news media yearns so desperately to attract.
The best path would be not to pander - surely no parent of a surly teenager would ever give them everything they say they want? -but rather to mend the disillusionment.
Take the BBC’s latest exercise in attracting the under 30s, Beyond Today on the brand new BBC Sounds app, which aims to “take a step back” and dedicate a whole podcast each day to one issue. The change of pace is likely to be a welcome departure from our life of relentless digital feeds. The podcasts are comfortingly leisurely in pace, in contrast to the speed at which breaking news lights up our smartphones. Each begins with a reassuring promise to begin at the beginning and the content is studded with amusing sound effects. It is all a sincere attempt to inform young people about significant, contemporary issues. While the podcasts are misguidedly labelled “Hot Podcasts” in the app, this kind of content, alongside the videos from BBC Minute, all seem clued up on the snappy stories young people’s abbreviated attention spans crave.
But how do you replicate the viral content that we produce ourselves? While memes are entirely unsuitable for replication in news journalism, mainstream news outlets these already have a wealth of inspiration (and competition) in the form of Youtubers, Netflix producers and bloggers. They all have one thing in common: self-awareness, Netflix programmes make self-referential jokes about their platform, Youtube’s Leena Norms’ delivers deliciously self-deprecating analysis of Brexit and a little light literary discussion too. If traditional news can adopt some of the internet’s charming self-awareness, it may perhaps win over a few of us.
We are looking for ways engage sincerely with the news. We just ache for a change from the pandering and the caricatures of ourselves we see portrayed in the news. We cannot meme for ever, so give us something sincere, snappy and self-aware to engage with. But please, don’t try to meme. That would be dreadful beyond description.