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By Chris Gentilviso and Deb Aikat

Remember when news was separated out by medium? Readers read the newspaper. Viewers watched television. Listeners turned on the radio.

Media in the 21st century adopts no such singularity. The desire to read a story, see a place or hear a voice comes together simultaneously online.

As technology integrates our media experiences, Generation Z or “post-millennials” — people born in 1997 or later — provide critical insight into the changing nature of news. From Aug. 7 to 10, hundreds gathered in Toronto for the 102nd annual conference of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC), a nonprofit, educational association of journalism and media educators, students and media professionals.

The conference theme was “Investing in our Futures,” and for the media, that includes a better understanding of our youngest adults’ consumption habits. We presented our research — a meta-analytical review of 20 key studies published between 2017 and 2019 — on how post-millennials’ embrace of visual, verbal and viral media is reshaping the news for people of all ages.

Unlike baby boomers, Generation X, and even some millennials, studies show Generation Z reads less and watches or listens more. A 2018 report by Brodeur Partners found half of post-millennials picked YouTube as their preferred platform. That same year, a Business Insider survey of 104 Gen Zers found 6 in 10 chose social media as their place to consume news.

For post-millennials, technology is innate. They seek room to self-tailor their media experience by contributing content and interacting with others. For example, successful upstart newsletters like theSkimm share tips on how to live smarter — an offering that fuels engagement. Seeing the growth of such lifestyle content, The New York Times now has a “Smarter Living” section and newsletter.

No matter how fresh or established the news outlet is, its value stems from content that encourages everyone to join the conversation. The journey starts with a pitch of “What’s right for you?” It’s a departure from gatekeeping: “This is what the journalist thinks is right for you to know.”

Consumers’ power to customize their news is encapsulated by an online exchange of personal values. Thanks to social media, post-millennials are more politically active than any other generation. At the ripe age of 13, teens can open accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and YouTube (with a parent’s permission) and start to debate.

Post-millennials also have niche digital outlets to address issues such as race, class and gender. Platforms such as The Root, The Marshall Project and Refinery29 provide a sharper lens than some forms of generalist, mainstream media. As Generation Z comes of age, these are examples of how the media is a motivator to get involved in public policy issues.

As a result, Generation Z’s desire for a specialized news diet has journalists rethinking how to position their coverage. A 2018 study by Lynn Schofield Clark of the University of Denver and Regina Marchi of Rutgers University found interpersonal connectivity on social media helps high school students foster voice and collective identity within their neighborhoods.

While communities still have newspapers, radio and television, new media ventures supporting this vision are on the rise, like Chicago’s City Bureau. The nonprofit collaborative unites journalists and the public to share skills, information and resources on topics of concern.

Take voting rights. In 1964, The New York Times visited Southern cities to assess compliance with the Civil Rights Act. The verbal component was in-person interviews. The visuals were cartoons reflecting viewpoints and a map. The viral element was missing.

In 2019, that’s no longer an issue online. Projects like ProPublica’s Electionland feature interactive, cross-channel tools that track troubles at the polls through user participation such as text messages, WhatsApp and a Facebook page.

Connective journalism practices — the merging of thousands of voices and identities in one shared digital sphere — help news outlets build rapport in minutes with sources or subscribers. But the new landscape is rife with risks, led by misinformation.

Post-millennials enjoy sensory journalism that engages their eyes and ears. As technology advances into new territory such as virtual reality, Brodeur Partners found nearly half of millennials and post-millennials prefer news media with augmented elements, versus 20% of baby boomers.

Artificial capabilities are tilting news in unexplored directions. The consistency of daily newspapers or evening newscasts is challenged by the public’s visual, verbal and viral sharing in on-demand settings.

Over the past decade, we’ve learned “news” on Twitter can be just one remark or an appearance by an influencer. Back in the spring, “Lake Okeechobee” was trending because of a visit to Florida by President Donald Trump. Forty years ago, a news story on the president’s trip would have been reasonable on Page A1 of a newspaper, or an 11 p.m. newscast.

But in late July, another trending topic was “the war over bone-in and boneless wings wages on.” “So, which side are you on?” asked the Twitter forum. The ease of digital information is not exclusive to journalism or news. Original reporting is intertwined with life updates and casual conversations.

Generation Z is pushing media purveyors in all forms to quickly capture its attention, regardless of medium. It lives in an 8-second world, snacking on news bits across self-selected devices and platforms.

Legacy companies are responding with new ideas such as Bloomberg’s TicToc, a Twitter-centric streaming network. “NBC Nightly News” found a place on YouTube, where rather than waiting for the “up next at 6:30 p.m.” promo, consumers stop, start, skip and add comments.

Newspapers are not only in print. The New York Times recently waded into TV with “The Weekly,” a half-hour documentary series on FX and Hulu (an on-demand option). The verbal, visual and viral are embraced in this investigative reporting series.

When big news breaks, from the death of Jeffrey Epstein to the Hong Kong protests, headlines on washingtonpost.com (a newspaper), npr.org (a radio station) and cnn.com (a television station) look markedly similar. But while some readers stay loyal to long-standing sources, others are prone to volatile, polarized views of the same events. “News” can come from anyone, including unknown sources or fake accounts.

The general public is news’ most formidable competitor. If we can’t grasp future audiences’ embrace of visual, verbal and viral media, consumers can — and will — create their own networks, with or without truth. That’s why we, as media professionals, must keep paying attention.

Chris Gentilviso is the associate opinions editor at the Richmond Times-Dispatch and a 2019 graduate of the UNC School of Media and Journalism residential master’s program in Chapel Hill, N.C. Contact him at cgentilviso@timesdispatch.com.

Deb Aikat is an associate professor at the UNC School of Media and Journalism in Chapel Hill, N.C., and co-author of the 2019 book “Agendamelding: News, social media, audiences and civic community.” Contact him at da@unc.edu.

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