Britney Spears and Paris Hilton are getting old. Seriously, by the end of next year, they'll both be 30. That's when, according to the now-threadbare and mostly abandoned hopes of old-media sages, they'll swap their bedazzled iPhones or Sidekicks or whatever for the comforting heft of the Los Angeles Times.
As the first wave of Millennials (those born after 1980) hits the big 3-0, the news business approaches its own moment of truth: Will this generation fall in line behind its predecessors, maturing and morphing into steady news consumers? Or have the Millennials been so spoiled by the self-obsessed social enclaves of Facebook and YouTube that mass media and traditional news will hold little interest for them? While the former is a pretty logical assumption, the turmoil of the last decade has taught news managers to take nothing for granted.
The good news, supported by a voluminous report released by the Pew Research Center in February, is that many stereotypes about the Millennial generation seem to be flat-out wrong. Naturally today's teens and young adults do things that freak out their elders: They love their tattoos and body piercings, for example, and 83 percent of them sleep with their cell phones. (Interestingly, 50 percent of Boomers and 20 percent of adults over age 65 do the same thing--but probably for very different reasons.) Millennials also text while driving at a horrifying rate of 64 percent.
However, there are a lot of encouraging statistics underneath those tattoos and piercings. For starters, Millennials are the best-educated generation in history. Fifty-four percent of today's 18- to 28-year-olds have had at least some college education, compared with 49 percent of Gen Xers, 36 percent of Boomers and 24 percent of the Silent Generation (age 65-plus) when they were the same age. While younger people are historically less likely to vote in political elections, in 2008 the gap between voters over and under 30 was the narrowest it's been since 1972, when 18-year-olds were granted the right to vote.
Millennials are as engaged as other generations when it comes to volunteering, signing petitions and buying (or not buying) products based on a company's social or political values. According to Pew's survey, Millennials care far more about being good parents, having successful marriages and helping others than they do about being rich or famous. This hierarchy of values isn't significantly different from other generations', but it is different from the stereotype. Apparently they're not all Britney or Paris.
Rather than a vapid wasteland of tuned-out video game junkies, the 50 million Millennials sound like a gift to the news business. How else would you describe a generation that's civically engaged, well-educated and literally available to consume information day and night?
But there's a catch: Millennials simply will not take their news the old-fashioned way. Young adults' interest in local and world events may grow over time, but when it comes to technology, we can't expect Millennials to move backward. This is a generation that identifies technology use as the main difference between itself and other generations. After all, most of them are sleeping with a cell phone on the nightstand, ready for text messages and Facebook alerts; why wouldn't they expect that same technology to deliver their news?
Pew's research gives us some sense of how Millennials are consuming news today. Slightly more of them cite television as their main source of news, at 65 percent, with the Internet in second place at 59 percent. It'll be very interesting to watch that trend over the next five or 10 years. Of those who cited television, 43 percent said they get most of their news from cable news, only 18 percent from the major networks and 16 percent from local TV. Only 24 percent said they got most of their news from newspapers. In a separate Pew study released in March, 35 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds said they follow the news most or all of the time. That's a smaller percentage than older generations, but still seems kind of impressive.
Millennials who go online for news gravitate to aggregators such as Yahoo! and Google over top news brands such as the New York Times. That doesn't mean they aren't getting their news from the Times or the BBC or local TV and newspaper Web sites--but these are not their primary destinations.
Are news organizations paying attention to the promises and challenges of the Millennial generation? At this point, it's not very easy to tell. Newsrooms that are sending their content to portals and aggregators, taking mobile distribution seriously and making their stories easy to share on social sites like Facebook are moving in the right direction.
Until now, Millennials have seemed an enigmatic cohort that wasn't yet--and might never be--interested in news. As Millennials enter the news consuming population, their behavior will probably fall somewhere between the news industry's highest hopes and worst fears: They won't suddenly start subscribing to newspapers and obediently sitting through the evening news, but they will be ready and willing to know what's going on in the world. We just need to pay attention to what they want, and how they want it.