Why the Return of Paid Content Will Be Good for PR

For years I have been watching the economic decline of journalism. The cycle has gone like this:

  • new media emerge in droves because of the digital and social media opportunities;
  • in a rush to keep up with digital and social expansion and competition, legacy print media put their content online for free;
  • subscribers, preferring free to paid, and being overwhelmed with choices, drop subscriptions and use social platforms, RSS feeds, news aggregators and so on to access news;
  • the competition intensifies and to stay economically viable (i.e. more clicks) journalism quality suffers and goes solid reporting of important news is edged by click-bait, market-driven, entertainment value;
  • good journalists accept buy-outs and publishers seek “cheaper content” by aggregating, leveraging content from broader sources (witness MLive consolidating newsrooms and its universal desk so the content is very similar in Muskegon, Detroit, Grand Rapids, or how similar Detroit Free Press and USA Today look ) and gaining free content from bloggers, user-generated content and other “innovations” (witness the GVSU student who was paid in swag for her popular Buzzfeed quizzes);
  • smaller newsrooms put out less serious news, people keep getting it for free, favoring a stream of articles from multiple sources vs a deep read of select single sources;
  • with lower subscription and readership numbers, advertising dollars continue to decline, offering even less revenue to put into the “product” of must-read news.

There have been some alternative models. The New York Times offers 5 free reads per month and then a given IP address will have to subscribe. Others, like the Wall Street Journal and the Economist, offer some article free but premium articles are dangled out there with a notice that they are for subscribers only.

Other publications have emerged in a non-profit or donation model. In Michigan, many quality journalists from legacy media have moved to such publications such as the Bridge (“If you care about Michigan, please support our work”) or more recently Michigan Advance (heads up–I’ve invited editor Susan Demas to speak at GVSU and my colleagues are putting together an event for March 29 that will include a panel of journalism, advertising, public relations, and communications faculty including myself).

There is also a trend of nonprofits, businesses, and government offices becoming their own media outlet in the form of a news bureau or online newsroom that goes direct to public. A former student of mine who works for a state-wide association just asked me about this. I have written about this pointing to some examples on my blog previously–here’s a collection of prior posts on the subject.

But recently I noticed more media, from individual outlets to group conglomerates, drawing a line in the media economics sand and announcing a return to paywalls and subscriptions for their content. The latest example of this is a decision by Conde Nast for its fleet of publications. Some see the move as a bad one, but it is a trend to watch nonetheless.

Here’s why this is good for advertising and public relations.

  1. Survival of media. This will reverse the downward cycle I posed above. I heard a billionaire say once that if something is free, it has no perceived value. If people have to pay, publishers will have to put out quality reporting–meat, not candy. There is a hunger among the intelligent public for a less frantic media landscape, for news that is credible and quality. This will help good media–whether old or new–to survive.
  2. Communication environment. We should want good journalism to survive, first as citizens, and secondly as advertising and public relations professionals. Programmatic and targeted advertising made some economic sense, but it can lack qualitative intuition, creativity, and ethics. A recent study shows that most people don’t want tailored or targeted ads. Audiences who pay for content are more attentive to both paid and earned media (or ads and editorial content). And our ads and article pitches will exist next to good and not questionable content, which other studies shows matters to readers.
  3. Dedicated and aggregated audience. Digital media has been about both reach (quantity) and targeting small audiences of like minds and relevant interests. But returning to paywalls changes the equation. It may result in lower reach as not all current readers will subscribe. But those who do subscribe will be in one place, read each issue and multiple articles, have a natural interest in content and likely a net disposable income enabling them to respond to ads.

There are some considerations to work out as journalism returns to paywalls. One is whether subscribers–and maybe only subscribers–will be allowed to share content. Another is whether publishers will offer headlines and article summaries, or a handful of free articles each issue as a loss leader to draw subscribers. We’ll see. We are in what economist Joseph Schumpeter would call a “gale of creative destruction” in the media industry. What looks dire could emerge as a very good move forward.

I for one am eager to see what good things paywalls do for journalism, content, citizens and the ad and PR industry.

Local Media Ad Slide is Concerning

Earlier today I received an email from the Grand Rapids Business Journal selling its digital sponsored content option.

For $1,100 companies and organizations can place their own stories online, have them pushed as sponsored content on social platforms, and remain in a searchable archive. It’s also called “native advertising” or the old-fashioned “advertorial.”

Previously I wrote an online column/blog for GRBJ. Others continue to do so on topics ranging from media to law. It’s a win-win–local professionals establish themselves as thought leaders in their industry and the publication gets free content.

It’s also a sign of the times.

