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Our Children’s Future: Does Public Service Media Matter?

Public Service News For Young People: Where Next?

An article about the challenges of engaging a young audience with news content delivered on the platforms they use, written by someone who has done it.

When stood before the teenagers I began to understand the scale of the problem.  I was back at my old school, Bishop Milner Catholic College in Dudley - there for the day running a series of sessions to encourage teenagers to consider careers in journalism.  I had asked the class of 14 and 15-year-olds how many of them had watched the news on TV or listened on radio the previous evening. Of the 28 one slowly, meekly, raised their hand. The shame.

I asked my former history teacher later that day if she was surprised that the figure was so low.  Not remotely it turned out.  “Compared to your day, Warren, teenagers now can watch what they want, when they want – they haven’t got to sit and see the news with their parents.”  All of this of course is only a problem if you think public service news is important.

I really believe we should care about public service news for young people. Communication and the sharing of information shapes our society. If we believe the values of democracy, transparency, accountability openness and freedom, framing these ideas through informative and impartial news content is vital to ensure that young people are sufficiently equipped to make sense of the world for themselves. Without it I believe that we’ll all be poorer. It’s why I decided that I wanted to do something about this issue, other than just write long essays about it. I’ll tell you a bit more about what I’ve done to make changes in the industry shortly.

Although only a snapshot in one community I found the response from students I met that day instructive.  Who knows about the level of interest that those teenagers generally had in the news, but the fact was even when further pushed to reveal the current news stories and headlines, they were not informed.  Maybe if they’d seen more news headlines or stories perhaps their interest could have been stirred? On that day I wasn’t able to tell.

‘My day’ was 20 years prior to the students I met that morning.  Now in my 30s, having worked in TV News for more than ten years as a reporter, I deliver news stories to mass audiences primarily on national television.  For a long time, perhaps even since the first BBC Television broadcast in 1936, there has been the assumption that national broadcasts are the most efficient way of transmitting information to mass audiences.  Until the advent of the internet and smart phones this assumption was true. But not anymore.

But none of this should be new to you.  You’re probably reading this on your phone, tablet or other smart device after all. But the ongoing battle as to how younger viewers can be reached with public service news content is becoming more important.  With the advent of the attention economy, where the amount of time we scroll or click is translated into hard cash for digital companies, the delivery of public service news to younger audiences is facing a series of challenges.

Why We Should Care

According to Ofcom’s 2019 news consumption survey fewer teenagers and young people are watching TV News than ever before.  Over 65s watch 33 minutes of TV news each day, but 16–23-year olds only watch 2 minutes.  The Government’s 2019 Cairncross review into sustainable journalism had some important revelations.  For 16–24-year olds Facebook is now their most important news source. They also found “the major public service news broadcasters do not communicate news to young people in a language that they can relate to, or on the platforms where they spend their time.” We also know that young adults watch more than an hour of YouTube content every day. All of these findings were from before the global Covid-19 pandemic. Since lockdown in March 2020 the amount of time people spend on Facebook has increased by 23 % according to the Interactive Advertising Bureau.

And so, there are two battles – one for public service media to produce content that young people want to watch and engage with, and simultaneously a technological battle for the attention of young people to consume content, any content.

For advocates of public service news media, the inherent idea that this content is of value because we’ve done it before isn’t enough.

I want you to stay with me whilst I explore areas which I believe are in need of more in-depth research, policy and reform to ensure that public service news media for young people can be relevant and a force for the public good.

The New Grammar?

As the battle for attention gathers pace, honing the form and grammar to reach audiences is becoming ever more relevant.  In Ofcom’s 2020 survey of news consumption 42 % of those aged between 12 and 15 - in this sample - cited the news being too boring as the reason for not engaging on any platform. That’s up from 40 % in 2019. It’s at this point I should admit the skin in the game that I have here.

In November 2019 alongside my great friend and collaborator Seth Goolnik we created a new youth news political service specifically to tackle this problem. Like another famous political agreement, ‘The Deal’ was struck in an Islington restaurant over lunch; young people centre stage in creating the programmes and delivered in a style that would appeal to them.

