CALGARY — Journalism as a product, commodity and vocation is in a constant state of change, and now there is yet another ingredient being added to the mix.
The baby boomers’ babies, Generation Y, or the Millennials as they have been labeled, are entering the world of professional communications en masse, and they will give news a major makeover. So who are these 18 to 30 year-olds, and what kind of media landscaping will they do as they move in behind the stubborn job-hogging boomers?
Generation Y is the most digitally engaged in history. Its members grew up with electronic games, computers, interactive video games, the option and freedom of online self-expression, reduced concern for personal privacy and, of course, Facebook. Although no one knows whether this experience will make them better or worse professionals, they are more comfortable online than their predecessors.
They aren’t generally big consumers of traditional news or local politics, but they follow international stories, likely as a result of reading major online news sites, such as the BBC, instead of local sites.
They can also be passionate about more personalized stories that matter directly to them, while paying less attention to issues less relevant to their lives.
Most traditional news outlets broadcast to and write for older audiences. Coverage of crime, the economy, health care and politics dominate the news, and younger consumers aren’t vested in those discussions the way their boomer parents are. Mainstream media should make more effort to engage the Millennials, apart from offering them movie reviews and events listings. They think about serious stuff, but do so in their own manner.
The deaths of Ralph Klein and Hugo Chavez help make the point. While mainstream media have offered what amounts to a ponderous unbalanced eulogy, journalism students my colleagues and I work with daily generally have little or no interest in the story. They were in grade school when Ralph was premier, and most of them find politics distant and inaccessible with the exception in Calgary of Mayor Naheed Nenshi, who reached out to them online and in plain language in the 2010 election and captured the youth vote on the way to a lopsided and unexpected win.
Compared to Klein, it seems more of our Generation Y students were aware of Hugo Chavez, the recently deceased Venezuelan president. Chavez’s reign was more recent, of course, but his place on the international news stage also established him in their minds in a way an Alberta premier can’t. For one student, it was personal. Her family moved to Canada from Venezuela during the Chavez era, and her multimedia piece over his impact on her family is a compelling piece of personal and contextual journalism.
My sense is that Millennials tend to be conservative minded, though socially liberal. They often pitch story ideas on homelessness, the environment, gender and other community issues. They are highly engaged in fashion, arts, sports, music and other topics that reflect personal preferences. They openly seek to explore their own stories, their challenges, frailties, interests and successes.
They are knowledgeable, bright and intuitive about communications. They know more bits and pieces about the world than did previous generations of the same age. Their task, one might argue, is to understand why the world is as it is — but that will come with time. Meantime, it is grossly inaccurate and unfair to label Generation Y as self-indulgent, as they are at times described. They do seem to indulge their personal interests fully, but you can easily say the same about their parents.
They are likely the most monitored group of young people the world has seen. They seem anxious much of the time, and maybe there’s a connection between the two. Those who have chosen journalism as a career appear to do so because it encourages self-expression, and they want to engage with the world. They often seem conflicted between charting their own course, and a sense that they need to fit into society quickly.
Journalists from previous generations often lament the passing of their era (OK, it’s mine too) and what they perceive as a dumbing down of the media. I get asked routinely why journalism students aren’t more interested in mainstream news. My answer: Why should they have the same interests as reporters from another era? Their lives have been different. Their place in society is different.
Why not embrace the fact that Generation Y is capable but different, and encourage them to be themselves and present stories in their own way? These days, the basic facts of a news story are almost instantly available online, and news consumers are seeking perspective. We are headed toward the presentation of personally informed narratives, in context of the facts.
Many factors define the media landscape today, including technological, sociological, informational and economic drivers. Digital media is altering information gathering and delivery patterns, and the media economy has being turned on its head by the enormous power of social media.
The Millennials are on the front lines of these changes. They will have some ideas and answers to share through the media — ideas that elude us boomers.
Terry Field is a professor and chair of the journalism major in the bachelor of communication program at Mount Royal University, in Calgary.