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.

Millennials and Media: Barometer of Future PR

Two recent studies show some trends among the millennial generation and their media use that may be a barometer of things to come in the larger population in years ahead.

One study reported in the current issue of the Journal of Communication Inquiry  offers interesting perspective about teen news consumption based on interviews with 61 racially diverse high schoolers. It’s easy to parrot the complaint that young people don’t pay attention to news like they should, but this study shows a more nuanced understanding of youth and the news.
The fact that teens are not reading traditional newspapers and tuning in to conventional television news programs does not mean they are indifferent to news. Rather, they are skeptical about the notion of “objectivity” in the news, both in the sense that it isn’t always so objective but also that objectivity does not necessarily inform them fully. For example, they prefer Facebook and social media, where they are exposed to links from “friends” as well as multiple comments. In interviews, teens said this better enables them to hear real pros and cons on issues and not the obtuse glaze of objectivity (the words “obtuse glaze” are mine:-) ). The young people interviewed probably don’t realize they are embracing the old concept of a public sphere of dialog about issues but that’s what they are doing. It’s the peer discussion more than the formal presentation format of news that excites them. As others have said, news is now a process, not a product.
For the same reason, teens gravitate to blogs, fake news shows like Jon Stewart, talk radio, and opinionated current events shows because they feel the discussions that ensue are more substantive and the implications more evident than in conventional news sources. 
One note of evident critical thinking from the teens: they criticize news sites for content that seems more entertaining than informative. In other words, they notice the appeal to reach audiences for advertisers can overwhelm a public interest motivation. 
Meanwhile, another study in Australia, as reported in the Sydney Morning Herald in late November (hat tip PR professor colleague Tom Watson who shared this on Twitter), showed that 61% of Facebook users aged 18-29 feel they spend too much time on the social media site. This sentiment among the young people was nearly double that of the 753 Australian Facebook users surveyed in the study. What’s more, 47% in that 18-29 age group considered disliking Facebook for good because of feeling that it has become a time waster.
Could it be that the young are starting to think of Facebook as “so five years ago?” 
Well, probably not. They also said they would feel left out if they disconnected altogether. My sense is the reason that the young are more likely to say they spend too much time on Facebook is because they young actually DO spend way too much time on Facebook. As the study concluded, users will probably keep their Facebook (and other social media accounts) but usage will probably go down in the future.
The take-away for PR pros about both of these studies is that we should pay attention to “leading edge” studies like this. There may be contradictory studies, since generalization is always a matter of degree. But these studies could be a barometer of a change in news and social media use in the future. People may  use social media less, and when they are there, it will be for more substantive and functional reasons than what has been the case for many in the past. 
So PR people will have to consider:
  • the reach of publicity is not based on subscribers and viewers, but on shares and comments;
  • the comment sections of news sites are not an after-thought to the article, but the place where the real PR action is;
  • providing content that is specifically relevant and genuinely substantive is more important than catching eyeballs with anything that titillates;
  • allowing for not just dialogue, but debate if the content put forth is about contemporary issues;
  • public relations is once again about the “public sphere.”

MLive Goes Live, Getting Ready for Close Up

It’s been interesting to watch the news executives at MLive Media Group doing public relations and blogger outreach in the gear-up to the bow of its new digital/print product and home in a ‘hub’ in downtown Grand Rapids later this week.

After blogging recently about MLive facing a new competitive environment with the increase of local news bureaus at the Rapidian, including some branded journalism efforts of local nonprofits, I was invited to take a tour of MLive’s new downtown space with Grand Rapids Press Community News Director Julie Hoogland.

Ari Adler got a similar treatment from MLive Media Group President Danny Gaydou, as Adler recounts in his own blog.

Hoogland had taken issue with my indication that the Press was losing staff capacity. Of course my sense of that was largely informed by the numerous farewells of long-time Press staffers on Twitter, Facebook, and in person. Hoogland maintains that many were offered jobs but chose to take a buyout and move on to new ventures. What remains is a large number of veteran journalists, as well as some savvy young ones who have graduated from area college journalism programs. So she says quality journalism will remain. She also points out that capacity will not suffer as formerly independent Booth papers work more  collaboratively on statewide news, including coverage of Lansing, major league sports, entertainment and other subjects. Meanwhile, each of the local papers  will continue to stress local coverage.

In the new hub across from Rosa Parks Circle, Hoogland showed excitement at the possibilities. The ground floor will have a studio with a window on the sidewalk, similar to New York City morning network TV programs, for video interviews of newsmakers. Job titles include the word “producer,” indicative of the new multi-media nature of news gathering and reporting by MLive and its various digital entities.

The public will also be welcome to walk-in and visit on the main floor. The second floor news room looks strikingly like a college computer classroom, with modern Steelcase chairs at long tables where journalists will work adjacent to each other when they’re not out in the community.

“Previous changes were triage; this is embracing the future,” Hoogland said.

She did change my view about the potential for both the quality and quantity of news coverage in the new model. I am excited  and hopeful that the “newspaper” we have known and loved will adapt and thrive, both locally and nationally.

But I still maintain that the MLive launch later this week puts it into a new media landscape. The Press will co-exist and/or compete with with citizen journalism, other print media, television, and news content directly  from companies, nonprofits and government entities–all of which will have a digital presence as well. Just as young people have lost the distinction between cable and network, in the online/mobile/social mix of 24/7 information, news consumers may lose at least some of the distinction between print and broadcast, as well as between third party news reports and direct sources of information.

I eagerly await their close-up.