When I started in the digital media industry 15 years ago, one central question was how to attract young readers. 

Remember the 1989 Knight-Ridder youth readership project in Boca Raton, Florida, that they told you about at university? It was revolutionary at that time. In 2015, it feels like the gap between Generation Y and established media brands has never been as big as it is today. It’s an ongoing challenge to attract new audiences.

After cohort analysis and a study of teenage media usage, most of us have learned that Gen Yers will not start reading our newspapers or become regular visitors to our news portals once they turn 34. Today it’s the mobile pure players that are on the fast track in reaching young readers (we should stick to “young consumers,” because it’s way more video than text that they consume).

They are disruptive

It’s easy to imagine how they might have spoken about BuzzFeed in The New York Times newsroom back when it started in 2006. Did they take BuzzFeed seriously on a strategic level? Did they take into consideration that Pulitzer Prize winners would work for BuzzFeed’s investigative team, that they would once dethrone The Times as the No. 1 news site in the United States?

The 2014 New York Times’ Innovation Report stated clearly that “many competitors are growing faster” and listed BuzzFeed as a competitor of The Times. A hair late.

A short side trip to disruptive innovation: New things often look like toys while we’re convinced we need to use the professional tools. Fifteen years ago, we would not have not taken cameras in early cell phones too seriously (they were of poor VGA-quality and legacy compact cameras were just better – and cheaper). Today we’re shooting more photos than ever – solely on our mobile phones.

I have witnessed a lot of editor in chiefs not willing to accept that BuzzFeed, 9Gag, ViralNova, or even Facebook had anything to do with them or their newsrooms.

Take them seriously

So, are you aware of these pure players passing your brands on the mobile fast track? They are popping up constantly and in some markets – including European ones – and have grown to remarkable sizes.

This blog post should not be full of hot air and innovation drivel. It is, quite frankly, just a matter of whether you are aware of the disruptors in your very own markets. And I don’t just mean BuzzFeed, UpWorthy, Cir.ca, Quartz, Politico, or Ozy. You have heard about these at conferences, on study tours.

Especially in Europe, the new home-grown, digital pure players are still not widely known, especially not across borders. These three start-ups have entered the space of established media companies in different European countries and you might not have even heard of them.

Watson, Switzerland

Founder Hansi Voigt is an editor in chief-turned-media entrepreneur. Hansi led the editorial staff of 20 Minuten, the largest news site in Switzerland with heavy mobile traffic up to that point when publishing house and 20 Minuten owner Tamedia decided to integrate the newsrooms of both the highly successful and profitable, free sheet newspaper and the news portal under the print editor-in-chief.

Hansi left and started a new digital portal with the help of Swiss investors, completely responsive and made for mobile. He recruited most of his digital team from 20 Minuten and launched a new, mostly mobile medium that has a content cooperation with Spiegel, Germany’s largest quality news site.

The team understands mobile and the stories are among the most shared news sources on social media in Switzerland. This came out of nothing.

It’s too early to tell if Watson is a success. But given the size of the team and the number of advertisements on the page, the cash burn rate seems to be substantial at this point. There are a lot of talented people and energy behind it, and it’s a perfect example that there is plenty of opportunity to hurt the existing media players.

Nyheter24, Sweden

Nyheter means “news” in Swedish. And in Swedish news, nothing happens without Bonnier or Schibsted ... usually.

In 2008, Douglas Roos and Patrick Sandberg entered that arena with Nyheter24.com. Coming from a gaming and agency background, they built a news portal-turned-mobile medium for a young audience that features an unconventional and BuzzFeed-like mix of Swedish news, SnapChat-like stories, and international celebrities.

It is a digital tabloid that fights against the free sheets you see in Stockholm’s metro stations.

The company has reached the top 10 listing of Swedish news sites, reaching more than 1.3 million users a month (ComScore) and are making a profit. Key to their growth is their social intelligence. After the recently released, Rival Result Index, its average engagement rate per post is twice as high as any other media site in the country.

MinuteBuzz, France

MinuteBuzz’s mission, as the young founder Maxime Barbier put it, is to bring five minutes of smile to the French each day. It’s an entertainment portal, a perfect time killer for the boring moments when you gravitate toward your mobile phone.

Four years after its start, that promise drives more than 7.5 million visitors a month to “MB,” 70% of which come in from Facebook. That’s roughly half the size of the established players like 20 Minutes (France). The name indicates that MB was somehow at least inspired by BuzzFeed, and its (native) monetisation is also similar.

Now that the original Buzz has entered the French market, the two publications compete with each other in one market.

The New Yorkers did as they had done in some other European markets by providing translations of their best received English content with some local flavour listicles added (search/replace “New York metro” with “Paris metro”). Top executives of French competitors are somewhat relieved at this point: “It just doesn’t work.”

It will be exciting to watch how MinuteBuzz will develop compared to legacy media companies – and of course the American original.

What’s your reaction?

Let’s not forget: While BuzzFeed has a fabulous data operation, the newsroom structure is a comparatively classic one. Yes, the average staff age is younger than in your newsroom, but there are more than 100 editorial staff members, organised in classic desks and beats. The big difference from your newsroom is the animal desk (cat videos!).

And while the new competitors might look like “not real news sources” from your point of view, at this time they are tremendously successful at claiming media consumption time from Generation Y, mostly.

Their stories will get better. Their quality will improve. Their teams will grow. The social principle they use works for established media brands as well. We just felt that with our 25% year-over-year traffic growth of our regional news portals VOL.AT and VIENNA.AT at Russmedia in Austria. But I’ve told you before on INMA’s Media Leaders blog how we run our business after disruptive innovation.

We are competing not only with the BuzzFeeds of this world, but also with mostly video-based time-killing apps like 9Gag (and Facebook, obviously).

In year eight after the invention of the iPhone, the gold rush of mobile news has just started.

It’s going to be a super exciting 2015.