Ask not what consumers can do for news, ask news what it can do for the consumer

If there is anything I have learned over the last few weeks it is that the consumer is king. Through my various experiences with entrepreneurship and conversations with entrepreneur Diana Kander, this point has been pushed above all others. So this week I decided to see if I could learn a thing or two about how people consume news on their phones, by, well, talking to a few strangers. I focused my questions on phone use habits to discover how people use their phones during free time. My hope was to gain some insight into the needs and desires of young phone users to have a better understanding of how news companies could target these people. I was especially interested in people my own age because I believe their news consumption will hugely impact the future of the industry.

Tanzi, 20

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Can you tell me about a time you had a free 10 minutes and were on your phone?

“Usually I go through Instagram or play 2048 because I can’t beat it. Or I’ll go on Twitter. I’m a j-school student and I follow a lot of accounts with news, but I don’t always click on the links.”

Why do you like to visit those sites?

“I like finding a different ways to connect with people and see what they’re doing and see if they’re close by. If I’m on the quad, I’ll post a picture of where I am. I want to share a part of my day with someone else.”

Why do you like to connect with people and share parts of your day?

“I’m a big experience culture person. Even though I’m an introvert, I like to know what people are doing with their life.”

What’s a problem that you have that you think news could solve?

“Sometimes I’ll be sitting and I’ll hear people talking about news, and then I’ll feel behind because I’m not caught up on it.”

Josh, 19

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Can you tell me about a time you had 10 minutes of free time and were on your phone?

“Usually I check my messages, but I don’t text all that much. Usually I’m trying to avoid looking like I’m not doing something, or I’m browsing the Internet.”

Why do you try to look like you’re doing something?

“It seems in today’s culture everyone has to look like they’re doing something. It’s socially awkward not to be doing anything.”

Why do you think it’s awkward?

“Maybe it’s just become the norm because everyone’s on their phones.”

Why do you think it’s the ‘norm?’

“I just don’t feel productive whenever I’m not doing something. Idle hands are the devil’s play things. Maybe I feel like I’m not progressing enough in life.”

Where do you get your news?

“Usually I go to Reddit because of the vote based system on what gets seen.”

Why do you pick that over local media?

“Well, the Missourian doesn’t really have people’s input. It’s not a community based thing that can rank its importance.”

What’s a news app you think you might use?

“An app or something with local events going on or summaries of world and local events.”

Emily, 19

photo 3

What do you do when you check your phone?

“I check up on Twitter and then when I get to the end of my feed, I’ll go on Pinterest.”

Why do you like to visit those sites?

“Twitter I visit because I follow things I enjoy. I don’t always tweet a lot, I’ll just read. Pinterest, I pin a lot of things and I have a lot of boards.”

Why do you like those sites?

“I really like books and movies, so anything that references those I enjoy, and I also enjoy anything that makes me laugh.”

How often do you read news?

“I don’t really read news. I guess it’s our generation. Sometimes I’ll see things on Twitter, but I don’t pay much attention.”

When you see news links on Twitter do you click on them?

“If it’s something I feel connected to or interested in I click on it, otherwise I just skip over it.”

What’s a problem in your life, big or small, you wish you could solve? How do you think an app could solve it?

“I’m bad with patience. So something that controls patience. Maybe an app that gives rewards for waiting.”


Although I only talked with three young students for a few minutes each, I learned quite a bit about their phone use habits. The thing that was most interesting to me was how technology seemed to be such a go to for people my age. Nearly everyone I saw on the quad was on a phone or computer. Yet, after I approached these people (A couple of them even had headphones in at the time), they warmly responded to my conversation and presence. Josh’s comments about the need to seem busy in today’s world were especially thought provoking.

News organizations have a huge opportunity to reach people on their phones. Like Josh said, people have a need, especially a social one, to solve the problem of free time using the technology immediately available to them. But even though these consumers were all alone when I talked with them, most of them were in pursuit of a social experience of some sort online. They had free time and they were by themselves, but they didn’t want to feel alone. It wasn’t acceptable to spend free time idly. What an opportunity for news.

Yet, every person I talked to didn’t primarily use their phones for news consumption. And, if they weren’t consuming news on their phones, they also weren’t consuming much news anywhere else. This is troubling because reading the paper used to be a socially acceptable and common way to solve the problem of free time. Now though consumers have an overwhelming amount of distractions to chose from. They want to feel connected to people and they want to pursue their interests. A plethora of social media sites target these needs well, and my generation is hooked. However, they’re not flocking to news apps like they are to social media sites.

I would have to talk to more people to further build research about phone habits, but the experience gave me some thoughts on how news organizations could better target millennials on their phones.

Ideas for news organizations:

  • Emphasis on social commenting platforms like Kinja
  • Competitive elements based around the news consumption (Ex: social consolation of some sort for winning a contest)
  • Tailored news according to location and previous searches
  • Convenience-designed mobile content (Ex: a feature story on a coffee shop that gets pushed to a phone when user is close by)
  • Elimination of paywalls (Paywalls, at least on a mobile phone, will turn users away from a “quick” experience)
  • Partnerships with other apps to include relevant news (Ex: money management tips from experts promoted under a news brand within a banking app)
  • Social emphasis on mobile apps (Ex: voting system exists within news app only)

How do you think news organizations should target millennial mobile users?


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