While the mainstream media were obsessing over the results of the Greek bailout referendum July 5, the news site Ozy.com was going in a different direction altogether. Its lead story that day was about how genes affect potential career advancement. “Does your DNA spell out ‘CEO’?” asked its headline.
Many of Ozy’s other featured stories probably wouldn’t get prominent play in the New York Times or on the “PBS NewsHour,” either. “Ditch the geezer judges,” read another headline on a story about elderly judges; “How Nixon shaped porn in America” was a “flashback” about President Richard Nixon’s efforts to suppress the 1972 porn film “Deep Throat.”
Ozy’s slogan: “Welcome to the New News.”
Ozy’s offbeat news judgment speaks volumes about the readers it’s trying to attract: young people, typically those under 35. The site, founded 22 months ago, is one of a growing number of digital ventures tailoring news to the presumed tastes of this group, the first generation of info-consumers to come of age in the Internet era.
Digital behemoths such as BuzzFeed and Vice News beguiled this audience with, respectively, frivolous fare (quiz: “If You Were a Doughnut, Would Ariana Grande Lick You?”) and gritty videos, all of it designed to be shared on social media and via smartphones. Both sites have matured and expanded the range and depth of their journalism. In the process, both have attracted tens of millions of visitors — and tens of millions of dollars in venture-capital funding.
On their heels have come a procession of would-be BuzzFeeds and Vices that ply their own take on what’s news and newsworthy for the 73 million adults born after 1980. The field now includes the likes of Mic, Fusion, Vocativ , Upworthy and Ozy, whose name refers to the Percy Shelley poem “Ozymandias.”
None of these news sources is likely to be mistaken for the kind that mom and pop consume. Which is exactly the point.
“We’re not doing cat listicles or recycling other people’s headlines,” says Carlos Watson, the founder and chief executive of Ozy. “We’re doing original, global reporting on both serious and fun stories.” Rather than targeting some strict age coordinates, Watson, a former MSNBC anchor and CNN contributor, likes to think of Ozy’s readers as members of “the change generation.”
Fusion’s new editor in chief, Alexis Madrigal, 33, offers a more expansive variation on that theme: “What ties our audience together isn’t a particular demographic affiliation, but an interest in equality, social justice and the idea of an America that isn’t dominated by old white men. . . . Our audience doesn’t care if a bunch of old people want the world to go back to the 1950s. We’ll be happy living in a more free, more equal future.”
Fusion’s readers, Madrigal says, are “suspicious of the institutions that our parents and grandparents built, which are mostly failing us anyway.”
The “new” news agenda has a strong emphasis on environmental issues (Upworthy: “More Americans will be able to afford solar energy in their homes soon. Thanks, Obama.” ); dating and relationships (Vocativ: “ ‘Arousometer’ reveals women are turned off by disgust more than fear”); drugs (Fusion: “This is your brain on Molly”); and consumer technology. The pop culture sections are chockablock with minutiae about TV shows such as “Orange Is the New Black” and “Game of Thrones.”
At the same time, the sites give prominent play to stories about discrimination, particularly against women and gay, lesbian and transgender people. In some cases, these pieces are little different from mainstream accounts; in others, they fit into a category that might be called “outrage bait.” Mic’s “Identities” section includes such stories as “You can probably guess how white the U.S.’s elected prosecutors are.” A recent Upworthy story carried this headline: “He was supposed to kill these 2 bear cubs. He saved them instead. Now he might lose his job.”
Other common elements: Articles are relatively short, rarely exceeding 500 words. Much of the reporting is secondhand, derived from the work of other media organizations. Such an aggregation strategy maximizes the output of the young journalists the sites employ and minimizes overhead. But it also means that a good deal of the “new” news actually rests on the legwork of “old” news reporters.