I subscribe to GRBJ, as I do other local media and trade publications, because I still like the experience of reading print. But also I feel a sort of obligation to patronize local media the way I do other local businesses, so they can stay in business.

Reading this week’s print copy of the GRBJ, after getting the pitch for sponsored content, I was struck by the ads more than the editorial. In a 16-page publication there are 12 total ads, with 9 of them being house ads from GRBJ touting its events, its subscription options, and other sister publications such as Grand Rapids Magazine. In this issue there are 1.75 paid ad pages.

This may be why they’re pitching sponsored content. I mean, even Forbes has been doing that in recent years. And a lot of the media planners are going not just to digital, but to bloggers, podcasts, their own content-driven owned media, and social platforms.

I’m hoping this may all be the result of light ad inventory post-holiday, or that the sponsored content push is just reflective of new ownership and not desperation.

As a public relations professional/professor and just a member of the community, I certainly hope it doesn’t portend the end of a vital contributor of community information. Perhaps the incentive for some of us to buy ads is not just reaching audience but saving the channel.

The Practical Importance of Theory

Unknown-1Yesterday the Association of Educators in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC), an organization of professors in various communication fields including advertising and public relations, adopted a resolution that educators should “forge relationships between educators and media professionals.”

I heartily endorse the notion, partly because that’s what my colleagues and I in the Grand Valley State University Advertising and Public Relations program have long done. In fact, our many adjunct professors come from industry every day, and all of us who are full-time and tenure-track professors have experience in the field and even consult still today. We also remain engaged through our active involvement in associations and organizations that mix academics and professionals, including PRSA, AAF, the Institute for Public Relations, and the Arthur W. Page Society.

This effort recognizes the fact that academics can still learn much from professionals in the trenches, that the field is in constant change, and that we need to connect our students to their future colleagues and employers. In other words, we need to connect theory to practice.

But as we say in PR, any relationship should be mutual, or two-way. And so this professor-professional relationship should involve mutual learning, and that should include professionals having a healthy respect for and understanding of theory.

I’ve been in numerous conversations in person and online where a professional will poo-poo theory or put the word “theory” in quotes as a way of expressing their disdain for theory. What’s ironic is they then hold forth their own….theory, without realizing it. Professionals believe they have “experienced” something and that trumps theory. But theory is often based on multiple experiences, not a single example.

Types of theories are critical, based on reason; normative, proposing what ought to be; or empirical, based on solid, replicable and generalizable evidence that meets scientific standards well beyond one person’s personal experience.

A theory, properly understood, is an explanation. In advertising and public relations, as social sciences, theories explain and predict human behavior.

Much professional research is only descriptive in nature–valuable, but not useful as a generalized and reliable prediction. In other words, there are numbers and percentages of responses to key questions. The academic research that over time produces theory is based on large scale, repeatable cases in the real world. Professional research most often provides the “what,” whereas scientific research that leads to theory provides the “why.” This is its practical value.

At the end of the day, professionals and their experience provide validity (an accurate reflection of reality) while professors and their research and theory provide reliability (consistency and generalizable to the larger population).

Academics have long acknowledged the need for both validity and reliability (practice and theory). It is time for professionals to come to the same conclusion and apply theory to their practice.

I may some day write a book about practical PR theory for use by professionals. It would offer explanations of various media, persuasion, attitude, behavioral and other categories of theory and give their corresponding applications.

Til then, look for the occasional blog post espousing the value of a particular journal article or theory. I would hope professionals in the trenches have as much respect for theory as we academics do for their practice.

The Entitled Employer

I hear a lot from professionals in public relations and advertising about how some (emphasis on some) college students are too “entitled.” There are frequent articles in the mainstream media and in various blogs about the concept too. To a degree, there is truth to the assessment.

But unfortunately, too many employers and others have latched on to this “entitlement” meme to the point that it is painting with a broad-brush all college students and recent grads. It is an unfair stereotype.

What’s worse, it has gone too far in some cases that it is the employer who is entitled.

Let’s be clear about what entitled means. It is the notion that some “milennials” think they are owed a good job with high salary and benefits, even though they have not proven themselves yet. Again, there is some truth among some young people in this regard. I and my colleagues coach them to be humble and patient and the rewards will come, but they can’t expect it the day after graduation.

However, an incident and series of interactions with alumni last week made me think about the other side of this story.

One alumna messaged me about an upsetting experience. She had been interviewing with someone about a potential job and got an offer, but it was for less than her current salary and minimal benefits. She countered by asking for a salary that was the same as her current level and noting that she would need benefits to move.

The employer responded by posting a video on social media where he–after narcissistically telling his own story–complains about “entitlement.” He did not mention my former student by name, but it implied the video post was a response to her not accepting his low-ball offer.

