A world divided

A world divided

In many ways, journalism is at a peak: media reaches more digital readers, viewers, and listeners than ever before, and digital revenues have reached record levels. Still, Ola Stenberg, Product Director at VG, is concerned. The problem: the digital-native generations expect completely different things from media.

Why are the new needs from younger genera­tions a problem? Be­cause what we, as a media company, did in the last decades will not work in the years to come. Our success with creating habits for our users will not continue without us rethinking pretty much everything.

Our average user, male 50, was born in the 70s. Those users remember the walk from home to the local store to pick up the newspaper from the stand in the morning. They remember linear television, the rise of cable TV and that we actually rented a video cassette player for 24 hours at the rental store. They remember when Steve Jobs told the world not only about a smart phone where the keyboard was replaced with a touch screen, but that it was a phone with a music player! And a breakthrough internet communications device! We were all amazed.

A world divided

Today, it is a story that young people do not even understand. A music player?

Unknown history

What’s good enough for him (50) is not even close to good enough for her (20). For him everything just became better when the internet, desktop and smartphones evolved. To her, born and raised in a digital world, almost everything he considers radical innovation is unknown history.

“Why are you saying flat screen, dad?” or “why are you talking about buying a new smart TV?”. Have you ever gotten that question from your kids? I get them. They think my language is strange. I understand why. For me that very flat TV is still amazing because I remember the big ones. But my kids have never seen anything else, and they are not particularly impressed by the smartness of remote controls or a screen you can’t even touch or talk to.

I also struggle to get my son to pick up the phone when I call. Why not send a text or voice message on snap? Or you could ask a 20-year-old today how many numbers they have saved in their contact list.

These are our new users.

They are Gen Z, gen Alpha or the TikTok-generation. Just consider Tik­Tok and their position for a second: 1.2 billion active monthly users spend an average of 52 minutes per day in the app. They are crushing other social media platforms on engagement rate, and I don’t even want to think about TikTok engagement metrics vs traditional media.

Will we continue to grow?

While this is enfolding, direct traffic on VG is still great. We still hold the position as the number one news source in Norway. We’ve pretty much been growing on all metrics since we went online in 1995. The big question: will this continue?

We were suc­cess­ful in shifting our users’ habits from physical newspapers to news sites, but what lies ahead of us might be an entirely different story. User habits are changing dramatically and faster than ever before. We will have to go the extra mile to keep up this time.

I believe we are in our biggest shift so far. A shift in users. And mindset.

The prospect of facing a total rethink keeps me up at night. Will we be fine with adjusting and iterating over time? I don’t have the answer yet, other than the fact that we invest heavily in understanding our new users.

First, we need to understand the fact that the world ahead is divided.

They live their lives online

When we (old people) talk about entering a web site or the internet, our new users live their lives online. It’s a natural part of their life, their habits. It’s basically a cornerstone in their social life, in the way they celebrate birthdays, shop, learn, experience, entertain or being entertained – how they connect with the world.

And the ones shaping their habits are not news sites like VG or others. That is done by gaming platforms, chats everywhere and social platforms like TikTok. A video and visually driven experience where short, snappy content – served to you by addictive algorithms – all connected by who you follow and what your friends like and share. That is not what the media serves today. You can argue that journalism is something different. Our ethical standards are different, and we can’t be fully personalised.

At the same time, we know through years of user research that what our competitors and especially social media platforms manage to do well – we fail at. We also know by research that the young users will find us when the news story is big enough. But what about all the other days? Again, we struggle with daily habits and loyalty. So we need to step up our game.

Understanding  a new social life

To turn headaches into success we must understand our new users and their digital lives. TikTok is one thing but I hear parents talk about hours of gaming or too much screen time being a problem. It might be for some but we also need to understand that gaming, watching TikTok for an hour or chatting with friends is more than playing a game or wasting time on a screen. It’s a totally normal social life for young people.

My point is this: the new era is about users with a different mindset and ways of living their lives – which all feel unnatural for a 40-year-old like me. I still don’t talk to my phone, while my kids try to talk to every device there is. They give me that strange look if I ask stupid questions of why they want to spend 100 dollars on a pair of virtual sneakers. Yes, Nike recently bought a company making virtual shoes and it’s already a multi-million-dollar industry.

We need to hire them

We need to listen to this generation. They will probably not win an A/B test on our site today but they will for sure be the ones to serve in the future. And our big challenge is to serve them. Otherwise, we should expect to slowly drive ourselves out of business.

One way to understand the job to be done, is to continue our investment in user research and listening to the users we have, and those we don’t have. But I believe there is one more thing we have to do: Hire them.

If you do that, you get the mindset in-house. We need to get the people who can dream it, and then build it, too. Young people today are more skilled than ever. They grew up with the internet and a never-ending opportunity of learning by themselves – online.

A world divided

And then, hiring is one thing – to lead is another. Some years back I could go into most rooms and bring value to the table. Now, I try to lead with this in mind: everyone in the team is there because they are better than me. And you must let the quieter voices come through. The youngest journalist or the apprentice have mindsets and skills that are crucial for your future success. But because they are fresh hires, they may not know it. So, tell them, every day and keep the door open to the management and board room and let them speak their minds.

She (20) is our key to the future.

Author Ola Stenberg

Ola Stenberg
Product Director, VG
Years in Schibsted: 18

Schibsted projects that bridge the gap

Although there is a generation gap in news consumption there are many initiatives to reach young people at Schibsted’s newspapers today. Here are a few successful examples – and don’t miss the story about IN/LAB on the next page.

A world divided

Nathalie Mark is Future Editor at Aftonbladet. She works with the editorial teams on how to attract young audiences with news stories, helps developing formats for social media platforms and she is always on the lookout for future news media- and tech trends. Today Aftonbladet has a thriving TikTok account with over 100,000 subscribers and four different Snap Shows with several 100,000 unique viewers each week – starting from zero when Nathalie started in January 2022.

A world divided

VG has a team called Z, that is the frontrunner for “young content” – they also handle the social media production, distribution and strategies. In 2016 VG partnered with Snapchat and started to build channels for news and entertainment on their Discover-feed. This has become a huge success with 900,000 users subscribing for VG content. The content produced for Snapchat, TikTok and Instagram are also used on VG.no and experiences from the social platforms are shared with the newsroom

A world divided

To explain news to kids, both Aftenposten and Svenska Dagbladet have newspapers for children – Aftenposten Junior and SvD Junior. Aftenposten also has a school project where teachers can use the digital content in the classrooms. This content was also the starting point to make news from Aftenposten accessible to all – through a synthetic voice.