The 23-Year-Old Getting Her Generation Hooked on … Newspapers?

The 23-Year-Old Getting Her Generation Hooked on … Newspapers?


A 23-year-old is single-handedly getting Gen Z hooked on newspapers and print media.

Three still images of Kelsey Russell, TikTok's Gen Z newspaper influencer, holding up various newspapers like the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and New York Post, on a background of newspaper print.

Photo illustration by Slate. Images via Kelsey Russell/TikTok and paseven/iStock/Getty Images Plus. 

It’s been a bleak year for the media. Just this past spring, news companies slashed budgets and instituted widespread layoffs, with a particularly rough round of executions that culminated in the end of BuzzFeed News and Vice News Tonight. At the same time, there’s been a growing complaint that no one—least of all Gen Z—has media literacy anymore. Rampant misinformation has blurred the line between fact and fiction, and apparently, young people have lost sight of how to interpret media (that, or they never learned).

But lately, there’s been a bright spot. Kelsey Russell, a 23-year-old grad student at Columbia, has been single-handedly resuscitating the lost art of newspaper reading, with a particular emphasis on making it trendy for her Gen Z peers. “I’m just your media-literate hottie that’s gonna help you decide what print media you want to get invested in,” she tells the camera in one of her videos before diving into a copy of New York magazine.

Recently, Russell created a TikTok series chronicling what she learns each day from reading the New York Times’ physical newspaper. For her 23rd birthday, she asked her family for a subscription and made her first video about what she gleaned from the paper’s Sunday edition. “I didn’t know these kids were just stepping on bombs,” she exclaimed, walking viewers through a Times piece about the 12-year conflict in Syria that’s left behind unexploded artillery shells throughout the country.

Russell’s passionate, easy-to-understand news retellings have grown in popularity, with some videos garnering thousands, even millions of views. Sensing her star power, other papers like the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal have equipped her with subscriptions in the hopes that she’ll feature their stories, too. As one commenter on her videos put it: “All of us in journalism trying to figure out how to get people to care about news and she just saved journalism in like a 30 second video.”

I recently caught up with Russell to talk about Gen Z’s search for media literacy and her valiant effort to make reading print media cool again. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Paola de Varona: What inspired you to subscribe to the New York Times’ physical paper and start your series on TikTok?

Kelsey Russell: I decided to subscribe to the New York Times for a few reasons. The first was, I was feeling very dumb. I felt like I didn’t know what was going on in the world. I am a sociology and education major, and I felt like I was missing a lot of context—political, economic, and social—of the issues I was studying. I’ve also never enjoyed reading the news online.

Another part of what was going on was that I’ve been in therapy for about two and a half years and am always looking at ways to help with anxiety and regulate my emotions. My therapist suggested going back to things that brought me joy as a kid. Reading the newspaper with my dad was one of them. He read the New York Times all the time when I was in high school and college. He would always send me articles that reminded him of me.

I thought for my 23rd birthday, I might as well ask for a subscription.

What did your family think of that request?

My dad was obsessed with it. He flew up to New York and his flight got in super early, so he came to my place and I made him breakfast. I was like, “Dad, I really just want a New York Times subscription.” And his eyes lit up. He was so excited. He was honestly really proud that this is what I’m interested in at this age.

The way you break down what’s at stake in an article is captivating. You have the talent of a natural-born blogger. Where did you learn to close-read the news?

When I took the ACT and SATs, I had really low reading comprehension scores. I understood what was going on, I just never scored well. So when I got to college, I started outlining my papers and then got on my computer’s Photo Booth app and talked to myself about what I was going to write about. I’m a talker. I love public speaking, and I love gossiping. I learned in college that it’s important to be able to explain things in a concise, efficient manner that makes sense to you. My reading comprehension skills are best when I communicate to a camera on video.

People tend to say that Gen Z lacks “media literacy,” which is a very nebulous phrase. What do you make of that?

I feel that Gen Z is yearning for media literacy skills. We are a generation that has immense access to information—more so than any other generation. That causes us to become overwhelmed and to question where we’re supposed to put all of this information. What are we supposed to do with all of it?

