Illustration of various young people looking at smart phones
Illustration by Jason Skinner

The push to meet audiences where they’re at: what the Globe and the Star can learn from upstart media

Illustration of various young people looking at smart phones
Illustration by Jason Skinner

Every morning, Osobe Waberi meets with her team of young editors to decide which stories to publish on 6ixBuzz News that day. Often, the digital news and entertainment outlet repurposes stories covered by mainstream publications and condenses them for younger audiences in funny, engaging, and informative ways. Founded in 2019, 6ixBuzz sets itself apart by relying heavily on social media—primarily Instagram—to deliver content. Its offerings include submitted videos, original lifestyle/entertainment articles (posted to its @6ixbuzztv Instagram account), and breaking news (shared on @6ixbuzz news).

The brand foregrounds Toronto-centric popular culture, promoting Toronto-based hip-hop artists, and posting memes and videos of incidents around the city. With over two million Instagram followers, 6ixBuzz is a model of audience engagement. However, the outlet has received some criticism for posts deemed sensationalist and even harmful, including content platforming anti-vaxxer Chris Sky, who made videos of himself entering stores and public places without a mask during the height of the pandemic.

As news publishers around the country seek to understand the consumption habits of young and diverse audiences in the hopes of drawing in new subscribers, they might learn a strategy or two from outlets like 6ixBuzz. Waberi says it tailors content to its audiences by posting stories in a more condensed and engaging fashion. “6ixBuzz is really in its own lane. There’s nothing like it in Canadian media,” says Waberi, who has previously worked at the Toronto Star, the Canadian Press, Vice NewsNarcity Canada, and CBC. When she started at 6ixBuzz in May 2021, she tweeted that the team consisted of young journalists with combined experience from CBC, the Toronto Star, CTV News, Global News, Vice, the Canadian Press and more. Of the 17 reporters on staff at the time, seven were women and 10 were Black, Indigenous, or people of colour. “Our goal is showing that a newsroom can be run by people of colour and be successful,” says Waberi, adding that her favourite part of the job is the continued opportunity to speak to an audience that rarely feels spoken to.

“6ixBuzz is probably one of the best at audience because they really know their audience,” says Bailey Parnell, founder and president of #SafeSocial, a nonprofit organization that helps people gain the benefits of social media with less risk. Parnell has been following 6ixBuzz since it had well under one million followers on Instagram. She says the account has mastered the voice of the “quintessential 20-something-year-old Toronto man,” which is what attracts people to the account. The 6ixBuzz team encourages user involvement by posing questions within its Instagram captions and comments: “‘What do you guys think about this?’ ‘Do you guys agree with this?’ It’s always a question about how they react to it,” says Waberi. She wants the audience to form their own opinions by reading stories and then having conversations about what they’ve read. The objective, Waberi says, is to make space for people to be able to communicate in the way they want.

Another engagement technique 6ixBuzz sometimes utilizes involves incorporating the slang young Torontonians prefer into captions and comments, which helps to tap into what 6ixBuzz viewers and readers want. “We just know who we’re talking to,” says Waberi. “So we’re going to talk to them the way that we would speak to a friend, and we’re going to address them accordingly.” Much of 6ixBuzz’s popularity can be attributed to its dedication to platforms members of Generation Z (people born between 1997 and 2012) frequently use to stay informed. According to the 2019 Reuters Institute Digital News Report, 69 percent of people under 35 use their smartphones to access news. The study also found that 45 percent of Gen Zers first come into contact with news in the morning via their smartphones.

Meanwhile, for 30 percent of people over 35, television is still the first point of contact with news. When it comes to the smartphone, 57 percent of Gen Z users are more likely to turn to social media or messaging apps to get their news. The study also found that while 52 percent of millennials use Facebook to get news, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat are used significantly more by Gen Z. Parnell says people favour their phones over picking up a paper because it’s also a vehicle to access a variety of websites, social apps, videos, and links.

Audience engagement can be defined as any sort of effort journalists make to interact with their audiences, according to Jacob Nelson, an assistant professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. In his book Imagined Audiences: How Journalists Perceive and Pursue the Public, he distinguishes between two kinds of audience engagement: production oriented and reception oriented.

According to Nelson, production-oriented engagement refers to the ways journalists attend to their audiences so they can feel better represented within their stories, while reception-oriented engagement refers to the ways that audiences attend to the news and how journalists interact with audiences post-publication. He says production-oriented audience engagement helps make journalism more representative of the communities newsrooms are hoping to cover. However, this approach doesn’t guarantee profitability. “I think that’s tougher to prove,” he says. “Not because it won’t make journalism better, but because it’s hard to know what will actually lead people to pay for journalism.”

