Building News Relevance
How can the news media remain relevant, particularly with young audiences and underserved communities?LAST UPDATED: December 01, 2023
CNTI aims to help news publishers and policymakers understand the current challenges of news relevance as a means to enabling more informed internet and media policy and a healthy information system. The importance the public places on the news media inherently impacts the digital news environment and any feasible solutions to its current challenges. Even the best internet policy cannot ensure the future of independent journalism and an open internet if the news media, at large, does not carry credibility and relevance with the audiences it strives to serve. This is particularly important when it comes to younger audiences and those in underserved communities.
The public’s perceived relevance of journalists and the role they play in providing fact-based accounting of events and issues is an essential ingredient in building policy that protects a strong, diverse and independent press, a crucial principle of democracy. Yet, achieving relevance seems harder than ever.
The internet provides new opportunities for producing news, telling stories and reaching and connecting with audiences. It also poses new challenges – including entirely new structures and formats of news as well as a wider range of content and creators competing for the public’s attention, trust and value. The public’s ability to share information and opinions through social media also holds journalists accountable in ways they weren’t in the age of traditional media.
In a digital environment where publishers no longer serve as the sole gatekeepers of news and information, they must find new ways to stand out by developing relationships with audiences that reflect their lifestyles and habits. This means rethinking the very concept of news: how people define it, what news they’re looking for and where they access it. The “unbundling” of news and its financial structure are only the beginning of what has changed.
Younger generations require particular attention. In addition to being digital natives, many also have grown up in the social media age, when news is just one of many kinds of content mixed into online spaces which include messaging apps, private groups, video games and social feeds. Information sources are global. With so many choices, access to verified and independent reporting can be difficult. With habits already different from other age groups, how will their relationships with news evolve as they move further into adulthood? More broadly, how do they differentiate news from other kinds of content? What do they look for versus happen upon? How do they recognize brands, if at all? Who do they trust, and why?
Members of historically marginalized and underserved communities also require attention. They often have well-earned skepticism of news media broadly, having been historically underrepresented in newsrooms and misrepresented in (and actively harmed by) news coverage. They face unequal targeting from disinformation campaigns and often have less access to news and information. Inequities in representation, coverage and access impact people with disabilities through insufficient accessible and inclusive news, particularly for visually impaired news audiences and/or people with cognitive disabilities.
Many newsrooms have taken significant steps to connect with and serve marginalized and underserved communities, but there is still much ground to cover. One of the positives of the digital realm is the low cost to publishing, which has enabled the creation of niche news publishers. That said, building audiences can be incredibly challenging because it involves creating content specific populations connect to and value.
For journalism to be relevant today, publishers must listen to audiences and evaluate what they want and need so they can both meet their audiences’ wants and needs and offer accountable, fact-based work. As important as independent, competitive journalism and an open internet are to the future of functioning societies, neither can be ensured if the press, at large, does not gain the recognition, relevance and trust of audiences in the communities it strives to serve. Publishers and journalists need to think hard about what news means in the future and how people find it, value it and understand who produces it. Neither further regulation nor revenue alone can solve this part of the equation.
One challenge publishers face is gathering research and analysis that differentiates between their audiences’ expressed desires for news and actual media practices. This research and analysis is complex, expensive and falls largely on the news industry and research communities.
What Makes It Complex
What publishers think about news “relevance” does not always align with what the public considers relevant to them.
What audiences personally want and value from the news can be contradictory and can vary, particularly when it comes to younger and historically marginalized audiences. The mismatch between publishers’ perception and the public’s perception of what is relevant exists from the international level to the local level. For instance, research shows that large national news outlets in the U.S. often skew coverage toward a wealthy, white and liberal audience, and local U.S. newsrooms often fail to cover topics their local audiences are seeking out.
The primary challenges to producing relevant news are different in different contexts.
