Study: Legacy and Pure-Play News Sites Vie for Millennial Readers

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David Arabov says he co-founded the millennial-aimed Elite Daily, which has more than 74 million readers at the beginning of its fourth year, because he got tired of the “dull, one-dimensional” way traditional media — primarily newspapers — covered the news. But it turns out that the millennials who feel most informed are those who get their news from newspapers — both print and digital versions — according to a new survey that Elite Daily co-produced in partnership with the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications.

But after you get over your surprise and read the findings more closely you see that in sheer numbers of millennial news consumers, nothing beats “pure plays” — stand-alone sites that aren’t connected to newspapers and other traditional media, like broadcast  television.

The table below that I’ve adapted from the survey compares how millenials use various sources of community and other news and shows how those numbers contrast with those for sites which millennials say keep them “most informed”:


To me, the numbers, overall, show that newspaper websites, while they get higher “most informed” numbers than pure plays, have a lot of work to do if they want to stay in the long game with pure plays and their command of audience (34.5% for pure plays v. 21.8% for sites of traditional media). Weighing down on the legacy sites will be the constraints on audience growth imposed by their subscription fees that average about $10 a month; all their pure-play competitors are free.

Millennials are generally defined as those 18 to 37 years old, and are the biggest U.S. population group. But the survey focuses on the 18-to-24-year-old subgroup of millennials. This subgroup is very important to all digital news platforms because it grew up with computers and smartphones. The subgroup is also important because, based on their career curve, its members are on the threshold of becoming very active consumers — the kind retail and service businesses need to keep reaching to compete and grow their revenue.

Elite Daily’s Arabov says millennials are passionate about what they believe in. According to the survey, that includes, in the order of their ranking, the environment, equal rights and pay, poverty and access to health care — all topics which can be made into local and hyperlocal stories. One issue that’s not on the survey short list but should be is mobility.

Younger millennials in cities are the least into cars, compared with other adult groups, and their attitude is a significant factor in the long-term slump in auto sales. New car sales to millennials in their 20s are down to 27% overall compared to a high of 38% in 1985. Conversely, millennials are the biggest and most enthusiastic group of bicyclists. Digital platforms — pure plays as well as traditional media — can tap into that enthusiasm by providing steady, well-informed coverage of what their communities are doing to improve bike mobility and safety. Such coverage will require an initial investment in labor-intensive editorial resources, but then the site has a template of contextual information that can be used for follow-up coverage (e.g., hot spots for accidents, new bike lanes).

The Gannett chain’s Asheville Citizen-Times is tuned into covering the very active local biking community. But it missed a big opportunity in its coverage of an Asheville City Council retreat earlier this year that looked at the status of bike and pedestrian safety. The article would have been much more meaningful, and interesting if it featured the progress report by the local bike club Asheville on Bikes on what needs to be done. The chart would have required no more editorial involvement than the few seconds of COPY and PASTE.

On the pure-play side, rapidly growing independent ARLnow, whose four sites cover key communities in metro Washington, D.C. — all with big millennial populations — makes sure its solid bike-mobility and -safety coverage is well illustrated (as in this three-slide graphic). The slides came from Bike Arlington, so all ARLnow had to do was COPY and PASTE to produce an article that has attracted a lot of audience engagement.

I asked Rusty Coats, executive director of the Local Medium Consortium, which represents 55 legacy media companies (Gannett is not a member) with 1,200 publications what he thought about the study of millennials:

“Where users originate is the key — and that’s social media. It’s interesting from this study that Twitter is just about to take over search as a primary news source [see table above] because that’s already happened. The LMC continues to help its members understand and leverage social media to help consumers get to the content they want from the brands they trust. We do this with education, sharing of best practices and key partnerships, both those already in place and ones we’ll announce in the coming weeks.

“The fact that ‘online-only news sites’ is placed above websites of traditional news media may include a blurring of the definition of where that news originated. But, if its face value is true, this underscores why the LMC has partnerships with Yahoo and Google, and why it is leveraging its content in recommendation engines and content-share programs: to get more of our credible content into the places where it will be consumed (and, of course, where we can monetize it).”

That can happen. But because millennials are the biggest age group and so digitally engaged, pure plays can benefit too. After all, they are the number-one source of news for millennials. And, unlike many of the paywall-protected legacy sites, they’re free.

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of the in-development hyperlocal news network Local America that rates communities on their performance across a broad spectrum of livability — Local America Charleston launched last year.