Anita Li, an audience-engagement specialist and creator of the newsletter The Other Wave, says journalists have always been concerned with audience engagement. For example, one of the public editor’s roles at a newspaper is to engage the community and determine what audiences like and dislike about the paper’s stories. But in recent years, as social media pulled audiences—and, by extension, paying subscribers—away from legacy news outlets, the challenge of engagement has become more urgent across newsrooms.

In the past, Li says papers like the Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail catered to broad audiences in terms of both geography and identity. The Star produces news for the city of Toronto, just as the Globe aims to reach all of Canada. While historically these publications mostly treated their audiences as homogeneous, Li says things are changing as newsrooms begin to cater to specific marginalized or geographical communities. One example is the Star’s “In Their Own Voices” column, which often provides space to racialized and marginalized Torontonians, so that readers can write about issues of importance in their communities.

Many newsrooms are also beginning to realize that not everyone consumes journalism in the same way, and that consumption differs according to communities, generations, and identities. “It’s about understanding those nuances and meeting people where they are,” says Li. She was raised in a middle-class neighbourhood in Scarborough. Her parents were long-standing immigrants and she lived in a bilingual household with English as her first language. At the time, her family consumed media similar to those around them. Li grew up reading the Star. Her mom listened to 680 News when driving Anita to and from school because she could easily tune in from her car radio, and her family watched the local CTV News. Yet when Li went to do her masters of journalism at Carleton University, she says she noticed journalism in Canada was approached from a very nondiverse perspective, centring the experiences of European Canadians.

“The whole goal is to serve the public with journalism that actually resonates with them and reflects their lived experience.”

For Li, this sense of elitism in Canadian media doesn’t sit right. She believes it can be damaging to democracy when journalists don’t engage and inform the public properly, or make their reporting accessible to all communities. “The whole goal is to serve the public with journalism that actually resonates with them and reflects their lived experience,” says Li. “Just because somebody doesn’t understand another person’s perspective or their own lived experience doesn’t mean that they’re less than or they should be overlooked or that their perspective is [not] valuable.” She says young people are particularly underserved, especially in Canada where there are few, if any, publications aimed at Gen Z or millennial audiences. To Li, 6ixBuzz is the closest such outlet.

This gap is what inspired Li in 2021 to start The Green Line, a hyper-local news outlet based in Toronto. Li’s goal is to move away from the broad audiences traditional news outlets have long catered to, and instead reach a more specific demographic. Her aim is to produce journalism that helps young Torontonians navigate a rapidly changing city, creating a space where they can learn about issues that matter to their communities and are empowered to take action. The Green Line’s mission isn’t just to cover Toronto, but to instead get deep inside specific underserved communities to tell stories from distinct intersections and neighbourhoods.

Currently, The Green Line tailors short-form stories for Instagram, which Li refers to as service journalism. These 400- to 500-word stories are engagement-driven and deconstructed for Instagram through audio pull quotes, videos, data visualizations, and bullet points. Her team also produces behind-the-scenes TikToks of their lives as young people in the city, and Instagram content like comedy takeovers, where a local comedian does segments about current events. While The Green Line’s content is available only on its social media accounts for now, Li plans to launch a website this year.

The Green Line’s social-media presence is part of Li’s audience-funnel strategy. This is an approach commonly used in marketing, according to Sprout Social, a social-media management platform. The goal of this strategy is to build trust and raise awareness of a brand among potential consumers, eventually converting them into paying customers via increasingly targeted content. Similarly, the aim of The Green Line’s social-media content is to attract followers, build relationships with them, and eventually draw them into consuming its long-form journalism on its website. “It’s all accessible, shareable content that hooks the audience,” Li explains. This is followed by service journalism pieces and works of original journalism. At the very bottom are the in-depth, long-form pieces. “The idea is the biggest audience is at the very top. And it gets smaller as you go down,” says Li. “But the difference is, as you go down, this audience is more and more loyal and engaged.”

If you asked Evelyn Kwong, the social and audience editor at the Toronto Star, what a cabinet shuffle was a few years ago, she wouldn’t have had a proper response. She says traditional media often use such terms without explaining what they mean. “It immediately becomes isolating and disengaging and makes people feel stupid because they don’t know it,” she says. Kwong explains the problem isn’t that audiences can’t understand what a cabinet shuffle is, but that the Star and other news outlets have never properly defined it. One way to engage audiences that might have once felt alienated, she says, is to explain complicated concepts while presenting the news.

During the most recent cabinet shuffle, following the 2021 federal election, her team produced tweets and Instagram posts explaining how the process works. She says this approach wasn’t about talking down to people; it was about making sure everyone had access to the information. Kwong says there are some traditional journalists who overlook the capabilities of the people who are here, like immigrants and people unfamiliar with certain jargon, before elaborating on the possible disconnect with audiences who might be new.

