The Ghosts of Media Past, Present and Future Are Telling Us It’s Time to Change

Our storytelling success is a reflection of the relationships we have with editors across the country, and around the world. From the Philadelphia Inquirer to the Johannesburg Star, Wall Street Journal and Delaware Business Times, these editors provide both candid feedback and salient advice. We are grateful for their professional generosity, making us better storytellers. But the media is changing, and so are the protocols. We invited Pete Osborne as our guest co-author this week, with VP Clara Mattucci, to share his view on the media’s moment of reckoning.

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This isn’t news:

Media, like everything else in our world, has changed dramatically in the last 6 months.

We see and hear news in different settings, formats, language, venues. We have to pitch in new ways. Our go-to publications look radically different, standard operating procedure flipped on its head. And audiences are self-segmenting.

COVID-19 certainly influenced this shift; but the pandemic has acted as more of an accelerant than a change agent, says NYU professor and podcaster Scott Galloway. Recent history put the industry into the position it finds itself today.

According to a study in the Newspaper Research Journal:

  • American newspapers cut 45% of their newsroom staffs between 2008 and 2017, with many of the deepest cutbacks coming in the years after that.
  • More than 2,000 American newspapers have closed their doors and stopped their presses since 2004. Many of those that remain are mere shadows of their former selves.
  • From 2004 to 2015, the U.S. newspaper industry lost more than 1,800 print outlets as a result of closures and mergers, a study in the Newspaper Research Journal found.

What happened to the news? And how does it change the way we tell the stories that must be told?

The Money in Media

It comes down to this: Reporting requires resources – and there are fewer and fewer dollars supporting journalism today.

Print advertising, historically a publication’s largest revenue source, has plunged more than 71% since 2000. Circulation, the second greatest source of revenue, has shriveled. Digital advertising revenues have never recovered the loss. And when advertising revenue drops and fewer people subscribe, newspapers often respond by cutting staff.

Many local publications responded by pursuing an event model, but that has pretty much collapsed during the pandemic. That has led to more layoffs.

Some publications have turned to publishing native ads (a.k.a. sponsored content) to create revenue. American Media announced on August 21 that it will merge with Accelerate 360, a company that helps businesses sell household products to retailers. American Media reaches more than 47 million readers each month with celebrity magazines (including Us Weekly, Life & Style, and OK!) and more than 54 million social media fans and followers. Accelerate executives said the combined company will be able to “create direct access to consumers for our more than 2,300 active advertising partners.”

And just as audiences are becoming more polarized, they gravitate toward special interest-funded sources (creating what Pew calls partisan ‘media bubbles’).

What all this means for companies and agencies is that it will be tougher to get stories published unless they’re also buying advertising space OR unless they have a really clear story that the reporter can ‘sell’ to his or her editor.

And that may be the future of the media we know.

The New News

Consumers have a sixth sense for being sold to in every sense; they are sensitive to sensational headlines psychologically engineered to make us click. Click, buy, repeat… It drains us. Audiences today, as ever, are looking for meaning and relationship; and they are creatively adapting the media landscape in their quest.

Crowdfunding is a well-established model, and is growing as a way to support news. Public radio has grown significantly, as has collaboration among stations. Heidi Legg at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy reports, “We also see upstarts and legacies converting into a nonprofit for public good where donors keep the newsroom afloat.”

As audiences become more and more overstimulated, short-form news is on the rise. Well-established journalists are joining TikTok. Younger consumers are starting their own outlets using Instagram and text messaging as distribution methods. These ‘skimmables’ provide a quick overview of current events, with opportunities to read much deeper into the story or topic.

This media moment may feel precarious, but the sector is poised for ongoing innovation. We will undoubtedly see new outlets continue to emerge.

Navigating Media When the Map is Outdated

This is also a moment of innovation for those of us with stories to tell. How can we make sure the right people get the news they need from us?

  • Know your audiences – including your media. What does your public need (and want) to hear from you? Make it useful, entertaining, moving – meaningful. Go to them: where do they get their news? Get to know those publications and journalists well, even personally, and target your pitches to solve their
  • Go local. New local news outlets are gaining popularity and respect in their own communities, because they are relevant and can be quite nimble. And don’t forget public media! Its classic crowdsourced model is still strong.
  • Be a resource. Make sure reporters know you’re willing to help when there’s nothing in it for them, and respond quickly when you put out a press release or make a pitch.
  • Make better use of your own channels, like your website, email newsletters and social media platforms, to tell stories. Invest in user experience and search engine optimization (SEO). Focus on building relationships and become a reliable source in your own right.
  • Amplify the content you have, and leverage word of mouth. When you publish – whether it’s on your own platform or elsewhere – share it through every channel you have! Invite your audience to participate and share (because it’s valuable to them); include a clear call to action.

A well-researched, audience-focused media strategy is a good place to start. To hold onto the attention and loyalty of your audiences, and keep expanding your public, that strategy must also be adaptive. The media is changing – but it will reform again and again, and we can reform how we share the stories worth telling.

Peter Osborne is a writer and the former editor of the Delaware Business Times.

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