For instance, in politically polarized societies like the U.S. and Brazil, partisanship plays a critical role in perceptions of and trust in news media. There are also countries where history influences the public’s understanding of and relationship with news media. There is also variation in the degree of independence the news media has had from national governments. In many cases, larger institutional or cultural shifts are required before we can address broader issues of relevance through changes to news practices or content.
News publishers must make trade-offs to engage different groups. Journalists cannot meet the needs and wants of every person. What appeals to one group might very well turn off another. This applies to everything from long-form to short-form content, and from news that carries viewpoints and opinions to news that does not. It also applies to the use of visuals, source type, and topics. Publishers seeking to appeal to a mass audience rather than smaller, niche ones that share news preferences face the greatest challenge engaging their audiences.
News publishers must make trade-offs to engage different groups.
Journalists cannot meet the needs and wants of every person. What appeals to one group might very well turn off another. This applies to everything from long-form to short-form content, and from news that carries viewpoints and opinions to news that does not. It also applies to the use of visuals, source type, and topics. Publishers seeking to appeal to a mass audience rather than smaller, niche ones that share news preferences face the greatest challenge engaging their audiences.
Many people do not see the news as central to their lives.
While the future of independent journalism is critical for open societies, it is not often central to people’s everyday lives or online experiences. People are increasingly getting news via distributed discovery (especially social media and search engines), but many use platforms primarily for other purposes and may actually be hesitant to get news from them. Further, people who are less trusting of news also pay less attention to and have fewer opinions about news practices, implying a broader lack of interest in what news is or what it should be. Persuading the public to see news as relevant will require communicating its value to people who do not consider news to be an important part of their lives.
Young people’s media habits and attitudes make them harder for news publishers to reach than older audiences. Compared with older audiences, under-30s in particular are increasingly reliant on digital and social media, more disconnected from news brands, and have different perceptions of what news is. Younger and/or less educated audiences are more likely to avoid news because they perceive it as hard to follow or understand. Traditional media often assumes a certain amount of knowledge and often provides little explanation of context, which can alienate younger or newer news consumers. And, the spaces they find news and information online change. For instance, younger audiences increasingly use platforms like TikTok as both a search engine and a news source despite understanding that not all information on the app is credible and/or independent. It is critical that publishers meet audiences where they are, and with news formats they can understand, trust and connect with.
Young people’s media habits and attitudes make them harder for news publishers to reach than older audiences.
Compared with older audiences, under-30s in particular are increasingly reliant on digital and social media, more disconnected from news brands, and have different perceptions of what news is. Younger and/or less educated audiences are more likely to avoid news because they perceive it as hard to follow or understand. Traditional media often assumes a certain amount of knowledge and often provides little explanation of context, which can alienate younger or newer news consumers. And, the spaces they find news and information online change. For instance, younger audiences increasingly use platforms like TikTok as both a search engine and a news source despite understanding that not all information on the app is credible and/or independent. It is critical that publishers meet audiences where they are, and with news formats they can understand, trust and connect with.
State of Research
Research continues to indicate global public interest and trust in the news media declining and news avoidance rising. Many news avoiders perceive the news as irrelevant for navigating their daily lives. The question of news relevance, and the public’s perceptions of it, tie into a broad range of research topics, including media trust and engagement, the changing media environment and business models, and the public’s news choices and expectations (and those of young news audiences specifically). Together, this work – detailed at various points throughout this issue primer – paints a clear picture of the challenges facing publishers attempting to remain or become relevant to their audiences.
Moving forward, audience-centered work quantitatively and qualitatively measuring public perceptions and attitudes of news relevance and public trust in non-U.S. and comparative contexts is critical. In many countries, we simply lack evidence-based understandings of what different groups want and need from news publishers. For example, we could move beyond simple assumptions that news for younger audiences needs to have a “youth” slant if the solution is actually hiring young talent and presenting stories in ways and on platforms that align with their lifestyles.