“There’s this really big wall of pride that has been built up over years and years of journalism,” she explains. This wall includes journalists making assumptions about what their audiences know. Kwong recognizes that there are people in Toronto and Canada who are new to the country; they might still be learning English and getting to know the Canadian political system. “So the whole idea of the audience is to give strategies on how to make the connection between us and the reader and kind of erase that wall,” says Kwong.

The audience desk at the Star, a newer addition to the newsroom, started to take form in 2019. Her team’s goal is to get new information and content out to people who don’t customarily read the news or haven’t been a part of the paper historically. Her target is to increase the number of new audiences, while making them more diverse. The team, many of whom are recent journalism school graduates, largely publishes content on Twitter, Instagram, and, more recently, TikTok. Kwong believes in giving younger people a chance, and says working with a younger cohort allows her to learn a lot from them. The Star launched a TikTok account in spring 2021, and it has since grown to over 23,000 followers. It is one of the only national news organizations in Canada to have a TikTok presence—the CBC and the Globe don’t have accounts, while the National Post trails the Star with just over 7,000 followers. Other digital and broadcast news outlets like Global News and CityNews Toronto also have TikTok accounts. For Kwong, having a presence on TikTok was especially important, because it is an app that younger people use and there was an audience there she could reach. “As much as we want to say, ‘Yes, we’re a newspaper,’ if we’re not doing stuff on TikTok, where everyone is, then we’re really not being successful in our strategy,” says Kwong. “We’re not allowing young people to engage with us. We’re not allowing racialized people engagement, because that’s where they are, you know, that’s where that happens.”

The industry, she says, shouldn’t shy away from understanding why sites such as 6ixBuzz attract such high numbers. To Kwong, 6ixBuzz speaks young people’s language and often covers Toronto and Canada in a way that younger audiences understand and relate to. She recognizes that her team doesn’t need to perform the kinds of TikTok dances and other gimmicks that tend to drive social media activity and amass followers; their goal has always been to just give people the information they need and that the Star has. “We have a world of information from these great reporters,” Kwong says. “Why don’t we share stuff on there?” At first, the Star’s TikTok videos would simply recap news stories—something many of its posts still do. However, it has since expanded into covering topics like Squid Game, the popular South Korean Netflix thriller, with episode analyses, and posting Toronto Raptors content like Instagram story polls before a game that ask followers how they think it will turn out.

The team also produces Instagram posts, including carousel posts, where users can swipe through multiple slides explaining complex topics in a condensed and clear fashion. Kwong adds that the team is passionate about delivering news through an anti-oppressive lens. “We do recognize that not everyone’s voice and platform is heard,” says Kwong. “That’s why when we platform something, it’s really thought out with who hasn’t had the space, who hasn’t had the time or the voice that hasn’t been out there.” To Kwong, a clear example of success is the team’s strategy in promoting work and health reporter Sara Mojtehedzadeh’s deep dive into Brampton truckers’ fight against wage theft in December 2021. This was a story Kwong and her team methodically rolled out on social media, with the South Asian workers and international students impacted in mind. They translated captions on TikTok and several promotional ads for the story into Punjabi because they recognized that this was the language of the community and people the story impacted most. Kwong says doing this made the story perform exceptionally well on social media, drew higher than usual page views, and even brought in more subscribers. Kwong adds that many of those who read the story are from communities that don’t regularly visit the Star’s website, but are active on Facebook, WhatsApp, and TikTok, both in Canada and even in India.

It’s hard for them to empathize with the needs of previously untapped audiences and understand why it is important to reach them

When the Star launched its TikTok account, Kwong says, it suffered a backlash from older people in the industry due to their lack of desire to learn about new technology and social media. She says when newsrooms are predominantly white and much of the staff fall within a certain age demographic, it’s hard for them to empathize with the needs of previously untapped audiences and understand why it is important to reach them. To Kwong, there are many untold stories in Canada that have long been ignored, and newsrooms need to recruit more journalists who are immigrants, people with disabilities, and racialized people to help uncover them. “If we’re not going to have visible minorities run the news, which tells the narrative of the city, the day, everything, the information is inaccurate and that’s irresponsible,” she says.

Another challenge with publishing news content on Instagram and TikTok lies in the measurement of engagement from a business perspective. Many newspapers rely on metrics such as subscriptions or page views, which can be captured only when a reader clicks through a social media post to reach the paper’s website. “Of course, we know that how we directly make money is that people go on our site and subscribe,” says Kwong. On TikTok and Instagram, however, it’s harder to draw audiences to the Star’s website, making it difficult to measure engagement in the traditional sense. Nonetheless, Kwong says engagement is still evident on social media through comments, likes, and follower growth, which she says have been substantial. When they first started the TikTok account back in February 2021, the team’s goal was to reach 1,000 followers each month, a goal they’ve greatly surpassed.