Launching during the then General Election campaign, our daily news programme NEED TO KNOW had immediate success, with a million engaged viewers a week, 80% of them under the age of 25. It was broadcast exclusively on the social network Snapchat, a place where young people spend a lot of their time. We were nominated for a Press Gazette Award for innovation and recently won the 2021 Royal Television Society Award for Journalism beating both the BBC and CNN in the final run off. My own impartiality is tested here by saying that it was quite a remarkable achievement. But our own efforts helped to shine a light on the industry and public service news for young people as a result.

I don’t think that our success was a fluke, it was because we had a vision, clarity of purpose and we understood where public service news media has been making mistakes. To be clear, it’s not that UK news providers haven’t tried to reach young audiences — BBC News, ITN, and Sky all have plenty of presence on social media— it’s that when they do, they aren’t ambitious enough. I think there are three main reasons why the major broadcasters haven’t been hugely successful.

The tone of British news has barely changed since the days of the BBC at Alexandra Palace. Sure, maybe they now stand instead of sit and edgily pop the top button on their shirts but, for the most part it’s the same austere delivery it’s always been. Oxford University’s 2019 study ‘How Young People Consume News’ found young people don’t want the news to be what you ‘should’ know but what’s ‘useful, interesting, and fun’ to know. News providers need to shake off the superiority and find ways to speak to young people without preaching; yes, that means humour, but it doesn’t mean crowbarring youth acronyms into content.

Public service news media providers in the UK are trying to reach young audiences, putting their reports on TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook, but it’s the ‘putting’ that’s the problem. Most of the time when a news broadcaster puts content on social media it’s just exactly what they just put on TV with, at best, a dodgy 9:16 crop and a ‘yoof’ voice over. Research by Snapchat shows the average attention span on social media is five seconds, roughly the time it takes for traditional TV journalists to clear their throats. Broadcasters need to forget replication and build a whole new grammar of highly concentrated storytelling, using everything from eye catching graphics to split screens, if they really want to succeed on social.

Looking more widely and taking in other news providers on social media channels the big mistake many news organisations make is to bundle woke and activism together in the hope that this will appeal to younger people. I’d say this isn’t about bleeding hearts but active minds. At its worst, ‘woke’ culture can just be as preachy as the news broadcasts young people are currently avoiding. On the other hand, studies show young people want the news to explain how they can personally make a difference. Ofcom’s 2019 ‘Review of BBC News’ found young people want the news to help them engage with the world. At the moment it seems there’s a collective industry failure here.

With NEED TO KNOW we made a decision to communicate in a way that younger viewers relate to. As I presented the show it just wasn’t about me wearing sweaters rather than a shirt and tie, but also about our language, speed, pacing, humour and story selection. I was able to be me whilst remaining resolutely impartial following the Ofcom broadcasting code, the first digital only news service to do this.

We wanted to ensure that young people informed content we made by driving the coverage. In daily morning meetings we’d decide on the stories of the day with our trainee journalists and then we’d all work on writing the scripts before recording the programme in the afternoon. With all the graphics and animation work the programme was able to go on air by 17:00 most evenings. We produced a show once a day, and on a few occasions twice, with three over Election Day and Night.  It was a truly amazing experience to have made a programme that resonated so highly with viewers and made such a big splash. It was a proud moment to think that we’d made a programme that had informed viewers of the important issues that faced the country. We’ve been able to demonstrate that it is possible to reach young people with the stories that matter to them. There’s scope for others to do the same.

A Level Playing Field?

Ofcom’s recognition in 2021 that the current regulatory framework for public service media is in need of updating should come as no surprise to news providers. In the fight for views and clicks news producers are flyweights in the ring against heavyweight world champions.  If a teenager can either click to watch slickly produced Hollywood content featuring stars and celebrities, or content from news producers with far inferior budgets and less in the way of excitement, I’m confident in predicting that Hollywood would come out on top, unless the news content was about a famous Hollywood star.  There’s a reason why on linear television entertainment shows are in prime-time slots and news bulletins are not.

At this point it’s helpful to return to the teenagers I met at my former school. When asked about what they’d watched on their smartphones and devices the night before they mentioned Love Island, Harry Styles, Kim Kardashian, football videos, YouTube stars.  The things you would expect teenagers to watch. For young people the social media space is an arena where the culture of expectation is for fun and entertainment. I would have been very surprised if anyone had mentioned a Ken Burns Vietnam documentary series. Greater choice has meant that the previous principles of broadcast television where news producers could rely on a captive audience to watch their content is slowly evaporating.

