Decoding Gen Z: Axel Springer shares changes needed to reach young readers

By Paula Felps


Nashville, Tennessee, United States


If publishers want to reach the coveted Gen Z demographic, they should stop talking about it and start listening.

“That’s the biggest thing: Listen to your younger colleagues,” said Bente Zerrahn during Wednesday’s INMA Webinar,  Hooking the enfants terribles — how to actually address Gen Z.

Zerrahn is the innovation catalyst at Axel Springer — a position the company created for her after she voiced concerns about its ability to reach future generations — as well as a member of Gen Z. During her presentation, she provided INMA members with a lively look at what Gen Z wants, how it thinks, and where media companies often fall short.

A great starting point for connecting with Gen Z readers is to listen to younger colleagues at news media companies.
A great starting point for connecting with Gen Z readers is to listen to younger colleagues at news media companies.

“I regularly talk to our board, to our editor-in-chief, and I can see how eyebrows are raised because I am very young. What do I know about how the world works? But I am that user that [news media companies] don’t really have.” She added that while companies don’t have to “100% agree” on everything younger colleagues have to say, it’s important to learn what these users think to reach their demographic.

One of the biggest challenges facing publishers, she said, is how to connect with Gen Z, the generation Pew Research identifies as being born between 1997 and 2012. Zerrahn refers to Gen Z as those who have been raised in the age of digital and social media.

“It’s about networks, and it’s growing up in a network society. Things are not hierarchical, but they are spread around and no one is truly an owner of everything. And it’s had a big impact on how we see the world.”

A common complaint about Gen Z is its lack of brand loyalty, but Zerrahn explained that a generation raised on social media is looking for easy and fast access to information rather than following a certain news outlet.

“It doesn’t matter where your information is from as long as you can access it when you need it,” she said. The way that news is accessed has changed, and Gen Z won’t read a morning newspaper over coffee or watch the evening news with dinner.

“Nowadays, you have much more a behaviour of snacking, where you’re brushing your teeth or waiting for your train or something, so you’ll just scroll through things and see everything that has happened. And it’s also a time when people want to share [stories] people care about. I will send it to people I know will care the same amount, so it’s really important to find the right platforms.”

That means looking away toward more youth-oriented social media channels such as TikTok and Instagram instead of Facebook, which she said Gen Z doesn’t use. Zerrahn also said to forget about using apps and Web sites to appeal to Gen Z because they don’t work as well as, say, a Google search or clicking a link on Instagram.

“Most apps and Web sites are not good,” she said. “You have huge chunks of information. You don’t really know where to click. It’s very overwhelming.”

Crisis coverage repels Gen Z

The news itself is overwhelming these days, and that also contributes to Gen Z’s news avoidance. The world has become more connected and the crises that plague the world are being delivered by the media 24/7. News publishers would do well to understand Gen Z’s history and how it causes them to view the world, she said.

 “It’s a lifetime of crises,” Zerrahn said. “It’s been 9/11, the 2008 housing crisis, the recession — at least in Germany — and now you have the pandemic, the Ukraine war, and the world is literally microwaving itself. And on top of that, you have small things happening all over the world.”

The current state of the world has elevated anxiety and depression among young people, and news publishers need to be sensitive to that.
The current state of the world has elevated anxiety and depression among young people, and news publishers need to be sensitive to that.

As a result of this crisis-centred upbringing, this generation has poorer mental health, and there is an uptick in depression, anxiety, and self-harm.

“That’s a really big thing you need to understand,” she said, refuting the argument that Gen Z doesn’t care about the world around them. “It’s not that people don’t care. But it’s really hard to care about everything all the time. It’s easier to remove yourself from the news because you’re so overwhelmed than it is to jump in headfirst.”

News publishers, Zerrahn said, should work to make the news more understandable without forcing readers to take a deep dive into the content. They also should provide a balance to relieve exposure to constantly breaking news.

It’s also important to realise the stories older readers find appealing might not hold the interest of younger generations. Using AI could help identify which headlines work for younger readers: “That’s very much something that we have to keep in mind — that we have different audiences. They have different things that interest them, but are relevant to them, too. And that’s the bridge you have to gap; [you need to understand] breaking news is not equal to breaking news for everyone.”

Fact-checking is also critical for attracting and retaining Gen Z, according to Zerrahn.

“Especially since the Trump times, people are worried about news being biased and untrustworthy,” she said. “If I don’t know what to trust, I might as well not read anything, right?”

Being more aware of the way facts can be manipulated has made Gen Z less trusting in what they read, and if a brand or publication hasn’t done its fact-checking homework, readers will quickly lose trust in it. And while brands should put more effort into meeting the needs of Gen Z readers, they need to do so authentically. News media companies must adhere to their values and own up to mistakes when they are made. Brands can also win points by tackling human issues that are top of mind for younger readers.

“I think that journalism and purpose-driven reporting can also really pay off with the younger generation because a lot of us are really concerned about issues like the world ending.”

Issues like climate change, racial injustice, and healthcare are all concerns for Gen Z, so addressing those topics can help drive interest, she said.

Bente Zerrahn outlined essential areas publishers should address to build a relationship with Gen Z readers.
Bente Zerrahn outlined essential areas publishers should address to build a relationship with Gen Z readers.

The power of collaboration

To develop a long-term strategy that will attract Gen Z, Zerrahn suggested companies consider having dual leadership roles with an experienced manager and a younger employee who has a knowledge of how younger generations think. Tech and business departments should work together, too, to create products that fit within the business model but will attract younger users.

“It’s the same with journalism and tech,” she said. “It’s really this thing of trying to connect things and becoming a network organisation, becoming a network newspaper, and that will definitely help with Gen Z, who look at the world in a network way.”

About Paula Felps

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