Aside from the gum chewing and back lighting in the video, this employer makes significant mistakes. Sure, he is an entrepreneur who made his own sacrifices to launch his successful businesses. That is admirable. But that is not a valid reason to exploit potential employees, to make others sacrifice just because he did. He is confusing his past experience for the present labor market, which is often described as a “talent shortage.” It’s short sighted and a guaranteed opportunity cost for him to turn away good talent because he wants to see the world within the walls of his own business.

Consider that this alumna is not seeking her first job, but her third. She had good internships in college, worked for little in her first job to gain experience, leveraged that for her next job, pretty much is rocking that job and would be an asset for this employer. There are different ways to struggle, to pay ones dues, to move up the ladder. She did not start her own business but she was her own brand, and in fact very similar to this employer. They should see eye to eye, but the fact that they don’t means he is not seeing clearly.

Let me give  other examples from talking to alumni in just the past week.

One is a young man who graduated two years ago and I noticed on LinkedIn that he landed a good job as an account executive in New York City. I congratulated him and we had a good dialog. He had done a lengthy internship in Grand Rapids while in college, got a job at a Detroit agency after college where he worked on a national account. But he left because, wait for it, he wanted “more of a challenge.” In his job search he had, wait for it again, several offers in New York but the agency he now works for offered more interesting challenges.

Local video-posting, gum-chewing, entitled employer–are you getting this? Multiple offers in New York. Wanted more of a challenge. That is not entitled. That is talent and work ethic.

Later last week two alumna who had driven up from Chicago at the invitation of a colleague who advises our PRSSA chapter made a visit to one of my classes. They both told their stories of networking, working for low pay or a post-graduate internship, staying humble, doing whatever task was thrown at them. Today, a year out of college, they are both happy and working at an international PR firm and a digital agency in Chicago.

There was a time any of these alumni might have worked  for low pay and benefits  for the chance to gain experience with a Grand Rapids start-up. But they did that elsewhere. They have been there and done that. They have their own stories to tell, even if they don’t post gum-chewing videos. They were snatched up by employers in New York and Chicago, or they are staying put at their current Grand Rapids employer.

They know the employers to pursue, and the ones to avoid. The latter are the entitled ones.

Tech Media Now Must Take Role of Journalists

As the media shake-up continues, it seems that the role and responsibility of “journalism’ is shifting from conventional news organizations to the modern digital companies responsible for the changes.

Consider the confluence of recent headlines.

Today I read that the Detroit News is offering buyouts to all journalists on staff, no matter the role or length of service, in order to meet new budget guidelines as the economic model of traditional journalism continues to struggle. This is just the latest in a long list of news outlets reducing reporting  and editing staff.

The shrinking of conventional journalism means an erosion of the role journalists should play in our society in several ways.

One is the role of providing a public forum. For years the letters to the editor and op-ed pages were what the taverns and coffee shops were modern communication–a place for what German scholar Jurgen Habermas called the “public sphere”, where citizens discussed and informed themselves about politics and other news of the day.

But these days, people don’t need the op-ed pages and letters forum to engage in public debate. Even the online comments sections on mainstream news organizations’ apps and websites are losing traction, so much so that some news sites are eliminating comments. People talk about news on social media. Traditional media don’t host the conversations, they participate.

Another journalistic function being taken away from journalists is the editing and verification role. Sure, the digital revolution made communication more of a democracy, but it also made it more of a cacophony. Tech companies like Facebook and Google–where much of the control of society’s information has shifted–are being asked to vet content they allow into the public realm after reports of fake news appearing along side legitimate information. Facebook and Google don’t want to take on this function. It means moving from what the law would call providing access to providing content. Essentially, it means they are being asked to move from being a technology company to being news organizations, going from algorithm to journalism.

In a similar way, Facebook has recently been embroiled in controversy over targeting ethnic groups in Facebook advertising. Micro-targeting is a huge advantage in digital advertising, particularly on Facebook, as a speaker to the GVSU Advertising Club recently shared. This is largely an ethical issue, since in some cases–such as housing ads–certain ethnic groups have been excluded. It raises the old question of do we mainstream all minorities in our communication? Is targeting them a positive way of reaching out to them or is it a negative way of marginalizing them? A lot depends on intent, and requires human oversight.

So even as our technology changes, the issues in our society–and our need for a professional class that can report, monitor, verify, curate and edit content–will be needed.

Advertising and public relations professionals who understand ethics and have integrity can and should fill some of this social role.

But I also wonder if certain former employees of the Detroit News and other “old media” will be snapped up by tech companies like Google, Facebook and other companies who realize the formulas of technology can’t fully replace the art and wisdom of actual human agents.