How the Washington Post Is Trying to Reach the Next Generation

From The Poynter Report with Tom Jones:

It was nearly a year ago — early August 2021 — that The Washington Post launched something called the Next Generation initiative. The plan, as the Post put it, was “to accelerate the acquisition of younger and more diverse audiences through new products, practices and partnerships.”

Sounds smart and ambitious and totally makes sense. What news outlet — particularly a newspaper — wouldn’t want to attract new, younger and more diverse audiences? Of course, it’s easy to say such grand things in planning meetings, but the Post genuinely seems committed to it.

Earlier this week, I spoke with Phoebe Connelly, who is the Post’s director of Next Generation Audiences. And my first question was who, exactly, is the next generation? High school kids, maybe college-age or 20-somethings? The answer surprised me.

“I’m thinking about ‘younger’ as being anyone under the age of 45,” Connelly told me.

It just goes to show the work that the Post — and others — have ahead of them trying to reach new audiences, while keeping older consumers who are a big part of its core audience. You would also guess — at least I did — that Connelly and her team of nine might get resistance from older editors and decision-makers who are used to doing things in a more, shall we say, traditional way.

But Connelly has found she and her team have been “welcomed with open arms” across the entire company. They’re included in meetings, asked to run workshops, and invited to work on various projects. When she was asked to take the job, one of the first conversations she had was with Sally Buzbee, who had just taken over as The Washington Post’s executive editor. Buzbee’s message to Connelly: Please take this job because the Post needs this.

“If anything, we’ve been kind of strapped with everyone who wants us to come work with them,” Connelly said. “Sometimes we have too many requests coming in.”

The Next Gen team is a cross-functional team with people working all across the company from the newsroom to the product team to analytics to marketing — all, as Connelly puts it, “working together to make sure we’re making connections across the whole company and that we’re learning, investing and experimenting across the entire company.”

This is more than just sharing the Post’s work on social media.

For example, there are those who might see a Post story on, say, Instagram. What the Post has learned is that, yes, someone might see a story on Instagram, but then they’ll search for more about the story and that’s how they end up reading or watching or listening to the Post’s coverage.

“It’s not enough to just be on social media,” Connelly said, “we also need to be sure that when the audience goes to dig deeper that we’ve optimized our reporting and our journalism for search.”

Or take this example. Neema Roshania Patel, editor of the Next Generation Audience Development team, recently published a column for Poynter about journalists diversifying their sources. That column came out of a workshop run by the Next Gen team.

“Success to me is when I’m sitting in a meeting and I hear somewhere share a research finding or a form of reporting or type of storytelling that comes from a workshop we did with them or research that we did or a skill-share that we did,” Connelly said.

She added that it’s even OK if they don’t credit the Next Gen team because Connelly then knows that it has become part of the ethos at the Post, part of how they just do their journalism.

And here’s another example. Just this week, the Post listed four new job openings on the politics team — openings that came from the suggestion of the Next Gen team.

“How they do their work and how they’re measuring success — that’s the Next Gen piece of it,” Connelly said. “But the goal is doing the best-in-class political reporting that The Washington Post is known for.”

She continued, “These jobs are just recognizing a reality that most of our politics team and politics reporters across the industry already know, which is that connecting with our audiences in real time on the platforms where they’re spending time is part of the work of journalism.”

Most Post journalists already get it and are doing that kind of work and, Connelly said, the Next Gen team’s job is to amplify it.

Of course, there’s more to all this than just tweeting out a story or posting something on TikTok. Connelly’s job is to not only figure out how to reach new audiences now, but in the future when there could be platforms that haven’t even been invented yet. After all, who could’ve imagined how impactful Instagram or TikTok would have been on journalism as recently as just a few years ago?

“That’s the exciting part,” Connelly said.


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