Star Tribune Reaches Gen Z with Classroom Access; Will Create Playbook for Other Local Publishers

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One of the biggest challenges facing newspaper publishers today is building an audience among Gen Z and younger news consumers. Thanks to social media and the tech platforms, younger generations of news consumers have access to a wide range of sources and can easily view news from dozens, if not hundreds, of outlets in a matter of minutes. But that abundance of news means that many younger readers don’t have the same relationship with their local newspaper that their parents have. The Star Tribune is looking to change that.

Expanding News in Education

Last month, the Minneapolis-based Star Tribune launched their expanded News in Education program, which offers free digital access to the Star Tribune to every school district across the state of Minnesota. The program, supported in part by a grant from the Google News Initiative (GNI), seeks to increase name recognition of the Star Tribune among a new generation of Minnesotans, and to teach them the importance of quality local news.

“Young audiences are important to us because they represent the news audiences of tomorrow,” said Steve Yaeger, chief marketing officer and senior vice president of circulation for the Star Tribune. “I want young people exposed to the Star Tribune brand because I want them to know that it’s vibrant, it’s relevant, [and] it’s useful. And I need them to know about us. I need them to know how to find us, how to access us and to come back.”

But Yaeger and his colleagues aren’t just seeking to build up their own audience. With the News in Education program, they’re trying to bring local news into the classroom.

The New York Times, USA Today, The Seattle Times and others have programs that provide high school and/or college students with free or discounted digital access, as well as partnerships with restaurant chains and hotels (e.g. Starbucks offers free digital access to several news sites to customers in its cafés), but as Yaeger learned, not many local news outlets offer the same level of access, at no cost, to students or educators.

To ensure the Star Tribune was helping their community, they conducted a listening tour of school districts around the state to hear from teachers and students about how they wanted to use Star Tribune content.

“We had a number of focus groups. Then we went out and we did classroom observation. We just spent a lot of time learning about how educators are using news and using Star Tribune specifically in the classroom,” Yaeger explained. “We heard from educators that [having access to the national outlets] is great, but they’re not local, they’re not telling you anything about life in Minnesota. And kids today are very interested in decisions that are being made about their lives and their futures close to home.”

Knowing that the intended audience was eager to partner with Star Tribune, Yaeger and his team determined that digital access would be most beneficial to the school districts. They applied for (and got) a GNI grant to help them develop the technological infrastructure needed to provide access to a large population using a variety of digital education platforms.

“[Google helped us] not only take away all the barriers [to access], but take away all the friction as well, making [accessing the Star Tribune] as easy as logging into Google Classroom,” Yaeger explained. “To do the things that need to be done to enable that easy one-click access for every student in the district at one time is just a massive leap forward compared to the digital access that we were offering before.”

Replicating the program at other local and regional news outlets

The Star Tribune will also be creating a public playbook to help other local and regional news outlets develop similar education programs to get their names – and their news – in front of the next generation of news readers. They will also create a “roadmap” of the technical aspects of the project so newsrooms will know from the start how to tackle some of the more complex elements of providing access to such a broad audience.

“This is a program with a lot of short-term wins and excitement built into it, but it also is very, very much a long-term investment for our business,” Yaeger said.

And so far, that investment is paying off. After launching the pilot program in their first school district this past spring, Yaeger reported seeing the amount that students are reading go “way, way up.” Star Tribune plans to provide access to all interested school districts by the end of the 2021-22 school year. “That’s what it’s all about,” Yaeger said. “It’s about getting more students easier access so they can be better informed.”


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