By Robert Wynne, Contributor
The failure of the old business model for journalism in the digital age has changed the media forever. With the emergence of free content online, subscriptions for print media have declined significantly, and advertising rates have fallen consistently for years.
Banner ads haven’t come close making up for those lost revenue streams, and hundreds of thousands of jobs are permanently gone from journalism. If you’re an entrepreneur or small business who cares about publicizing yourself or your business, you should care about this. A lot. It’s not just the journalism business that’s changed forever. Public relations will never be the same.
In the old days, if you had a great story to tell, the media would listen. With significantly fewer journalists employed and a lot more publicists contacting them, that’s rarely true. Now if you have a great story already written, the media might accept it. For free. Not on the front page, but often on a blog or another section. There are also paid versions to place your content on a media site. Many individuals and companies create their own blog where they promote their own content.
To dramatize the decline of journalism and the implications for public relations, author and SEO expert Andreas Ramos analyzed Google GOOGL +0.57% search terms from 2004-2016. In Graphic One, he charted the terms “newspapers” and “magazines.”
In Graphic Two, he charted interest in public relations as an industry, and the term “public relations.”
In the face of these trends, how do entrepreneurs, small businesses and individuals promote themselves? This is where Content Marketing comes in.
There’s a good definition on Quick Sprout: “It is a strategy of producing and publishing information that builds trust and authority among your ideal customers. It is a way to build relationships and community, so people feel loyal to you and your brand. It is a strategy for becoming recognized as a thought leader in your industry. It is a way to drive sales without traditional “hard sell” tactics.”
Here are some examples of content marketing: Target’s Bulls Eye View, Adobe’s CMO.com and Intel IQ.
The website WhatIs sums it up well: “Content marketing is the publication of material designed to promote a brand, usually through a more oblique and subtle approach than that of traditional push advertising. The essence of good content marketing is that it offers something the viewer wants, such as information or entertainment. Content marketing can take a lot of different forms, including YouTube videos, blog posts and articles. It shouldn’t really seem like marketing — in some cases, in fact, it should only be identifiable as marketing because the advertiser is identified as the content provider.”
Whether this trend is good, bad or neutral doesn’t matter; self-produced content, paid or free, is here to stay. As Ramos notes, “Traditional media relied on a near-monopoly control of a market by controlling the expensive reproduction process and chain of distribution. But digitization and the web have undermined that. Anyone can create a document or video now and share it with (in theory) over a billion people at zero cost. Advertisement placement in traditional media is expensive. By using digital media, you cut your reproduction and distribution costs to zero.”
This has serious ramifications for journalism, how we consume the news, and how businesses and individuals reach their audiences via traditional media (which is mostly digital), social media, and other forms of communications. Writer Jacob Silverman takes a dim view of content marketing in a widely-read article in The Baffler titled “The Rest is Advertising.”
“In case you haven’t heard, journalism is now in perpetual crisis, and conditions are increasingly surreal,” Silverman notes. “But for every crisis in every industry, a potential savior emerges. And in journalism, the latest candidate is sponsored content.”
“Also called native advertising, sponsored content borrows the look, the name recognition, and even the staff of its host publication to push brand messages on unsuspecting viewers. Forget old-fashioned banner ads, those most reviled of early Internet artifacts. This is vertically ‘integrated, barely disclaimed content marketing, and it’s here to solve journalism’s cash flow problem, or so we’re told. ’15 Reasons Your Next Vacation Needs to Be in SW Florida,’ went a recent BuzzFeed headline—just another listicle crying out for eyeballs on an overcrowded homepage, except this one had a tiny yellow sidebar to announce, in a sneaky whisper, “Promoted by the Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel.”
“As the breathless barkers who sell the stuff will tell you, sponsored content has something for everyone. Brands get their exposure, publishers get their bankroll, freelancer reporters get some work on the side, and readers get advertising that goes down exceptionally easy—if they even notice they’re seeing an ad at all.”
Silverman concludes content marketing can cheapen the media product, and if the publications lose credibility, the paid content alongside the journalism becomes less valuable. “The promise is that quality promotional content will sit cheek-by-jowl with traditional journalism, aping its style and leveraging its prestige without undermining its credibility.”
Stephane Fitch, managing editor of FitchInk and former Forbes bureau chief in Chicago and London, takes a more pragmatic view of the decline of the traditional media model and what it means for businesses and their public relations and marketing needs.
“What is happening to serious journalism now resembles what happened to poetry a century or two ago,” Fitch says. “Remember, the market for verse was quite lucrative for hundreds of years. Homer, Virgil, Pope, Shakespeare, Yeats and many other, lesser known bards practiced their craft full-time and earned a solid living. But by the early 1900s, the market was flooded and the audience had largely moved on to novels. Great poets like William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens had full-time careers in medicine and insurance, respectively. Robert Frost was an English teacher, as are many fine poets today. What’s important is that even though the business model for poetry collapsed, the art of poetry never did. There’s magnificent verse being written today for serious readers — by poets who are so committed that they do it almost for free and on their own time. And that’s a hopeful thing. I tell people who like to read and write serious journalism this almost daily. The best reporting will be increasingly done out of pure passion, mostly by brilliant people who’ve worked out other means by which to pay the rent.”
It’s tempting to say, “Content Marketing, meet the New Boss.” But look closely every time you read the news. You’ve already met him.
Robert Wynne owns a public relations agency in Manhattan Beach, CA. He is a former journalist who wrote for Newsweek and the L.A. Times.