In school, they teach you basics like colors and letters. Then you learn how to spell, then you learn how to write in cursive. It’s almost like we need those same building blocks when it comes to engaging with media. How do I research the context behind it? How do I evaluate what this means? How do I establish what this means for my life? These are really big concepts. We’re itching for a guide on what to do with all of this information.

When people say we don’t have media literacy, I think what they’re saying is that we don’t know where our information comes from, or what information we’re getting.

There’s a tendency among young people (myself included) to disengage from the news because it feels like everything is so terrible all of the time—whether it’s politics, the climate, whatever. But you mention in your videos that you use print media as a tool for emotional regulation. How does that work?

Before I started reading the newspaper, I would read all the bad news that was happening and literally feel depressed about it. I’d think: “The world is going to end. We are on the brink of extinction. This is happening in one country, there’s an economic crisis in another, and it’s all connected to this auto industry in Michigan.” It was overwhelming.

Something that my therapist taught me about is blocking. You know that the news is going to cause you a certain amount of emotional distress. Some people are going to be more anxious and depressed because of who they are and what they’ve experienced. It’s important to know your limitations of how much emotional distress you can take when reading the news. But what reading the news in print does is allow you to say, OK, I’m going to take in this information for 10 minutes to an hour, whatever your block is.

And then you leave it in that block—you don’t let those emotions bleed into the next block. If you read an article and it’s emotionally distressing, and you’re able to recognize that it makes you feel sad and frustrated, you can then do something to make yourself feel better.

When you read print media, you give yourself that space to feel those emotions compared to if you read something online and then you immediately switch over to Instagram … and then you go on Twitter … and then you go on Facebook … and then a CNN notification comes up on your phone. With all those distractions, those emotions no longer belong to that blocked-out time period. They are now convoluting your schedule, your work, the fact that your mom just texted you that something’s going on with your grandparents—it’s just too much for your body to handle. Print media gives us the opportunity to sit down, and decide when we want to feel the emotions we want to feel, rather than letting some arbitrary algorithm decide how we should feel.

We now live in a world where you have to buy back your attention. If you’re watching YouTube, you have to pay something like $7.99 a month just so you don’t see an ad from something else. Reading the paper gives people the opportunity to have some autonomy over their time again.

What makes an article a good read for you? 

For me it’s sources. I’m an academic, so I need to see where you got your information from. That’s the most important thing to me. What experts did you bring in? Was it professors from a college? Was it somebody who was a CEO in the industry? I’m also looking for how many people corroborated this story.

Today I read one about Robinhood [the stock trading app] that was written in the Wall Street Journal by Hannah Miao. I thought what she did was fantastic. I think a good article blends together the past, the present, and the future. It brings in current events that somebody could relate to, even if they didn’t have the expertise and economics or politics or whatever they need to fully understand the article.

Do you read everything? Are you a news and politics girlie, more of a culture person, or something else?

I grew up just reading the metro and fashion sections. However, because of what I’m doing on TikTok, my goal is to read every section that I can and share it with my audience. Everyone’s going to have their favorite section. But what the newspaper does is give you an opportunity to venture into those other sections you might be uncomfortable with. That’s what I’m challenging myself to do right now. Yeah, I’m not an economics girl, but let me read about the stock market so I can understand a little bit more about it.

I would say I’m more of just the information girlie. I like to know what’s going on and be able to connect it to the things that I love.

What’s your reading routine like? Do you read the paper in the morning, on the train? Is it different every time?

I definitely read it in the morning. I like to start my day with it, especially because I actually block my TikTok time. I try to only get on TikTok four times a day to keep from checking my notifications all the time, just because that can really get in your head.

In the morning, I read, make my video, check my notifications, and then I go on with my day. And then I have my TikTok block. My alarm goes off at 4 p.m., and then I can go on the app again. But that doesn’t always work.

I try to bring a magazine on the train. Sometimes I’m not in the mood to consume information like that, especially on the train. I just want to be in my own brain, pretend I’m in my own music video. It depends. But a magazine for the train for sure. Newspaper at home in the morning.

