Five ways to get to Millennials

CharlotteFive does everything differently

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Last week, CharlotteFive ran a piece on the Republican candidate for mayor in which, while talking about the issues, he introduced the freelance reporter to skateboarding. On his skateboarding pipe in his backyard. With lots of padding for the reporter. And, of course, video.

This is not your father's Charlotte Observer newspaper story. It's a municipal election piece done CharlotteFive-style, aimed directly at the under-40 Millennials audience that news media and advertisers crave.

"CharlotteFive is a daily newsletter people sign up to get, and it tells you the five things that you would be interested in knowing to live your life that day," said Ann Caulkins, president and publisher of The Charlotte Observer in North Carolina.

In addition to taking its own unusual approach to campaign coverage, CharlotteFive has recently featured its editor cycling to work, the state of fall foliage, Millennials' favorite coffee shops, and restaurants and breweries that make their own sodas for those who want to be sociable without alcohol.

If, right about now, you're wondering whether CharlotteFive has any real news, it does. Item No. 5 is always a summary of top headlines from The Charlotte Observer, with links. On Monday, the links included Observer editorial board endorsements for the Nov. 3 elections, albeit with a refer back to that skateboarding video.

However, Caulkins said CharlotteFive (www.charlottefive.com) is kept "an arm's length" from the Observer (www.charlotteobserver.com). It has its own staff consisting of a full-time editor (recruited from the newsroom) and a part-time person who are both members of the target age group. Those two are encouraged to establish their personalities and be friendly with readers.

"What's important to Millennials is they want voice and personality," Caulkins said. "You also have to be willing to talk about yourself, because they want to come and know you."

There's also a stable of freelancers who are valued as much for their own special interests and their social media followers as for their reporting and writing skills. Millennials are savvy users of social media, and when they share stories and discuss them on a site like Instagram, they improve CharlotteFive's reach and engagement further, Caulkins said.

Albeit at arm's length, the Observer newsroom is always watching CharlotteFive. If a particular story is trending, it will likely get picked up for the Observer website, increasing the number of viewers even more.

CharloteeFive was born at a leadership staff retreat at which a national newsletter run by a couple of twentysomethings called The Skimm (www.theskimm.com) kept coming up in brainstorming sessions. CharlotteFive launched Nov. 18, 2014. Caulkins said the free emailed newsletter was intended to drive clicks, but its users proved to appreciate it as a stand-alone product and, importantly, so did some advertisers. Since July, she said, CharlotteFive newsletter sign-ups have jumped 72 percent.

Advertisers largely are existing clients of the newspaper company who have increased their budgets to include CharlotteFive, Caulkins said. They include the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra, a medical practice and job recruiters. Because craft breweries and coffeeshops are favorites with Millennials, CharlotteFive runs special promotions and "meet-ups" with staff members.

The CharlotteFive approach to news and features occasionally pushes Caulkins out of her comfort zone. She recalls a particular restaurant review that would "never" have run in the Observer.

"You have to be open-minded," she said. "Because I'm over 50, I've read things I've just cringed [at] in my old fashioned traditional way. But then I put a smile on my face and say, but this is CharlotteFive, and that's cool. Let that go."

Publishers considering a similar digital product should not expect that "newspaper filter rules" will work, she said. "You have to say, I'm really looking for the demographic. This is not a Pulitzer Prize-winning piece of material. And you have to hire the right people who have the voice and the personality to pull it off in your editor and co-editor, if you have one.

"If you try to be journalistic on this thing, you are not going reach the audience with the readership, with the shares, all the things we're trying to do here."

Caulkins said lessons learned from CharlotteFive are being applied to the company's other newsletters such as MomsCharlotte and one on the Carolina Panthers. Other McClatchy newspapers may also try something similar.

Ideally, the Millennial consumers of CharlotteFive will become regular readers of CharlotteObserver.com. "My whole thing with CharlotteFive is if we can have a relationship with them, we stand a chance," Caulkins said.

For more information, contact Ann Caulkins at acaulkins@charlotteobserver.com.


Jane Nicholes

Jane Nicholes, a regular contributor to the eBulletin, is a freelance writer and editor based in coastal Alabama. She is an award-winning veteran of more than 30 years in the newspaper business. Reach her at jbnicholes@att.net. Suggestions for future stories and comments on this piece are welcomed.

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