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What Media Content is Most Influential (or Meaningful?) to Boomers?

Shayla Stern April 16, 2018
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The media can tell you what to think about but not what to think.

That sentence paraphrases a famous mass media theory called “agenda setting” that was established in the late 1960s, and debunks an idea that media has a strong and powerful effect on audiences.

I think this is an especially apt way to think about how media affects baby boomers. Consider the fact that they were becoming adults at a time when they realized authority—be it the Johnson and Nixon administrations, Madison Avenue or their parents—needed to be questioned. I like to think that boomers were the first generation of truly critical media consumers.

However, I do believe many boomers have shared values and life experiences that draw them to certain messages. I see this in my daily work as the Editorial and Content Director for Next Avenue, which is public media’s daily digital journalism service for people 50+. Our content strategy is built around several key areas related to finance, health, work, living and caregiving, and we are launching a new channel that will focus mostly on health technology—living better through technology and aging in place.

Here is the content that resonates most with our readers:

1. Decluttering, selling or ridding oneself of your (or your parents’) belongings
Next Avenue’s most viral story of our five years of existence was titled “Sorry, Nobody Wants Your Parents’ Stuff.” This article, which discussed the difficulty that a Next Avenue editor had in finding places to donate or sell his deceased parents’ belongings, was shared many millions of times over the past year and continues to be in our top 10 stories. Additionally, a four-part special report on how to declutter your home continues to be in our top 20 stories after a year. Stories and slideshows about tiny houses also do well for us, and I believe this is related to a gravitation toward simplification of lives.

2. Stories about end-of-life planning and conversations, especially as it relates to medical intervention
A story about a woman whose end-of-life directives were ignored by her hospital struck a particular nerve over the past few months. Another story, “I Know You Love Me, Now Let Me Die,” written by a physician distressed about how older ill patients rarely get to die at home, on their own terms, earned the second highest number of pageviews on our site in 2017. Alternatives to depressing nursing homes (“He Broke the Law to Build a Better Nursing Home” — a story about how Dr. Bill Thomas as medical director of a nursing home transformed the culture and lives by allowing pets, gardens and an on-site daycare center) also resonates with our audience.

3. Fun, nostalgic pop culture stories about memories that are very specific
How specific? 1970s school gym uniforms, songs that speak most to Vietnam vets, anything about the long-defunct “The Golden Girls” TV show, the enduring popularity of pink flamingo lawn ornaments and so on. These kinds of stories are not always completely on mission or on brand for Next Avenue, but boomers are a notoriously fun generation, and we try to cater to that side of the generational personality, too. Besides, it’s all right to take a sentimental journey on occasion.

4. And the opposite of fun, light stories: Content about family and relationship issues—and grief—and how to cope 
We have learned that our readers gravitate to stories that often appear to be heartbreaking but have a component of self-help or peer-to-peer help in them. Our stories about family estrangement and family fighting are highly read – especially during the holiday season. Some of our top-content includes personal anecdotes and advice for coping while grieving a spouse or best friend, or how to start over after you have lost everything. Our audience may or may not be experiencing losses themselves, though; they might be preparing themselves for the future or helping to a friend through a difficult time.

5. Technology and how to age better through new tech innovations
As I mentioned, we soon will be launching our first new topical channel in nearly six years of publishing: Technology. We’ve learned from audience data that emerging technology (self-driving cars, voice-activated devices like Amazon Echo) is increasingly of interest to our audience. Much of the feedback we’ve learned from reader comments on Facebook is that our demographic believes that technological advances will help them live longer and better, and we want to assure that we can provide helpful, service-oriented stories about technology as we do about everything else that is central to their daily lives as they are aging.

And we post all of this content realizing that we will get at least a few comments on the Next Avenue Facebook questioning our decisions and reporting. If we didn’t, I would worry that we really weren’t truly serving our critically-minded, authority-questioning audience. They are baby boomers, after all.

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Shayla Stern

Shayla Thiel Stern, Ph.D., has been the Editorial and Content Director for Next Avenue, public media's daily digital journalism service for people over 50+, for the past two years. She has spent her career working in digital media journalism and marketing at organizations including washingtonpost.com, Edmunds.com, Cars.com and Fast Horse, and as a media professor at the University of Minnesota and DePaul University.

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