Social Media, Substack and Shrinking Attention Spans: How Gen Z Consumes News
Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, journalist Karen K. Ho popularized a term that summarized the behavior of many social media users: doomscrolling. A response to ongoing global turmoil with constant live updates, it’s an apt encapsulation of anxiety-riddled, compulsive news consumption. (Ho even created a bot to remind Twitter followers to, please, log off.)
Not only is there a seemingly infinite array of content available at our fingertips, but information is delivered in increasingly quicker, shorter and more digestible formats. This transformation exists in tandem with the shrinking attention spans of media consumers—especially Gen Z.
To get a better sense of how the news landscape is changing and the implications for this group, members of Ask Gen Z, the Day One youth insights arm, shared their thoughts on what’s populating their feeds, and how to attract and retain an attention-strapped reader.
With an attention span of approximately eight seconds, Gen Zers have become the target audience in the shift towards more digestible news. Publications are investing more in Instagram, TikTok and YouTube—a natural progression considering TikTok is Gen Z’s favorite social media platform.
Some of Ask Gen Z attribute their news preferences to the ways their attention spans changed throughout the pandemic. Cameron Cox, Account Coordinator, says, “I have a much lower attention span than before, which causes issues when it comes to reading longer news articles. I prefer quick news, which is why I like Twitter and short videos.”
All the news that's fit to scroll
In early 2021, one half of Gen Z ranked social media as the number one way they prefer to get news, with 12% preferring network or cable TV. Additionally, 59% of 13 to 39-year-olds keep up with news via video rather than written text. As TikTok grows by capitalizing on our declining attention span, the app has expanded from a casual source of entertainment to a bona fide news platform, evidenced by the White House briefing top TikTok stars on the war in Ukraine as they would any newspaper or cable network.
TikTok intrinsically appeals to Gen Z because it’s not simply a vehicle for videos—it’s a platform for short videos. The app encourages a mindless scroll; the short clips and rolling algorithm eliminate the viewer’s need to make any conscious decisions about where to direct their attention to next. When a video is 10 seconds long, it’s come and gone before we’ve determined if it’s worth watching.
Navigating the noise
This method of media consumption can cause cognitive whiplash. Many Ukrainians have turned to TikTok in what’s arguably the future of war journalism, resulting in users across the globe automatically seeing their content as it goes viral. One TikToker alluded to this dissonance, posting, “im literally watching thirst traps followed by footage of w@r crimes and then an ad for moisturizer all within 30s of each other.”
Bite-sized content—especially the kind that appears, unprompted, rewarding the brain with a dopamine boost—is hard to resist. Yes, it can be disorienting, but ultimately audiences are already onto the next thing on their FYP before unpacking what came before.
Last year, as The Washington Post celebrated one million TikTok followers, so did Megan Mitchell, an anchor at local Cincinnati news channel WLWT. On the scale of national media, the two journalism outlets fundamentally have different levels of visibility. But on TikTok, they have equal influence. While both accounts post news, Mitchell also captures Gen Zers’ attention by offering insight into her personal life, fostering an air of intimacy that a broadcast news desk simply doesn’t.
This dynamic of familiarity and authenticity is present in another shift in the news media: Substack as journalism’s (supposed) next frontier. Newsletters have exploded within the last few years, providing consumers with the ability to curate their inboxes according to their interests and allowing writers to leverage and monetize themselves as personal brands.
The newsletter model offers journalists a one-to-one relationship with their audience and gives them free rein to express themselves without the confines of a publication’s internal policies or editorial board oversight. Eli Williams, Senior Creative Strategist, says, “My inbox is now about 60% newsletters. Some, from ‘legacy’ media publications like The Economist, and others from cultural critics (Sean Monahan), groups (Dirt) and journalists (Matt Taibbi). I like the digestible format, and that I’m able to curate my inbox. I’ve also found myself more willing to pay for newsletters from writers that I want to support.”
The Rise of Newsletters at a Glance
0 billion emailsdelivered on average per day
0 million USDin Substack revenue for top writers
0 percent of Gen Zprefers to receive brand communication via email
This level of intimacy between writer and reader propels the profitability of a successful Substack—asserting Gen Z’s thinking that perhaps someone’s unique voice and personal brand are more compelling—and financially worthy—than a corporation’s. Of course, this position as editfluencer doesn’t come without certain limitations. The assets of a legacy news organization—editors, fact checkers and copy editors—perform essential functions in vetting stories and ensuring ethical standards and credibility. Substack does offer these services to select writers, and newsletter readers can hold writers accountable by responding to their emails, asking for clarification and making suggestions. But that’s assuming the original copy is coherent enough to begin with.
Nonetheless, newsletters continue to grow in popularity. At the beginning of 2022, 70% of news outlets announced plans to funnel more resources into email newsletters. Whether readers feel like newsletter writers’ fans or confidantes, there’s an inherent sense of personalization Gen Z connects with that isn’t present in more mainstream formats.
Free entertainment and news on platforms like TikTok and Twitter has put pressure on traditional news outlets. This raises questions about what price readers are willing to pay—literally and figuratively—for quality journalism. Clara Malley, Creative Strategist, says, “I think paywalls are an interesting problem. On one hand, accurate, high-quality reporting should be available to everyone. On the other, the ‘information should be free’ logic puts journalists/publications in a tough spot in terms of making money. And I think the rise of ‘advertorials’ and ‘editfluencers’ is in part a response to the fact that no one pays for magazines/newspaper subscriptions anymore.” As newsletters become a burgeoning business opportunity for journalists, is there a future where independent writers eclipse legacy media?
Newsrooms are already innovating ways to deliver clear, concise and quick information geared towards Gen Zers, who now comprise 40% of the global market. Jenna Resnikoff, Senior Account Executive, encourages publications to embrace the ELI5 “Explain Like I’m Five” trend as a way to “break down complex issues in a way that is understandable for all audiences.”
Tiffany Gilpin, Culture, Community and Casting Coordinator, is a fan of social media infographics that disseminate “quick, digestible information in that ‘to the point’ format” and Cox references Twitter pages like Now This, which “puts together short news in their videos” and can “reach Gen Z because it's easily accessible and shareable.” By hiring more Gen Z writers and highlighting more Gen Z voices in formats that resonate with Gen Z, publications can tap into trends—capturing Gen Z’s attention before their next feed scroll.