The NewFronts in New York last week made it clear that appealing to millennials is still front and center for publishers and the marketers and advertisers they covet.
But The New York Times’ presentation stood out as an uncomfortable mix of hard-hitting journalism and millennial-speak — everything from GIFs of Spongebob to Liz Lemon thrown up on a larger-than-life screen.
The Gray Lady wanted to lighten the mood of the early-morning show — maybe even seem cool, hip and funny.
But this isn’t BuzzFeed. The New York Times doesn’t need to be cool and hip — it needs to focus on its job as the watchdog of our institutions and society.
That’s not to say I am unaware of the Times’ vast coverage areas, including its "Styles" section, the “fun” part of the newspaper that covers fashion, society and culture in a tongue-in-cheek tone.
When "Styles" editor Choire Sicha took the stage, he noted the section speaks to young women by covering everything from “how to make pickles and make your bed, and the rich and famous.”
To be fair, it could have been a joke, and the comment was made as he hurried off the stage. And though I chuckled at the time, looking back, it was a crass remark to make about women and their interests.
Pickles? Bed-making? I might enjoy reading about those things in Good Housekeeping and likely find them useful in my life as a human being — but what does that have to do with young women and our interests and needs right now? Especially from an esteemed newspaper like The New York Times?
Aren't there far more important subjects impacting young women the paper of record should address?
The New York Times can have fun without losing its credibility or gravitas. One way to do that is not to refer to women's interests in such narrow, conventional terms. (Thankfully, the Times launched its “Overlooked” project, which gives important women denied obituaries in the newspaper their due.)
I could not see what the Times was trying to communicate to the room of advertisers with the GIFs and memes. Advertisers don't need them to pay attention.
Refinery29 is a good example of knowing how to talk to millennials — that's what it is known for and it feels like a peer to young women. However, I don’t hold Refinery29 to the same standards as The New York Times — The New York Times is not my peer; it is my professor.
I can laugh and drink wine and eat M&Ms at 3 p.m. during the Refinery29 presentation and watch Lizzo twerk on stage in a leotard without feeling like the brand is trying too hard.
Maybe the Times' use of memes was a way to seem relevant. Baby boomers are getting older, and I’m sure the Times is thinking about the longevity of its business and its subscribers. Legacy publishers are struggling to get a generation that grew up with free Internet to recognize the value of paying for journalism.
Here is how you achieve that goal: You win their respect. Give them a valuable product — and they will pay for it.
My peers started paying for subscriptions in 2016, when the presidential election reached fever pitch. The news cycle was moving at a rapid-fire pace. The only way to keep up was to read — and to read the good stuff, the stuff tucked away behind metered paywalls.
If you’re appealing to advertisers that want to gain the respect and recognition of millennials, don’t do it by slapping GIFs of cartoons on the same stage where you will discuss a new series about a reporter embedded with Iraqi troops fighting ISIS.
If you try to reach millennials — and the growing Gen Z — by talking to them like their peers, it will feel like your mom writing on your Facebook wall asking if you’re coming over for dinner Sunday night.
Or put another way: I do not know a single person my age who would pay for a BuzzFeed subscription.
Millennials don’t need The New York Times to be trendy. We have other digital outlets for that. We need The New York Times to be the paper of record — and that’s cooler than being trendy, anyway.