A Fusion story about the removal of Bill Cosby’s bust from a plaza at Disney World, for example, relied on the Orlando Sentinel’s account of the event. (Fusion is a collaboration between Disney’s ABC News and the Spanish-language broadcaster Univision). An Upworthy feature on jet biofuels was pegged to a New York Times scoop on the topic the day before. And Vocativ’s story about Bill Cosby’s “enablers” was mined from material produced by CNN, the Guardian and the New York Daily News.
While many stories are played in the just-the-facts style of conventional journalism, there’s plenty of slant, too. Marijuana legalization generally gets approving coverage, as do efforts to keep abortion legal and accessible. Same with marriage equality and efforts to remove the Confederate flag. Fusion left no doubt where it stood on the latter issue; one of its recent articles was a collection of Photoshopped images of gay pride flags grafted onto news photos of Confederate flags.
As such, it’s not surprising that most of the sites lean decidedly left when it comes to presidential politics (though Watson, for one, says Ozy is officially nonpartisan). Mic’s “Policy” section includes numerous favorable pieces on Democratic candidates Bernie Sanders, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Martin O’Malley and Jim Webb. But when any attention at all is paid to the crowded Republican field, the tone is notably darker (to wit: “New Jersey doesn’t love Chris Christie, but he wants America’s vote anyway”). Vocativ’s stories about Republicans adopt a similar tone: “Sarah Palin has lost her social media mojo” and “Chris Christie’s new Twitter campaign slogan is backfiring.”
Madrigal, a former deputy editor at TheAtlantic.com who oversees Fusion’s 60-person newsroom, says this style of reporting is actually an advantage. “We let our writers and creators be the humans that they are,” he said. “They get to write and host with their own voices, bringing their own experiences and ideas and opinions to bear on the stories that they are covering. For us, transparency and authenticity are king.”
At the same time, Fusion has undertaken some of the more ambitious digital journalism of the new crop, sometimes in conjunction with its cable TV channel, which has the same name. Among others, it looked into an obscure Army panel, the Board for Correction of Military Records, and found that it routinely denied veterans their benefits via secret proceedings. Another report last fall alleged widespread mistreatment of transgender women by officials overseeing U.S. immigration-detention facilities.
Mic’s co-founder and editor in chief, Jake Horowitz, 27, says young people look at the world “very, very differently” than older generations and are hungry for a newer style of news. In 2011, Horowitz and a high school classmate, Chris Altchek, decided to start their own digital news operation, which they initially dubbed PolicyMic.
Since then, investors have put some $30 million behind their idea, largely on the expectation that a site delivering news to young people will be golden to advertisers seeking to shape their still-unformed brand preferences. (Horowitz declined to discuss financial details, but none of the new news operations is believed to be profitable.)
“The two stereotypes are that [young people] are only concerned about listicles and we don’t want serious news,” Horowitz said. “The other cliches are that we’re lazy, entitled and narcissistic. We know that’s not true. But we thought there wasn’t a news site that reflected the voice and tone and way we consume information. We saw a huge opportunity.”
Of course, young people don’t just get their news from sites edited for young people. They flock to mainstream sources, too. The Washington Post had 17.6 million unique visitors between the ages of 18 and 34 during May, or 37 percent of its overall audience, according to ComScore. That figure is larger than the total number of people who visited Mic (16.95 million), Upworthy (13.3 million), Fusion (3.2 million), Vocativ (1.0 million) or Ozy (874,000) during the same month, ComScore said. (The sites say their internal figures show far higher numbers of visitors.)
Other mainstream news sites attract large percentages of young people, too. Some 41 percent of the Guardian’s readership is in the 18-34 range, as is 37 percent of the New York Times’s digital audience and 35 percent at CNN.com.
All of which may suggest that young people aren’t really so different in their news-grazing habits after all.
To a point, yes, says Fusion’s Madrigal.
“We’re the same as all other people, aside from having to launch our lives and careers at a time when our country’s 20th-century physical, financial, and educational infrastructure is buckling from lack of care and maintenance. But you don’t hear the old-timers complaining about us mention that very often.”