Mary C. Buhay
Compare today’s societal tensions with those business communicators grappled with 50 years ago, and it’s easy to recognize some familiar narrative arcs. Diversity. Generational gaps. Trust in the news. To foster better understanding among modern audiences, a new breed of journalists, media executives and communicators is taking bolder measures, a recent conference presented in New York by G&S Business Communications revealed.
The G&S Global Street Fight examined new forms of storytelling and audience engagement. One catalyst for innovation emerged: the urgent need to fund good journalism.
Worth paying for
“We’re a subscription business more than we are an advertising business now,” Marc Lacey, national editor of the New York Times told G&S CEO Luke Lambert, who served as panel moderator. “More of our money is coming in from digital subscriptions, from print subscriptions, so we are relying on engaged readers. We need to have an audience that believes what we’re producing is worth paying for.”
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Lacey believes this revenue shift is driving a sharper focus on audiences. The Times launched its Race/Related weekly newsletter in 2016 in the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter protests. To reflect the reality of race as a subtext in its readers’ experiences, the newsletter is a joint effort across different departments, ranging from the national desk and Washington bureau to the culture and sports sections.
Also in 2016, the Times ran a special series online during Black History Month, in which images from its extensive picture library were published for the first time. “We were shining a light on the New York Times as well, being critical of our own coverage,” said Lacey. “At the time that these photos were taken, we had an all-white photo editor staff — all-white editor staff, in fact.” The photo series attracted so much public feedback that a book based on the groundbreaking work came out in 2017.
The Pulitzer Prize is another iconic journalism brand taking a fresh look at its mission. Newly appointed Pulitzer Prize Administrator Dana Canedy will likely be a “stronger voice on First Amendment and free press issues” while doing more diversity work, according to Megan Mulligan, the organization’s Deputy Administrator.
With content that caters to diverse audiences, The Young Turks Network is rapidly growing its viewer base. TYT is the online news and commentary juggernaut that recently hit 7.6 billion lifetime views, mainly among Millennials who support its progressive political stance. At a median age of 28, the TYT viewer is significantly younger than counterparts at FOX and CNN, whose median ages are 60+.
In their session, G&S Managing Director Ron Loch and TYT Chief Business Officer Steven Oh explored the network’s Over-The-Top viewers who are flocking to platforms such as YouTube, Amazon Video, Hulu and other distributors that do not rely on cable or satellite pay TV services or infrastructure.
According to a G&S poll conducted on May 29, 2018 among 517 adults, one-quarter had become “cord cutters,” by canceling their cable or satellite subscriptions in the past 12 months.
Identifying TYT’s paying viewers as members, not subscribers, is a way of acknowledging their active roles in developing show content, Oh explained. Membership fees range from $10 to $1,000 per month. At the upper level, super fans are considered executive producers and gain access to premium content. VIP members also take part in regularly scheduled calls with TYT top brass.
The upstart network’s business formula creates a community whose energetic support often extends to brands with shared values, which has attracted sponsors including American Express and Verizon. Brand collaborations with TYT result in longer-form digital content, such as mini-documentaries, and experiential programs, such as panel discussions and meet-and-greets.
B2B brands, in particular, must adjust their approaches as they consider unconventional placement options. Loch remarked that TYT’s platform is ideal for the more complex storytelling that often eludes B2B marketers on mainstream media, since OTT viewers are more willing to immerse themselves in content that can run as long as 30 minutes or more. “They’re willing to pay extra to get an experience with a company that has an aligned value [with theirs],” said Oh.
The TYT executive urged marketers to build relationships with OTT viewers over time and not to be intimidated by isolated instances where brands have appeared alongside content deemed unsavory.
G&S also provided a first look at The Civil Media Company, a Brooklyn-based new venture with an emerging journalism model based on blockchain technology. Founded in 2017, Civil funds other media start-ups with grant money from its own strategic investor, an arm of Ethereum, a blockchain-driven computing platform that generates the cryptocurrency used by Civil.
Steve Halsey, G&S Managing Director, ignited the interview with Daniel Sieberg, Civil’s co-Founder and Head of Journalism Operations, with a startling survey finding.
More than one-third (37 percent) of those polled by G&S would categorize as fake news “an article that contains factual errors, even if the mistakes are unintentional.”
Sieberg revealed Civil’s solution to restore trust in the news media: Start fresh with a brand-new protocol. On Civil’s platform, news publishers and members of the public who wish to fund quality journalism form a cooperative by taking financial stakes using Civil cryptocurrency, agreeing to uphold a constitution and holding each other accountable for practicing ethical journalism and civil discourse. Violators risk expulsion from the community and forfeiture of their tokens.
Ease their grip
Civil believes it can avoid social media’s unruliness and opacity since blockchain operates as an open ledger that lets members practice self-governance, fund news reports, and distribute stories in full view of all participants. Blockchain technology also promises a way to check the veracity and sources of news. From the initial transaction in which a fully-disclosed funder and newsroom agree on the terms of an assignment to the resulting news product, each story is permanently archived as one indelible record and traced wherever it is shared within the platform.
Regardless of which business models prevail, communicators should take heed of public demand for greater diversity of ideas. News media are learning that audiences insist on unvarnished stories and fearless conversations. Similarly, marketers and PR pros must also ease their grip on brands.
Mary C. Buhay is senior VP of marketing at G&S Business Communications.