A Dark Future For Journalism – The Editorial/Ad Wall Is Down

Several weeks ago we received a presentation from a major Canadian newspaper publisher entitled “New Approach to Media Relations for PR Consultants.” In it, the presenter outlined a new process available for PR folks pitching their clients’ work. While I couldn’t attend at the time, I obtained a copy of the deck and got a thorough debrief from the people who were in the room. I’m glad I did, as what I learned horrified me.

Worried businessmanI waited for a while before writing this post, as I let the implications of what I learned sink in and decide if I was over-reacting. I found myself back where I started, though – in a state of something approaching despair about the state of the mainstream media and what it means for public relations as we know it.

The bottom line: the newspaper publisher was directly pitching us the promise of editorial coverage paired with advertising. Quoting their presentation:

“We can help your clients marry their PR message with their Advertising message to strengthen their brand.”

The Old Media Relations Process

As it stands, you can simplify the basic existing process down to three steps once an initiative is underway (yes, this is dramatically over-simplified but it covers the basics):

  1. Develop a news release or pitch
  2. Send the release over the wire/pitch it to journalists
  3. Hope for the best

The Emerging Process

The new approach to media relations, according to the publisher:

  1. Call your “friendly” contact and tell them about:
    • The product
    • The key message
    • Target audience
    • Target markets
  2. Provide publisher with:
    • Editorial themes to complement your key message
    • When you want it in market
    • Where you want it in market
  3. “Open the newspaper(s) and view the editorial content inspired by you and your client with their brand ad exclusively displayed on that page.”

Sounds like a PR person’s dream, right? It might be, if it weren’t for six words in that last bullet. Six words which undermine the entire premise of earned media:

“…with their brand ad exclusively displayed…”

That’s right – they’ll even guarantee exclusivity for your brand on a page, as your ads will make up the rest of the page.

What this means

control. Control over the message, over the content, over the target audience for coverage. What’s more, they get exclusivity on the page – jackpot.

On the flip side, it seems the church and state divide in media – the editorial/advertising divide – has completely crumbled. Buy ads in their papers, and they’ll even consider your target audience when they write what they still insist is “100% editorial.” My ethical alarm bells are sounding loud and clear here.

An end to credibility?

While only a naive person would suggest that the advertising/editorial line was ever completely steadfast, the credibility that came with independent coverage is what lent “earned media” its title and its value – you had to earn your coverage.

While the presenter insisted that this was only the case for certain sections of their publications, and that the front section was separate to this, it’s a very slippery slope when these companies are desperate for revenue.

This also raises the question of influence on other sections of the paper. Will an editor really run a positively-toned, on-message story for an advertiser against an investigative or negatively-toned piece in another section?

All of these questions further undermine the credibility of the publication. With credibility gone, where does this leave traditional earned media?

(Photo: Shutterstock)

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  • david (digitaljoy)

    Interesting to read the comments to your post. Seems they are split down the middle, not the least bit surprised / cynical vs the idealistic “cant believe that happens”. I fall on the cynical side. Big ad buy = favourable editorial, is the way small newspapers have been working since I have been in the industry (10 years). Famously the Ottawa Xpress does a “best ____” (restaurant, sandwich, theatre, etc) every year. Results are not done by vote (as claimed) but by ad buy. I’m not comparing the Xpress with the Toronto Star, nor am I comparing “best of” polls to “real” editorial, however the credibility issues are the same.

    In my honest opinion, I don’t have a problem with “buying” a favourable story, as you rightly point out, it’s a win / win situation for the newspaper and for the PR professional. Exclusivity for your product does not necessarily mean poor journalism. When discussing cars, I rarely see anybody talk about the Lada. What would be a disturbing turn of events is buying your way out of a bad story, (hey we found out your breaks don’t work… wanna buy a full page…”). As I said, I fall on the cynical side, and to me, that’s not a big leap.

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  • http://www.holyroodpr.co.uk Scott Douglas

    Onomatopoeias have never been my thing.

    So I don’t know how to express in writing the noise of me sucking in air over my teeth with right mixture of alarm and utter despondency.

    I loved my career in journalism before moving over to PR around eight years ago.

    Those I know in journalism remain as committed as ever to news values and delivering coverage that informs and entertains in an ever tougher environment.

    It’s those people still working in news who I try to empathise with when reading about this.

    This is a fundamental transgression of such wrongness it must make them ache to their marrow.

    The vibrations of indigantion make me feel like my shins are splitting

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  • http://www.marylyndoanhue.com marylyn donahue

    I’ve written both corporate/sponsored journalism and the “real thing” a news story and/or features for legit publications.

    With the later, the writer has only one “deliverable” when writing the story—to tell the truth as best you can.

    Involve a client (sponsor) in the process and suddenly you have a handful of “deliverables” (they are paying after all and money buys them what they want).

    All the writer’s deliverables for a client/sponsor have to do with staying on the sponsor’s message (either subtly or not so subtly).

    The content may indeed be real and some of it may even be of value, but what’s been left out in service to the sponsor? What facts have been shaped to support the sponsor’s message? What oversight did they have in approving the final edit? What changes did they make? There is no way of telling.

    The real loser in all of this is the reader who doesn’t know what he or she doesn’t know.