About five years ago, Marium Chaudhry, an executive producer at Pakistan’s top news channel, decided to create a start-up aimed at younger people.
Her idea for this came about during Pakistan’s 2018 election cycle, when Chaudhry discovered that while the channel she worked for was broadly respected within the country, it was failing to bring in younger audiences who felt disconnected..
She learned this wasn’t because the young people were uninterested in the news or didn’t care about what was happening with the elections. They were just interested in different aspects of the issues and the candidates, areas that traditional media were not providing them.
Chaudhry realised that to reach these younger people, news publishers needed to engage with them on their own terms, she told participants at WAN-IFRA’s Media Leaders Summit Middle East 2023.
Very quickly, she learned that even as someone who was – and still is – in her 30s, there were major differences between what someone her age was interested in and the interests of those in their late teens and 20s.
For example, during an informal survey with young people, she asked them who they would rather read an interview with: one of Pakistan’s most famous actresses or one with the country’s most influential blogger.
Young people overwhelmingly chose the influencer. Why? They told Chaudhry the actress seemed “unreal” to them whereas the blogger was someone they felt they could relate to, and therefore wanted to know more about.
‘What you are assuming is probably not right most of the time’
“This showed me that my assumptions about the audience as an experienced journalist was not what they might be,” Chaudhry said. “So, you need to talk to them – engage with them – because otherwise, what you are assuming is probably not right most of the time.”
A way to help ensure that this happens is to have young people on your staff, and The Current has done this.
“You need to have young people on staff,” she said. “On our staff, I think me and my co-founder are the only ones above the age of 30.”
“You need to have them if you want the content that they want to read. If you don’t have them on your staff, how are you going to generate content for them?” she added.
Putting your own spin on already established ideas
While reaching younger audiences requires learning more about them and some creative thinking, it doesn’t mean that you have to completely start from scratch.
“Everything we wanted to do and try, somebody else had already done,” Chaudhry said. “You hear me talking, but think ‘That doesn’t work for us.’ You know – ‘That works for you guys. Or for Europe, or the US.’ You have to design your content for what works for you and your audience.”
As an example, she noted the popular “73-questions with…” interviews that Vogue routinely does with celebrities in a rapid-fire style, with short questions and short answers. Through the years, many of these have drawn tens of millions of views. For instance, one they did with Selena Gomez has 40 million views on YouTube. Another, with Taylor Swift, has 36 million views.
“It’s basically people talking to the camera, and they’re asking them 73 questions… We decided that’s a really cool format. Nobody’s done it before in Pakistan. How do we take this format and make it engage with us?” Chaudhry said.
What The Current did was to pare the number down to 20 questions, because their audience would not watch 73 questions. They also added music to it. And in Pakistan, Chaudhry said their politicians are the ones who have celebrity status, so they decided instead of taking celebrities, they’d ask politicians a series of short, interesting questions.
Give them what they want, but uphold your standards
Additionally, it does not mean that because younger people want news in different ways and with a different focus that long-standing journalism standards should be abandoned.
“Give them what they want while keeping your journalism norms in mind,” Chaudhry said. She said she realises that can be a difficult thing especially for legacy news organisations.
“How can we talk to our audience? How can we have non-serious stories? You can, that content can still be there, just done in a different way,” she said.
“Give them happy news. Well-being news. Local news. Entertainment. You can always cater it as long as you are willing to walk that line,” she added.
Creating a unique membership model
In 2020, The Current was among the winners of the Google News Innovation challenge.
While they had been following the basic guidelines of membership worldwide, such as having members become part of a WhatsApp group, and inviting members to come to the newsroom and giving them a nice gift, etc., Chaudhry also noted that “Pakistanis do not have enough disposable income to talk to me on WhatsApp and give me money for it.”
So, the company decided to try something a little different.
“We decided to create a membership programme that hasn’t been done before. We were actually taking our audience, which is young university students, young professionals, and connecting with them and saying ‘Hey, you guys need training, because universities are still not equipped enough to give you digital journalism classes. We’re going to give you workshops.’”
Offering young people services they were willing to pay for
These students also needed studio time and space.
“We’re very lucky, we have a large office and are subsidised,” Chaudhry said. “So I said you want a space, come to our studios and record your videos. You can talk to us, we’ll help guide you. We have a website, you guys can write for the website and that gives you credibility on your resume, that you’re able to write for a place that’s actually published.”
These were all things that journalism students were willing to pay for, she said.
“Then we lined up directly with universities, so universities are sending us their students because they don’t have the teachers or people to do workshops with them directly,” Chaudhry said.
This represents a new revenue model for The Current, and she said they have worked with 60 to 80 students in the past three months and are in the process of approaching more universities.
“That takes your journalism and makes it into a product that works for you, and that works for us,” she said.
“Times have changed and we have to change too,” she added. “Traditional media or small media, we are all pretty much the same: the audience is the audience, even if you have 10 million or a billion. We’re all like an audience, so we have to cater to each other to be able to survive.”
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