john avlon
Credit: by John Thompson. All rights reserved

The combination of social media and mobile devices has disrupted the news media anew in the last five years, driven largely by the huge numbers in which young audiences have adopted both.

But while talk of algorithms, listicles and technology may dominate the discussion in the industry, "at the end of the day there's an integrity to editorial and newsbrands that will determine success or failure", said John Avlon, editor-in-chief of digital-only outlet The Daily Beast, at the Digital Innovators' Summit in Berlin this week

The Daily Beast launched in 2008, and after a brief and ill-fated partnership with Newsweek, now receives more than 20 million unique visitors a month, up from 13 million when Avlon took over in 2013.

"News brands can connect with millennials if there is a degree of commitment to independence and integrity," he said, "a fearlessness and also a sense of humour where appropriate, that you can embrace tough targets, do the right thing and make sure that fear is not driving your decisions."

A majority of that monthly 20 million come from mobile and social sources, he said, in line with many news organisations, and publishers need to "skate to where the puck is going" in terms of engaging young audiences where they are: online

beast demos
Demographics of the audience for The Daily beast compared to cable news (Reid/

In the recent American Press Institute report on how so-called millennials – those born between 1980 and 2000 – get their news, 94 per cent of respondents owned a smartphone, 82 per cent say they get most of their news online, 88 per cent said they get news from Facebook and 70 per cent follow news on a daily basis.

But establishing and growing a young, committed audience takes more than being a "content farm" of rewritten stories neatly presented for the web, he said.

"As a digital newsbrand, if you take stands unapologetically, it helps you stand out from the pack. It will increase your credibility particularly with millennial generations."

When news of the Charlie Hebdo attack broke in January, The Daily Beast published a gallery of the French magazine's controversial covers within 35 minutes of the first shots being fired, Avlon said.

You've got to be willing to make enemies, sometimes it's good to make enemiesJohn Avlon, The Daily Beast
Where many legacy news organisations "felt uncomfortable" publishing such images out of fear of a reprisal, Avlon felt it important to show solidarity "with journalists, with the victims of terrorism, with the first amendment and with satire".

"That stand, while it might seem risky, built our credibility as we stood out from the pack," he said.

When the hacked emails at Sony were leaked, they refused to publish "information whose sole purpose merely would have been to embarrass or titilate".

Focussing on stories like the fact that Jennifer Lawrence was paid less than her male co-stars in American Hustle, "despite threats, legal and otherwise", resonated with their audience "as it showed a commitment to openness", he said.

And when the Taliban denounced the Daily Beast in November 2013, the moment was "pinned to the wall" as "a good day" for the outlet.

"You've got to be willing to make enemies, sometimes it's good to make enemies," he said. "Your enemies help define you, so it's good to have good enemies in life."

This strong editorial voice, combined with solid reporting, led to 13 stories receiving over one million unique views in 2014, he said, compared to just four in the history of the outlet in previous years.

"When we break big news, we get big results," Avlon continued. "We grow a reputation, we add value, we're name checked by legacy outlets. It's a sign that the work that we're doing is resonating for all the right reasons.

"If we've got the courage to invest in real reporting with voice, if we've got the courage to stand by our convictions, if we're aggressive about pushing out on social media and taking full advantage of the tools that are now at our disposal, if we can do that and add editorial voice then we're building great newsbrands that I believe will stand the test of time," he said.

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