Research can also push to explore new ways of thinking about news. Many of the decades-old parameters of how news is defined no longer apply, making it less clear what news means to people today. Many initiatives aiming to connect with audiences – such as explanatory, “good news,” solutions or constructive journalism – are also untested, and their effectiveness (as well as whether audiences actually want them) is still unclear. And, while recent research has told us much about how audiences (including young people) either intentionally or incidentally consume digital news, opportunities remain for further exploring how specific audiences navigate an increasingly mediated and fragmented digital news environment.
Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (2023)
Summary: Focus groups with participants from disadvantaged communities – along lines of race, class, caste, religion and place – in India, Brazil, the U.S. and the U.K. highlight the very real impact of under- and misrepresentation of marginalized communities and the ways these perceptions and experiences shape trust in news.
CNTI’s Takeaway: The report offers four key takeaways for newsrooms attempting to build trust among these audiences: focusing on accuracy and reducing biases, telling more complete stories and including positive coverage, diversification and better training of newsrooms, and making an effort to listen to different audience needs.
Knight Foundation & Gallup (2023)
Summary: This U.S. research finds that half of Americans believe most national news publishers intend to mislead, misinform or persuade the public.
CNTI’s Takeaway: This work suggests many Americans are not just skeptical of journalism, but are emotionally distrustful of news publishers’ motives. Research like this will be critical in non-U.S. markets moving forward.
Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (2022)
Summary: Younger audiences in Brazil, the U.K. and the U.S. often distinguish between “THE news” (the traditional agenda of politics and current affairs) and “news” – to them, a much wider umbrella encompassing a variety of topics that fill different needs and interests. Despite the fact that they spend much more of their time online with the latter, young people largely perceive traditional news publishers as narrowly offering the former.
CNTI’s Takeaway: This work offers much-needed comparative evidence of young people’s news habits and attitudes, finding key differences and variations in how they think about and use news across diverse media and political systems.
Center for Media Engagement (2021)
Summary: Research with a local U.S. newspaper identified four approaches to connecting with residents who felt news coverage in their communities was lacking and misrepresented them: developing relationships in the community, covering communities fairly and consistently, providing information about community resources and showing empathy when telling difficult stories.
CNTI’s Takeaway: This work provides pathways for research that engages directly with newsrooms and their communities, offering practical insights for connecting with and creating relevant news for local audiences.
Columbia University Press (2021)
Summary: This U.S. research documents how large national and international news publishers facing changing business models have pivoted to serving a white, wealthy and liberal American audience willing to pay for news.
CNTI’s Takeaway: When news publishers do not meet the needs of the communities they purport to serve, they exacerbate threats to media inequality and distrust.
Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (2021)
Summary: This comparative research in India, Brazil, the U.S. and the U.K. demonstrates that indifference is a key, but unappreciated, factor underlying a lack of media trust.
CNTI’s Takeaway: Engaging with critical questions about news relevance must bear in mind that many people are simply indifferent to news. Reaching people, demonstrating journalism’s value to them and earning their trust will require a different set of responses than those needed for audiences who either already distrust or who are actively hostile to news.
Pew Research Center (2020)
Summary: This U.S.-based survey research finds that people who rely most on social media for political news are less likely to closely follow major news stories – including critical information about pandemics or elections – and are less knowledgeable about those major stories.
CNTI’s Takeaway: This research provides critical evidence that despite social media offering users unprecedented access to and choice of news, people who primarily rely on social media for news and information are less informed and engaged with news than other news consumers. Further research could explore ways this might be altered.
Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (2019)
Summary: This U.K. research identifies four specific forms of news interest, which do not align with the conventional ‘beat’ categories often relied on by the news industry.
CNTI’s Takeaway: This work demonstrates that there are no simple answers for creating relevant news for audiences – but there is broad agreement that the most relevant stories are ones that affect audiences’ personal lives.
State of Legislation
Legislation might not be explicitly designed to address the challenges of news relevance, but it nonetheless serves as a motivating factor behind a range of policies at the intersection of journalism and technology. This includes legislative debates addressed across several of CNTI’s issue primers:
- Our issue primer addressing economic support for news outlines policies intended to support commercial, public and local media through various funding mechanisms, which may offer ways for journalists and publishers to focus on important connections with the public. However, it is often unclear whether these responses address, or even consider, what the public desires or how they connect with news today, which are central for the news media to remain relevant with audiences.
