Understanding Gen Y, Z, and meaningful diversity is vital for media transformation

By Shelley Seale


Austin, Texas, USA


When harnessing talent for future transformation, Generations Y and Z are vital pieces of the puzzle in shaping successful business environments of the future. Diversity and inclusion must also be important aspects of the post-COVID world.

On Wednesday, strategic advisor and Reuters Institute senior research fellow Professor Lucy Kueng discussed this topic in an exclusive Webinar for INMA members.

Generations Y and Z, along with diversity, equity, and inclusion, are huge themes that emerged from a very significant piece of research she undertook that was published last month in Hearts and Minds: Harnessing Leadership, Culture and Talent to Really Go Digital.  The book is available as a free download.

These themes emerged in every single interview she Kueng conducted during the research, she told INMA members: “They are incredibly complex themes, and they’re very interrelated. They are really one of the big shifts we have to adapt to.”

Big changes in the industry, driven by external forces

“Much as we would like to think we are agents of our own destiny, what’s happening is being shaped by the outside world,” Kueng said. “Those are the challenges that I think we’ve got to nail, and right now we aren’t doing a very good job of that.”

Many of the seismic changes news media is facing today are from external forces.
Many of the seismic changes news media is facing today are from external forces.

She shared a slide (above) that showed those external forces, and then what they mean for media publishing organisations. In the early 2000s with the rise of social media and the domination of Google and Facebook, the ad model crumbled and publishers responded by developing more multimedia journalism. Then along came smartphones and companies like BuzzFeed and Vice, which led to app development and product functions.

“Product is how digital content reaches and serves and creates value for audiences,” Kueng said. “If product doesn’t work, it doesn’t matter how good the content is.

In 2011, news media paywalls began going up, particularly with large legacy organisations such as The New York Times. This led to an acceleration of the shift away from advertising revenue into subscriptions and reader revenue.

The next big shift was streaming subscription models, such as Spotify and Netflix. This led to media organisations growing very serious about their subscription and membership models. This was followed by the advent of podcasting.

Along this entire timeline, some other events proved very important for Generations Y and Z as well as diversity and inclusion. Growing up and entering the workforce through the 2008 financial crisis, for example, means that these generations have always known media as a challenging industry. They were also the first generations to come out of university with staggering debt.

“A lot of those individuals who joined [the news media industry] after that point have changed jobs more often than their bosses will ever change their jobs,” Kueng pointed out.

Between 2017 and today there have been large social movements, such as #MeToo and Black Lives Matter that have changed the industry — and then, COVID-19. These things changed attitudes inside media organisations, particularly amongst younger members.

“If we look at this strategically from the top, we’ve got a number of battles heading our way,” Kueng said.

  • The streamers, trying to get films put into cinemas and streaming at the same time.
  • Trust in the news, particularly amongst younger audiences.
  • Competitiveness of news brands is increasingly dependent on new tech hybrid areas.
  • Very different realities inside today’s organisations.

COVID-19 crisis came on top of major structural shifts

When the coronavirus pandemic hit, it landed on top of two other major structural shifts that were already taking place, Kueng shared.

  • Digital transformation, which news media has often been slow to adjust to.
  • Generations Y and Z, and diversity and inclusion issues, creating changes in attitude and very different ways of thinking.

“I think there’s one set of responses, thankfully, that can respond to all of these,” Kueng said. Those responses need to be focused on leadership and culture.

COVID-19 came on top of other structural changes that were already happening.
COVID-19 came on top of other structural changes that were already happening.

When conducting her research, something a Gen Y deputy director of product at a well-known newspaper said struck Kueng deeply: “It is not fair that those stewarding companies now are not the ones who will have to live with the consequences of the decisions they are making.”

There was a recurring theme that the people with the real answers, who would have to live with those decisions, were not being heard enough. There was also a strong debate that emerged between Gens Y and Z and their bosses. The bosses feel like those generations are talented yet hugely demanding, constantly wanting to know what the employer will do for them and their careers. They feel the younger generation needs to reset their expectations.

“This kind of polarised approach isn’t going to solve anything,” Kueng said. “So let’s try to pull apart the problem.”

Essentially this is a cultural and psychological shift that many in management haven’t fully understood. Kueng mapped out some of the key differences.

  • Generations Y and Z and Millennials are value-driven. They want work with meaning. Their personal values and corporate values need to match, and they won’t compromise much on this.
  • They want to learn, grow, and develop. They are in permanent skill-acquisition mode.
  • They are looking for fast career progression.
  • They are highly mobile. Even if they love a job, they generally don’t plan to stay that long.
  • Their work-life balance matters a great deal to them.
  • They need frequent feedback and reassurance. This is often the biggest pain point for management.
  • In some countries they are financially insecure.

“They actually don’t ever see the media being able to give them a role in which they can buy their own home,” Kueng said. “That actually makes them a bit feisty, a bit pissed-off before they start.”

All of these factors are interlinked, and the need for feedback and reassurance is particularly significant.

“Those discussions are where they find out, ‘Am I on the fast track? Are there any opportunities to learn, to grow, to move on?’ They’re highly mobile partly because if they feel the values of the company don’t fit, if they aren’t going to be able to move ahead fast enough, if the work environment isn’t going to suit them, they will move on.”

