Seven ways to create a newsroom Gen Zs will stay in

Mpho presenting her findings at the London showcase. (Picture: Andrew Bailey)

Mpho presenting her findings at the London showcase. (Picture: Andrew Bailey)

19th December 2023

South Africa is a country whose challenges are surpassed only by the resilience of its people. More than half of its population of 62 million are under the age of 40. While it is the most industrialized country in Africa, it is also one of the most unequal in the world, and has third highest unemployment rate.

Yet a 2018 British Council survey of South Africans aged between 15 and 34 found a generation that is still optimistic about the future and had confidence in their ability to transform their own lives.

In the face of these aspirations and obstacles, it becomes all the more critical for newsrooms to provide the best available information so the public can make the best possible choices for their lives – and do so in a way that is relatable and relevant to younger generations. At my own news outlet, News24 (South Africa's leading digital news outlet), both readership and staff reflect South Africa’s age demographic, with more than half being aged 39 and younger.

It is within this context that I embarked on an exploration of how News24 can attract and retain Gen Z journalists, born between 1997 and 2012, to ensure we are well equipped to produce news that speaks to the nation.

I began by reviewing literature from leading researchers in the field, then interviewed five Gen Zs and a young millennial journalist to better understanding their expectations and realities when entering our newsroom.

I asked them about factors that make the workplace attractive and unattractive, their news consumption and habits, and how they rate their future in South Africa as the next generation.

Here, I summarise my findings and offer seven recommendations for how to make our newsroom a more attractive place for Gen Z to work and thrive. (For the full findings and links to resources, find a PDF attached.)

1. A little handholding at the start goes a long way

In interviews with young journalists, the consensus was clear – in the beginning, they value the opportunity to sit with an editor and receive a detailed guide to expectations for a story. Equally important is a chance to review their work post-publication with a senior figure. A post-mortem allows them to understand their strengths, identify areas for improvement, and understand the rationale behind why certain angles were pursued in the final product.

Pair junior reporters with a senior for one or two assignments before letting them fly solo. It provides a chance to walk the journey in a less pressured situation, so that they can take notes on practical aspects before going out alone.

“They are, on paper, ready to do the work,” said a journalism lecturer in the UK. “But there’s a whole other side of the job, a huge part of journalism that you can only learn on the job. It scares them.”

2. Make space for collegial bonding away from deadline pressures

Coming into a new workplace can be daunting for any new team member – even more so when you are fresh out of school. Gen Z journalists told me they valued opportunities to get to know colleagues outside of outcomes-based conversations.

Offering a quota of time, as the FT has done, to spend working with colleagues on non-editorial tasks (for example, a reader outreach programme like reading news to the elderly) can go a long way to creating bonds that make it easier for younger journalists to build contacts with senior newsroom staff, making it easier to ask questions or start conversations about new ideas.

3. Prioritise mental health and advocate for wellbeing

Mental health and wellness were a top priority for Gen Zs I spoke to. This is an area where they refuse to compromise. The workplace they choose must be attentive to these expectations. Superficial initiatives won't suffice – Gen Z expects employers to invest in resources that promote mental health (such as access to professional counselling services to debrief on difficult stories) and foster a newsroom culture that is free from toxicity.

“Get rid of this culture of ‘This is how we used to work: they used to traumatise us every day at work and look how brilliant we are now.’,” one journalist told me. “It doesn't work anymore, and it was always problematic. You didn’t have the language then, but we have the language now to talk about toxic workspaces, we have the language to talk about abusive coworkers.”

4. Establish a healthy culture of mentorship (both standard and reverse)

Assigning younger employee a mentor will help them to establish internal networks and possible allies to help champion new ideas and suggestions.

This is important because younger journalists may not be confident enough to raise certain views or ideas with their line managers yet, and would value having step-level access to another senior colleague who they can use as a sounding board or to seek advice.

Reverse mentorship programmes, like the Next Generation Board at the Financial Times, can empower younger members in a newsroom by letting them know they have value to contribute to the publication’s vision and mission, and provide space for management to hear from the audience they're trying to reach.  

Editors I spoke to suggested exercises like inviting younger individuals to attend meetings with seniors and soliciting their thoughts, opinions, and ideas on projects, strategies, or stories. This is as much for the benefit of editors as it is for Gen Z.

Another editor recommended informal lunches or coffee with young journalists reporting directly to them, aiming to establish a bond outside of task-based conversations – and an opportunity to learn first-hand what makes Gen Z tick. The informality and lack of structure in these interactions relieve younger team members from feeling the need to prepare ahead of time and have something relevant to discuss.

5. Acknowledge, affirm, recognise… repeat

Affirmations go a long way in making colleagues feel seen and acknowledged. Editors spoke of the importance for anyone managing a team to make this a habitual practice for their direct reports. One editor suggested that affirmations be public and frequent, perhaps on a weekly basis. They suggested making notes throughout the week of what deserved a shout-out. Make public recognition part of the culture in the newsroom, and an intentional habit practiced by leaders. It is a small act, but it has impact if done in a genuine and deliberate manner.

“I like a gold star. I like a carrot. And we don't give enough gold stars,” said a 26-year-old former journalist who left the industry. “Even in the form of going ‘Oh, so-and-so, I read your article, it was lovely and read very nicely. Thank you for putting in the extra work’. A lot of people often end up feeling like they're not being seen as people outside of [their work]. Every once in a while, we all need a ‘Well done, champ, you're doing great’. No one will admit it, but we do.”

6. Visit more classrooms, be more visible to children

Young journalists and journalism educators both said newsrooms should build closer and stronger relationships with learning institutions. Whether talking to high school pupils about journalism as a career option, or to university students about the story behind the story, or even just soliciting opinions about a project the newsroom needs a younger audience’s insights on.

These are all ways to put your brand in front of the young people – not only to gain direct feedback, but also to inspire the next generation of potential young journalists or future readers.

7.Performance reviews must include clear career development plans>

Gen Z journalists who left the newsroom told me that by the time they made the decision to resign, they had tried to see what opportunities for growth or change looked like inside the newsroom and were disheartened when they saw none. They found no clear plan or vision mapped out, nor attainable goals attached that could motivate them to stick around.

“I felt a nagging sense of ‘OK, I need a change’. I just realised that within the current operational structure and within the current budgetary constraints, there wasn't really space to create that next step,” said one journalist. “I didn't [necessarily] see the next step as a promotion,  I just saw it as a new challenge.”

Newsroom leaders recognise that the traditional idea of a journalist’s growth is to go from junior to mid to senior, then venture into either specialising in a subject or becoming some form of manager. But interviewees said this was too linear and that newsrooms should look into creating a culture of possible floor-crossing – news, to audience engagement, to innovation teams, for example – where one could move internally for a change of scenery without having to leave the newsroom.

While these seven pointers may not be groundbreaking for newsroom supervisors, my hope is that they will act as a vital reminder. If newsroom leaders take action to recruit and retain Gen Z in an informed and mindful way, we can foster an environment where ideas are freely contributed, and collaborative strategies are developed. Ultimately, an engaged young newsroom contributes to the business reaching its mission and vision more effectively.