- In our issue primer on artificial intelligence (AI) in journalism, we consider how automation offers opportunities for news productivity and innovation at the same time that it risks enabling disinformation, obscuring source attribution and undermining public trust in news. These questions of trust will continue to be influenced by how publishers, technology companies and policymakers handle AI transparency and accountability.
- In our issue primer on addressing disinformation, we detail global concerns about the rise of false and misleading information online as well as the type of content the public tends to perceive as mis- and disinformation. These perceptions have critical insights into which sources audiences trust and consider relevant.
Resources & Events
Notable Articles & Statements
When it comes to audience diversity, newsrooms are asking the wrong questions
Nieman Lab (November 2023)
Choose your words wisely: The role of language in media trust
Digital Content Next (November 2023)
Young South Africans are shaping the news through community radio — via social media
Nieman Lab (October 2023)
The mirage in the trust desert: challenging journalistic transparency
Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (August 2023)
Strategies for building trust in news: What the public say they want across four countries
Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (September 2023)
From contributors, to co-producers – a guide to participatory production
On Our Radar (August 2023)
Unpacking news participation and online engagement over time
Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (June 2023)
Engage to build trust
American Press Institute (June 2023)
Journalists must understand the power of community engagement to earn trust
Poynter (February 2023)
Q&A: How can newsrooms better serve communities of color?
Columbia Journalism Review (February 2023)
Blind news audiences are being left behind in the data visualization revolution: Here’s how we fix that
Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (January 2023)
Gina Chua on how to reach underserved communities: Journalism for – not about – them
Global Investigative Journalism Network (June 2022)
The changing news habits and attitudes of younger audiences
Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (June 2022)
How do audiences really ‘engage’ with news?
Columbia Journalism Review (December 2019)
Journalism needs an audience to survive, but isn’t sure how to earn its loyalty
The Conversation (February 2019)
Key Institutions & Resources
American Press Institute: Non-profit organization providing insights, tools and research to advance journalism.
Center for Media Engagement (CME): Works with and conducts research on American newsrooms to promote connections between the press and the public.
International Press Institute: Global organization dedicated to promoting and protecting press freedom and the improvement of journalism practices.
Knight Foundation: Promotes research around building the future of local news in U.S. communities.
Medill Local News Initiative: Team of experts aiming to reinvent the relationship between news organizations and audiences to elevate enterprises that empower citizens.
Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ): Explores questions related to the future of journalism, including news engagement, relevance and trust through globally focused research.
Social Science Research Council’s MediaWell: Collects and synthesizes research on topics such as credibility and trust.
The Trust Project: International consortium aiming to amplify journalism’s commitment to transparency, accuracy, inclusion and fairness.
World Association of News Publishers (WAN-IFRA): Global organization of the world’s press aiming to protect independent media.
Kamal Ahmed, Co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief, The News Movement
Raney Aronson-Rath, Producer, PBS FRONTLINE
S. Mitra Kalita, Co-Founder and CEO, URL Media
Amy Kovac-Ashley, Head of National Programs, Lenfest Institute
Luba Kassova, Researcher and Writer
Gaven Morris, Managing Director, Bastion Transform & Former News Director, ABC News
Nic Newman, Senior Research Associate, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism
Agnes Stenbom, Head, IN/LAB
Talia Jomini Stroud, Director, Center for Media Engagement
Benjamin Toff, Assistant Professor, University of Minnesota
Winston Utomo, Founder and Ceo, IDN Media
Recent & Upcoming Events
Issue primers have been reviewed at multiple stages by more than 20 global research and industry expert partners, including CNTI advisory committee members, representing five regions. We invite you to send us research, legislation and other resources. Read more about CNTI’s issue primer and other research quality standards.Download PDF