Need to deliver on an entirely different set of expectations

To address these major differences in Gen Y and Z team members, news media organisations need to meet their expectations as team members. Kueng had some suggestions of how that can be done.

  • For the mobility issue, let them hit the ground running and accelerate training. Shorten onboarding.
  • For fast progression, they are looking for connection with top leaders and to be involved with projects that have real impact.
  • For the high levels of feedback, inject a coaching style of leadership.
  • For the desire to learn and develop, continue to build skills and put them on interesting projects.
  • For the value-driven aspect, give them scope to work on passion projects.
  • For the desire for flexibility and autonomy, include them in cross-functional projects.
Gens Y and Z present an entirely diferent set of expectation in the workplace.
Gens Y and Z present an entirely diferent set of expectation in the workplace.

From diversity to inclusion to equity

“This is a deeper issue that casts a much longer shadow,” Kueng said.

The three terms have different meanings, and together (DEI) should be viewed as a pathway.

  • Diversity is making sure the room represents whatever it needs to represent. You look around and say, “Wow, there’s a good diversity of people.”
  • Inclusion is moving past the quota stage to make sure that everyone in the room is being heard and seen, and has a place.
  • Equity is addressing who has the power in the room, who is leading. Who are the people who have the resources and can move the needle?

Equity is the most complex of these, and where most organisations struggle. It requires the biggest culture shift.

“Yes, there’s diversity, yes people are being included — but at the end of the day, the same people are making all the decisions,” Kueng explained. “It’s a culture issue. It’s not a quote issue, it’s not a recruitment issue. It’s about people changing the labels in their heads about who is good and who is capable, and being open to other people making key decisions.”

She continued that many people are cynical and pessimistic about this. Many initiatives are good for optics, but don’t lead to real change.

“There’s a lot of fashion in this at the moment, and once something becomes fashionable there’s the risk that it will fall out of fashion,” she said.


Too many diversity initiatives are done to look good, but don't lead to real change.
Too many diversity initiatives are done to look good, but don't lead to real change.

“Why is this all so hard?” Kueng asked. Typically, diversity initiatives have a low success rate. She outlined some of the challenges and potential solutions.

  • It’s a terminological minefield — a neutral term to one can be offensive to another. A good rule of thumb is to assume good intent, and explain why the terminology is offensive.
  • Exclusionary behaviour can be subtle. It’s important to pay attention to micro-aggressions.
  • Diversity programmes put different diversity needs into a single bucket. You can’t use the same measures for different types of diversity (socio-economic, race, gender, etc.).
  • At higher levels, responses can be a zero-sum game.

“We’re at the situation where real progress needs a very coordinated program of measures,” Kueng said. “You need to look at this is a systemic issue that works from top to bottom in the organisation, you need a very long-term perspective.”

The problem, however, is that organisations are under pressure to respond, and therefore are defaulting to high-profile moves that are good for publicity but don’t really improve the situation.

Building a system to shift the needle

There are three layers within an organisational system, Kueng explained. The top layer is leadership, and there’s no point in doing this if it doesn’t start there. People at the top need to unequivocally state that the initiative is being done and it matters, be relentless about that message, and institute targets and accountability.

The next layer is granular process, which is where culture change really happens. “The most important thing here is really drilling into the data,” she said. “Understand who’s coming in, how long are they staying, when they’re going, why are they going.” This can bring about micro-changes and internal task forces.

The third layer is the people layer, which is where most of the action happens. At this level you change the “on-ramp” of who is coming into the organisation, track how people feel, and continue tracking who leaves and why. Often when people are at the point of departure, they are much more honest about what went wrong.

What could possibly go wrong?

Kueng advised people to be aware of some of the possible pitfalls. One of these is the lean in fallacy — in other words, the onus to change being put on the members of the under-represented group, which is the wrong place. It should be the upper leadership and management responsible for changing the system.

Over-represented groups can also become defensive. “There’s an issue around opening people up to looking at things differently, without telling them they are wrong,” Kueng said.

“Diversity pioneers” can also be burdened by unrealistic expectations of how much change they can actually create — even self-imposed expectations. “Managers need to be aware that there’s an awful lot of stress to being in these roles.”

Another issue is diversity hires being “ghettoed” onto diversity beats, rather than covering other issues than the group they represent.

Lastly, with organisations under pressure to find diversity candidates and put them in more senior roles, people can get pushed into these positions before they are really ready. This puts them under massive pressure and they are highly exposed. If they don’t perform well, then it becomes a vicious circle as preconceived biases are confirmed.

“These are very significant issues with Generates Y and Z,” Kueng said. “I think we have to understand there are now profoundly different realities inside our organisations. COVID-19 has made things worse.”

Between working at home, financial and health worries, concerns over keeping their jobs, team members are under more pressure than ever before.

Unless organisations and their leaders are very smart about diversity and inclusion initiatives and very committed to them, they will yield only moderate improvements. There are some tactical responses that can be utilised right now:

  • Think about career paths that lead to the top for hybrid roles.
  • Ace feedback and performance management.
  • Responses to DEI need to come from the heart of the organisation, not HR.

“Gens Y and Z really do control the strategically critical areas of the organisation,” Kueng said in conclusion. “I think we really need to understand they actually hold the key to a sustainable future, and we have to make space for their expertise.”

About Shelley Seale

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