Why Local Publishers Shouldn’t Aim So Exclusively for Millennials

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I’ve been a cheerleader for local news organizations in their quest to attract Millennial audiences, but I’m starting to wonder if publishers are too convinced that reaching the youngest generation of adults is the magical elixir for all their problems.

Gannett — publisher of the biggest chain of local newspapers — recently acquired a minority interest in Millennial-focused Billy Penn, the news site that Jim Brady founded in Philadelphia, and may be eyeing expanding that Millennial-focused operation to other cities. Meanwhile, Newonomics columnist Ken Doctor’s recent article on the Charlotte Agenda was headlined: “What Are they Thinking: The Millennial Gold Rush Goes Local, in Charlotte.”

To be sure, Millennials (18-34-year-olds) are the most populous age group, comprising more than a quarter of the country — and they are the most avid users of digital platforms, especially smartphones. But community news sites, challenged from so many directions, can’t afford to just aim at the bull’s-eye of their audience target. They should go for the whole target.

I checked out traffic by demographics at five community news sites that I’ve written about because they have strong audiences and all of them are profitable. What I found — through Quantacast data — was that the sites succeed by aiming  equally  at three generations: Millennials (18-34), Gen Xers (35-50) and Baby Boomers (51-69):

  • Brentwood Homepage in suburban Nashville: The traffic from Gen Xers and Baby Boomers totaled 58% vs. 25% for Millennials.
  • San Angelo (TX) Live: Gen Xers and Baby Boomers totaled 54% vs. 25% for Millennials.
  • Baristanet in suburban North Jersey: Gen Xers and Baby Boomers totaled 65% vs. 22% for Millennials.
  • Times of San Diego: Gen Xers and Baby Boomers totaled 58% vs. 28% for Millennials.
  • New Haven Independent: Gen Xers and Baby Boomers totaled 58% vs. 26% for Millennials.

Older users go online frequently, Pew Research CemterThe Quantcast stats aren’t anomalies. Gen Xers and Baby Boomers aren’t as digitally active as Millennials, but they are frequent users of the Internet, as data from the Pew Research Center shows (chart at left).

There are other reasons why community news sites should not ignore older generations. Those generations far outperform Millennials in discretionary income. Peak earnings for Americans occur in the years 35 to 59, which include all Gen Xers and a segment of Baby Boomers — and only the very oldest Millennials (less than year’s worth right now).

Millennials are major consumers of certain products, like yoga/athletic wear, expensive bicycles and energy drinks. But for many products and services, especially big-ticket items like homes and autos, the predominant buyers are Gen Xers and empty-nesting Baby Boomers.

Civic participation, including voting, is another area where older generations rank much higher than Millennials, and this behavior probably helps to explain why older generations score so high in traffic on the successful websites that were part of my informal survey. Political ad spending on local and state races at the local digital level will rise to $457 million in 2016 in the latest update from Borrell Associates. You can be sure that campaign decision makers will aim most of their spending at sites that reach the highest percentages of actual voters. Based on patterns from 2008 and 2012, the heaviest turnout will be by voters 45 years of age and older.

What the numbers and trends I’ve cited tell me is that community news sites should not adopt an editorial or sales strategy that lurches toward a full and exclusive embrace of Millennials, even though the media appear to be in a near-complete swoon over the youngest adults, typified by articles like this one in Forbes and this one from Goldman Sachs.

Yes, Millennials can exemplify admirable qualities and values, which they don’t hide under a bushel. Their attributes, for example, can be very important in the rejuvenation of older, frayed urban communities — a relevant and worthy subject of editorial coverage for many local news sites. Millennials are much more likely to embrace equality of race, ethnicity and gender, which can and does command local as well as national attention. And, Millennials, being the youngest adult generation, are full of energy and enthusiasm, vital ingredients for any civic undertaking that community sites should be following.

But publishers should keep a balance among the generations of their audiences.

I asked Charlotte Agenda’s founder Ted Williams  — whom Ken Doctor held up as the paragon of Millennial-focused publishers — what his traffic numbers looked like, generationally. Here are the Agenda’s 12-month age-group stats from Google Analytics:

18-24 – 11.25%, 25-34 – 38.75%, 35-44 – 25.55%, 45-54 – 14.15%, 55-64 – 7.56%, 65+ – 2.75%

Millennials do account for 50% of the Agenda’s traffic, with older generations adding up to the other 50%.

I asked Williams if the Agenda focused on 18-34-year-olds. His answer: “Our core is 25-44 [a range straddling Millennials and Gen Xers]. This group is young, social and smart. … To be honest, we don’t spend much time thinking about age when it comes to our coverage.”

Sounds like a good strategy to me. And it’s coming from a Millennial, no less.

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of hyperlocal news network Local America, and is also working on a book about the history, present, and future of Charleston, S.C.