Some indicators of success are hard to quantify. For Kwong, a lot of the work the audience team is doing on Instagram and TikTok is rebuilding trust with readers, which she hopes will eventually draw people back to the website. “Many communities don’t trust us or other Canadian mainstream news agencies because they’re like, ‘You’re not telling the full story,’” she says. Much of this distrust, she says, stems from the misreporting, lack of perspective, and lack of full agency given to communities in the city, especially Black and Indigenous populations. Pitching stories about different communities and people within Toronto and amplifying these stories on platforms like social media will provide better access for individuals to see stories where they feel more represented, Kwong explains.

While expanding the audience for the purpose of increasing subscribers and page views is important, Kwong says, they have another, simultaneous goal. She stresses the importance of making sure young people have access to information for their own good, noting that Gen Zers and millennials form the biggest voting group and will one day be the ones to make decisions and be leaders for the country. “Just because we’ve burned bridges with a lot of younger people, media as a whole, doesn’t mean that we can’t try to get them back,” she says. “So that’s really the big focus in terms of readership, but also in terms of being responsible journalists: we need everyone to trust information.”

There are some clear downsides to relying on social media to build and engage audiences. Big tech companies, including Meta, Amazon, and Google, have a lot of power, some more so than nation states, says Li. She also says there is a high level of misinformation and disinformation that spreads on these platforms, which is why social media can be dangerous. To Kwong, being at the mercy of big tech companies presents a challenge when she wants to promote certain stories.

However, she says the Star is improving and thinking about this a lot. “Every day, you want something to pick up and you’re almost dependent on [apps] especially working on audience and social.” She says her team tries to take a levelheaded approach. “What we can control is that we always put stories that are about human rights first, that amplify communities that are diverse and are [about] people of colour because we know that the people are there, we don’t even second-guess it,” says Kwong. Her team prioritises human-centred and useful content like instructional or explainer posts.

Jacob Nelson says news outlets don’t have enough power when it comes to determining who sees their content on social media platforms, because traffic is largely determined by algorithms rather than the news providers. He says journalism also doesn’t have a consistent measurement for engagement. “They’re not even ever going to the publisher to begin with and it’s not a direct relationship with the reader, because there’s this intermediary in place,” says Nelson. Social media engagement can be hard to control. Prior to her passing, 6ixBuzz frequently posted photos and videos on Instagram ridiculing Alexis Matos, an 18-year-old white woman, for speaking with a “Toronto-man-accent”—an accent appropriated from Caribbean culture—and performing outlandishly for the camera. Known as “Debby” in Toronto internet circles, Matos died on November 2, 2021, from an overdose in a downtown Toronto shelter, according to the GoFundMe page created for her funeral costs. Alongside comments on Instagram offering condolences were critiques from people pointedly blaming the news and entertainment outlet’s role in Matos’ death. “Posting R.I.P. as if her death isn’t the result of your actions,” read one comment. “You helped turn this girl into a joke. She needed help but you kept posting her struggles,” read another. (After an initial interview with the Review, Waberi was no longer available to speak with media and could not comment on Matos’ death.)

Tahiat Mahboob, a multimedia journalist and instructor at the Video Business Accelerator at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism in New York, says ultimately journalists and news outlets cannot control who is consuming the content that they put out and who is on the other side of the screen. She also adds that it’s up to audiences to be discerning as well and recognize what type of media they’re consuming.

So often, things get shared on social media without people reading the full story, which can take information out of context. “As news providers in this day and age, the bar is much higher to make sure that we cover all our bases,” says Mahboob. Journalists’ due diligence, context, and the way information is presented matters. “But at [some] point, we also have to acknowledge that there’s only so many things [that are] within our control,” she adds.

Li says that from the perspective of audience engagement, there will always be an inherent risk in creating content specifically for these platforms where you’re subject to the whims of algorithms, but that ignoring these platforms would mean ignoring the vast majority of young people who use them. “It just doesn’t make sense for me, even with the risk,” she says. “It’s about a balanced approach. That’s why I both have stuff on my website and on social media.” Li also acknowledges that Instagram and TikTok aren’t going to be the dominant platforms forever. She says engagement is about understanding the ebb and flow and evolution of these platforms, the transition to them, and how engagement goes a lot deeper than just social media. “At the end of the day, what matters most in media, what matters most in journalism, is the quality of the journalism. People will always value quality, fact-based, accurate, rigorous reporting,” says Li. “So as long as those fundamentals are there, all the other stuff is just tools that you can use to engage audiences.”

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