The changing media landscape and what it means for PR

Public relations and journalism are two very separate disciplines and industries, yet they are inextricably intertwined. One could not exist without the other – although some on both sides may occasionally differ on that one.

As a result, PR practitioners need to understand and remain informed on the constant changes happening in the media landscape. Just as the emergence of the internet and news sites changed the process of pitching and delivering stories, so too did the creation of social media platforms. In many instances today, a tweet or blog are used in place of the once ubiquitous press release.

With that in mind, today I wanted to shed some light on the contrasting fortunes of various news outlets in recent weeks – and talk a little about what I think that says about the media industry as a whole, and the implications for PR.

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Earlier this month, HuffPost – previously known as the Huffington Post – laid off 39 staffers, in a move related to its parent company AOL’s acquisition by Verizon. The layoffs announced Wednesday include several veteran reporters, among them David Wood, who won the site's first and only Pulitzer. On the same day, Vocativ, a tech news site, was also hit with layoffs. It let its entire text editorial staff go – roughly 20 people – so the site can shift its focus to video content.

These announcements came just one day after Time Inc. announced its plan to eliminate 300 positions. The company which publishes Time Magazine and Fortune, among dozens of other titles, made the move to cut costs in response to continual declines in print circulation in the magazine industry at large.

The fact that the media industry is struggling is not new news. The rapid transformation from a predominately print business model to online platforms, combined with a proliferation of alternative content sources (many of which are free) has inevitably had an impact in terms of creating a sustainable business model in todays over-saturated media climate.

However, in stark contrast, just this week, Jeff Bezos, the Amazon CEO and Washington Post owner offered a much more optimistic outlook while attending the Future of Newspapers conference. He argued that while the industry has spent 20 years claiming news should be free, “the truth is, readers are smarter than that. They know high-quality journalism is expensive to produce, and they are willing to pay for it, but you have to ask them.” He added that every time the Washington Post tightened its paywall, subscriptions increased.

It should be noted that when Bezos took over the Post, the newsroom was laying off people. Now, they have added 140 reporters.

While it would be easy to argue that the Washington Post enjoys the almost-limitless funds of Bezos and as such isn’t susceptible to the same budgetary challenges of its competitors, Bezos was emphatic that the key to its success was quite the opposite. He said “I really believe, a healthy newspaper that has an independent newsroom should be self-sustaining. And I think it's achievable. And we've achieved it…constraints drive creativity.”

It is no secret that the success of Washington Post is in part due to its renewed focus on investigative reporting. It has also benefitted from a chaotic period in our political history which has prompted a renewed hunger for this kind of journalism.

But I also think Bezos makes a valuable point about the importance of placing a value on quality journalism. There are countless sites offering limitless content, not to mention 24-hour news channels. It appears we have reached a point where consumers of media are becoming more discerning and are willing to pay a price for what they perceive as authoritative reporting. It is even possible that we are moving towards a place where by being freely available, the content included could somehow be deemed less worthy.

From a PR perspective, this shifting media business model has huge ramifications. I have written in previous blogs about the preoccupation some companies can have with getting as many coverage ‘hits’ as possible. As an agency, we always counsel clients that the quality of coverage is infinitely more important. As we see the growth of more paywall protected news sources, this fact will become even more relevant. From an editorial perspective, a story will need to meet strict criteria to ensure it is worthy of subscriber’s investment. As a result, being featured in such a publication could have an added cache.

Bezos also noted that publications should consider the use of data to test headlines and understand how people engage with certain stories. The implications of this could be huge for both the media and the PR industry. Imagine a scenario where through the power of data and analytics, we could determine in advance with incredible accuracy, which storylines resonated and which didn’t?

In the creation of Amazon, and now his investment in the Washington Post, Bezos has proved to be a remarkably-prescient entrepreneur. He is forcing a rethink of the accepted business model in the media economy, and is enjoying considerable success in doing so. While free news content is not likely to disappear anytime soon, there is a growing hunger for news that has the ‘mark of quality’. We should expect other publications to follow in the Washington Post’s steps in the near future.