Did you struggle with your attention span at all when you first started picking up the paper again?

No, actually, it was weird. I used to love going to the library and reading almanacs, and learning all this random information. It almost felt like this part of my inner child was really being healed and enjoying it. And it made me want to know more and read more.

I will say, out of all the things to read, books are probably one of my least favorite. My attention with books is low—I struggle a lot. But newspapers are very easy for me to consume. But if somebody does struggle with it, there’s no pressure to finish an article. There’s no pressure to get through the rest of the news. Just read what you can and move on.

We’re actually taught, in news, to put most of the important information early on in the story because people will probably stop reading part of the way through. 

Exactly. People will skim, which is actually a great analytical skill to have. You look at an article, read a couple paragraphs and decide whether you want to attack it fully or move on to the next thing. One of my favorite things to do is just to skim different articles, and get a couple of pieces of information from each. If it doesn’t move me, I keep pushing.

Obviously, I have a vested interest in making this whole media thing stick around for a while. How do we make it cool and interesting again for Gen Z?

It’s kind of funny and ironic to say this, but I think social media is the way to do it. Let’s be real. I think one of my favorite things about our generation is how unserious it is. How easy it is for us to fall into trends. This is going to sound crazy—but I think celebrity culture is the way to change it. Make it trendy.

You know the tube girl trend right now? What if that was a trend of girls having a magazine on the train and reading it? I think it’s about using what already exists. Let’s use the influencer model. Let’s use celebrities. Let’s use what works and implement print media into their lives. That’s what’ll make it cool again.

I always think about the heyday of magazine journalism and how it was such a status symbol to read Rolling Stone or Vogue. We need to bring back that era. 

Exactly, we do. And I think it’s about getting print media caught up to what Gen Z wants to see. You’ll see pieces of that, right? In the New York Times last week, they covered the whole Tabi incident that happened on TikTok. But there’s still this sort of disconnect that I’m sure somebody who’s like 40 years old has when they read it. I’m sure they’re like, Why am I reading this? What are Tabis? Who cares? 

Gen Z doesn’t want to read the newspaper to hear about what they see on TikTok. They want to go to the newspaper to find things that they can’t find on TikTok or to check some random fact that they think they heard on TikTok.

So I think it’s also about the media shifting to give us news that we want to hear. It would’ve been cool if somebody in the New York Times was like, oh, everyone’s thinking about Sofia Richie. Let’s do a whole Sunday Styles on Sofia Richie’s closet. People would’ve probably picked up that edition like crazy. I just think it’s about them giving Gen Z what they want, even if it might seem kind of silly at the time. It matters to us. We want to know that the echo chamber of print media cares about what we’re thinking about.

Slate is a digital-only publication, as are many publications these days. Where do you see digital news fitting into young people’s news diet?

Oh, I love the news diet. I see it always existing. One thing people will come to learn about me is that I’m not here to destroy structures. I believe in working within them. Digital exists. People still love digital.

Today, when somebody recommended I read their article, they were also like, listen, I have a bunch of interviews, and a longer article to supplement the article in the paper. I didn’t realize until she told me that—most of these articles have supplements online in a longer version, which I kind of felt silly that I didn’t know.

In the future, I hope that print media can give people a preview of what they can find online. And I hope digital media continues to exist. Paywalls are a big issue, of course—I always wondered when I was in college why the New York Times doesn’t give free digital access to all college students. I think public libraries, public schools, private schools, and universities also need to play a role in this. It’s not just up to Gen Z—it’s about everybody putting their hands back on print media and saying, let’s buy this again.

Where do you see your series going a few months from now? What are you hopeful for?

You can be the first person that I’m teasing the podcast I’m working on with. That hopefully will be coming sooner rather than later. I hope to continue doing exactly what I’m doing, posting content almost daily about the print media that I’m learning from.

I hope to also take it to the next level, like teaching people how to annotate through my TikTok, and teaching people how to write again. I hope to make people fall in love again with learning. That’s the beginning of this journey. It won’t just be on TikTok. I know it’s going to go further and be bigger. But I just want being smart to be sexy, and learning to be fun. That’s the goal of all of this.

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