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.

GRBJ Preps for Digital Launch

The Grand Rapids Business Journal is reaching out to attract an online editor and reporters for the October launch of its  GRBJ.com.

I first learned about the digital hires and new online emphasis appropriately on Facebook.

Not only does this provide opportunity for good business journalists with online skills, it changes the local media landscape in several ways. For one, the GRBJ.com site currently is proprietary, requiring a subscriber log-in to read full text of articles. Secondly, the current online content largely mirrors that of the weekly print product. The new site looks to have real-time reporting and presumably more open access.

For PR pros, this broadens the audience and shortens the deadlines. It means seeing the GRBJ as not just a long-lead business publication with an influential albeit limited audience. From now on, the weekly can be considered  for both long-form print articles and added to the mix with TV, radio, MLive and others for breaking news and rapid-pace social media shares.

Come October, there will be more urgency and diversity in local business coverage. That will force both journalists and PR pros to be more on their toes, as well as their laptops and smart phones. It will also give me one more thing to talk about in my media relations class this fall:-)

PR Lessons Learned from MLive Visit

It was a full house in the new MLive offices in downtown Grand Rapids for the February program of the West Michigan Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America (WMPRSA).

A panel of Grand Rapids Press/MLive staff members gave a thoughtful and comprehensive overview of how the changes in print and digital distribution of news that launched earlier this month affect not only news consumers but public relations professionals.

Here are a few take-aways from the presentation and the questions from PR professionals in the room:

  • MLive is a digital medium. That puts them in the same space (i.e the Web) at least partially with broadcast media. One editor responded enthusiastically to a PR pro’s question about submitting video content. So, get on your game PR people–the “paper” is accepting b-roll and audio now.
  • Also because of the digital medium, PR professionals should notice that the “paper” is a finite product but there is room for more coverage online even if the print product can’t accommodate a story. News also breaks constantly online, so PR people have to stay on their toes.
  • One of the new roles for journalists is “community engagement” manager (Todd Fettig). Just as PR professionals work to engage publics for their companies and nonprofit organizations, MLive is intentionally working on the same thing. This means encouraging reader response and expecting journalists to stay on a story after it has ‘published.’ As others have said, online media is making news not a product but a process. The word for PR pros? Don’t just write letters to the editor or email reporters about their stories, jump into the “public sphere” of commentary on local issues. Just as journalists can’t simply move on to the next story any more, PR professionals can’t merely “count clips” but must adopt an attitude of continued engagement in media directly with the public.
  • The Press and its sister publications in what was Booth Newspapers and is now the MLive Media Group are no longer completely separate. They are collaborating across  the state. So the local news in one paper might be picked up in another in the same way as an AP wire story is picked up. Also, government, sports and politics reporting is statewide. So there are staff members in Lansing covering education and politics for Grand Rapids readers, and John Gonzales is covering entertainment for and from all of Michigan. This means PR professionals don’t always have to pitch stories market by market in these cities and regions, but can see MLive as a statewide outlet if the news is in the right beat or a big enough story to make multiple editions.
  • Speaking of sports, one local sports information director asked about the new portal being used for some high schools and colleges, in particular for less popular sports, to submit scores and game information to MLive. The PR pro wondered what would happen if negative news happened at a school–would MLive “bite the hand that feeds it” news in such a case. Paul Keep, former Press editor and now MLive editor of print, had a good answer: in the same way that their health section takes medical columns from local hospitals but they still cover health news, they will still do stories on local schools even if they’ve been receiving sports information from them. In my view it’s not a big issue. Just as journalists and PR pros have always had to maintain a separation between advertising and editorial, now they have to remain professional about providing supplied  information (clearly labeled as such by the way) and legitimate news coverage. In the case of sports scores, I would say that is factual information and with MLive not having the staff for the legions of sports and schools, this is a service to those schools and the public to find an efficient way to carry that information.
  • Just as is happening across the country, MLive reporters and columnists will have their own “brand” as individuals in addition to the MLive brand overall. Each advertises their individual Facebook and Twitter accounts in addition to the official MLive brand pages. Many PR pros are already on top of this–part of media relations today means friending and following–and setting RSS feeds when possible–specific beat reporters and columnists relevant to your clients or organizations. Just remember to keep those relationships professional and remember that everyone is watching, as I noted in an earlier post.
It’s a new media world. Have fun out there.