Something which shouldn’t be forgotten is that there’s very little in the way of broadcast news content produced specifically by public service media organisations for children online. ITV have announced plans for new news and current affairs online content moving forwards, however currently The BBC’s Newsround and more recently ITV’s The Rundown are the two most well-known.  They do produce content for multiple online platforms, but their challenge is laid bare by reviewing viewing numbers on YouTube for recent episodes. As of March 2021, they were consistently below 500 views for both programmes. Unsustainable in the long term if success comes to be based solely on views and advertising revenues.

At the heart of this is a question of identity. As broadband speeds have increased and technologies have advanced, internet companies have morphed and changed into new entities. They argue they’re not publishers themselves and so don’t have to face the trappings of regulation, but they do host journalism content. Whilst at the same time the place where children and young people receive video and specifically news content has moved from the place which is well regulated to a space without the values and identity that have defined broadcasting for generations. Maybe it’s not a surprise that some are struggling to compete.

This supposed neutrality that tech firms have towards content is constantly being tested with sites like Facebook, Instagram and YouTube challenging the posting of pornography, fake news, false political advertising and racially and homophobic content. Tech giants clearly have values, at the moment they haven’t been forced into having values beyond the areas they’re comfortable with – reputational and commercial ones.

Could it be that we now need to challenge social media companies to realise that they have now stepped into PSM territory by virtue of being the default place where young people now choose to spend most of their viewing time?

And, as young people’s expectations of video content shifts could more be done to help PSM news broadcasters to connect with audiences by creating higher quality content?  Perhaps enabling more private companies to create PSM news content through partnerships and promotion and with social media platforms doing more to enable and facilitate distribution.

Better Governance

In writing this essay a colleague helpfully reminded me of a report written in 2001 by David Kleeman, formerly the Executive Director at the American Centre for Children and Media.  It’s a long and interesting read into how he felt there was a need for public service media to adapt, and, for the implementation of new regulation in the digital age to protect and support young people.  The report held up the BBC ‘strategic approach’ to public service children’s content as something which US media could aspire to and learn from.  Time and time again the report reels off how UK PSBs were industry leaders due to the focus on fixed hours of news and current affairs programming each month and the decision to launch new digital channels like CBBC and CBeebies. His argument continued - because American PSB did not face such commitments the digital age with increased competition and technology would create a generation of ill-equipped Americans who would fail to properly understand the world due to not being exposed to quality public service news.  With American news media firmly under the spotlight in recent years, it would be good to talk to him again to see if he thinks he’s been proved correct.

Looking back and comparing today to 2001, it does seem as if we are at another pivotal moment.  Although young people are engaging with social media in larger numbers and with greater frequency, there’s the alarming problem of trust.  Ofcom’s 2020 news consumption in the UK survey found that only 39 % of young people saw social media as being the place that provides accurate stories, and just 35 % believed they should be treated as trustworthy. That compares to 86 % and 85 % respectively when it comes to television news.  So, young people are fairly discerning about what they are seeing, it’s just that in the areas where they are, most public service news providers are unable to reach them with real frequency.

And so, if the government thinks that public service news for young people is important the government will soon have to tackle the question: What does it want the new media landscape to look like and what should its responsibilities be? This isn’t a question about how much state interference there should be with the free press, it’s instead about creating a broadcasting eco system that provides tools to enable public service media to flourish and compete. Perhaps starting with the fundamental principle of giving PSM companies delivering news prominence on social platforms would be a start.  Furthermore, creating a framework that allows for long term investment and greater risk taking for innovative companies too. News is expensive and requires expertise; viewers value this when they see it.

Young people deserve to be provided with the best possible news content and as a society we have the responsibility to nurture the next generation of citizens so that they have the information they need to succeed and make sense of our fast-changing world. Providing a framework to enable Public Service News to thrive is an investment that could be for the good of us all.

When I got home after speaking to the teenagers at my former school I noticed that they’d taken a photo of me without my knowledge and posted it on social media. Turns out that some of the words from my short talk had now formed part of a school meme!  Who says young people have no interest in the news?

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By Warren Nettleford

Warren Nettleford is an award-winning national TV journalist who’s tackled the biggest global news stories covering Europe, Asia and the United States. He’s worked for every major UK news broadcaster (BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5).

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