Boomers may remember their paper routes as their first job. The ability to accurately throw an overstuffed paper while simultaneously maneuvering a bike is a skill that develops over time, with a few potted plants and front porch windows sacrificed along the way. The closest thing Millennials had to this rite of passage was on their Nintendo—virtually “delivering” newspapers while avoiding feral cats and rolling spare tires in the game PaperBoy.
The truth is that newspapers have long been in decline, and the way we consume news has evolved dramatically. Boomers and Traditionalists can recall when the paperboy was the fastest way to get the news of the day. Alternatively, for Millennials and Gen Xers, the news came through their TVs or touchscreens 24/7. As the internet sped through its screeching dial-up phase, it’s become the go-to source for up-to-the-minute breaking news. So what are the implications of all this change? No matter how the news is being consumed, one requirement has remained constant throughout the generations: trust. Trust has always ranked as a top priority when determining a worthy news source, but then again, the sources deemed worthy of that trust have evolved right along with the technology.
Boomers grew up watching breaking news delivered by the iconic Walker Cronkite, “The most trusted man in America.” He was the first to take on the long-form, 30-minute nightly news program, giving him the time and space needed to build rapport with his viewers. And he built this rapport in the professional, formal style Boomers were accustomed to and continue to expect. Cronkite’s direct but relaxed style comforted a nation that was dealing with societal and national upheaval. During his tenure at CBS Evening News, he reported on everything from the Vietnam War to the Kennedy assassinations. He even reported as Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the moon, when he famously stated, “By golly, I’m speechless.”
How does the “most trusted man in America” impact Boomers’ preferences for consuming news today? It’s still about reputable sources and polished, poised reporters. Cronkite is long gone from his post, but the trusted sources such as newspapers and network nightly news programs are still most popular with Boomers. When Brian Williams of NBC Nightly News was found to have falsely reported his experiences in Iraq, he went from being ranked one of the top trusted people in America to number 823rd according to a New York Times poll. At the time of Brian William’s fall from journalism grace, NBC News took a huge plummet in ratings as they saw Boomers move to other network news programs. Times may change, but a trustworthy, respectable reporter will always rank as a top priority for Boomers.
When we look at Millennials, news consumption trends have shifted pretty dramatically from the Baby Boomer preference for television-based news. The first place they go to get news is the internet, with Twitter’s 140 characters or less and ever-updating feed as a generational favorite. Social media allows Millennials access to their most trusted sources: their peers. The shared articles and perspectives in their feeds are specially curated and resonate with their individual views, reinforcing their tribal nature. Pew Research found that 60% of Millennials get their political news from Facebook on a weekly basis.
Like Boomers, Millennials have found trust in individuals on TV as well, but Cronkite’s calm, cool, professional demeanor isn’t what they look for in a reporter. For Millennials, trust can be found in transparency and authenticity wrapped up in laugh-out-loud humor. They know reporting as the funny, often-mocking style of the now-retired Jon Stewart of The Daily Show. While he poked fun and joked with his audience, he also dissected controversial topics and shared poignant commentary on significant world events. From 9/11 to Sandy Hook and the myriad school shootings that Millennials experienced as they came of age, Jon Stewart found ways to peel back the comedy and shed some perspective on these significant world events. Never taking himself too seriously, he combined humor, sincerity, and directness and shaped a generation to distrust mainstream media and take the time to sift through their own opinions rather than take it at face value.
Yes, Millennials grew up with Jon Stewart and have formed a huge segment of his fan-base, but it’s his Xer humor that got him to The Daily Show in the first place. Gen Xers developed, promoted and championed the satirical humor that Jon Stewart perfected on The Daily Show. Jon Stewart came up with the likes of Stephen Colbert, Louie CK, Dave Attell, and Chris Rock—all Xers who challenged the status quo with their humor. Stewart, an Xer himself, showcased Gen X values on The Daily Show as he dissected, poked fun at, and drew back the curtain from traditional news media. Like many Xers, these public figures brought a healthy dose of skepticism to what they were being told. Jon Stewart himself has said, “I am not going to censor myself to comfort your ignorance.” For skeptical Xers, a trusted source means scrutiny and satire.
So what’s next for the news? Where does Gen Edge go for their local and global news consumption? Twitter continues to build a base of followers that are there to know what’s happening right now. Gen Edgers grew-up in a world where social media had already become mainstream. Twitter, Snapchat, and YouTube are Gen Edge headquarters. The news is more participatory than ever before, with citizen journalism taking hold as individuals across the world are capturing momentous events across the globe in real-time on their smartphones. Ideas and ideals are shared and Edgers are quickly learning the art of sifting through seemingly endless information to try and pinpoint the kernel of truth. Today, Gen Edgers are their own “most trusted man/woman in the news”.
As the way the news is consumed, shared, and produced continues to evolve with new technology, personalities, and expectations, each generation will continue to find their way of recognizing who or what can be trusted as the go-to news source. We’ll be watching as generational personalities, be it the formal Boomer style or the peer-led Gen Edgers, continue to shift how trust is developed and news is consumed.