PR versus News – A Tale of Two Industries

By Nikki Wright and Simon Roche

While my recent trip to the international #PRovoke18 conference in Washington DC, left me inspired and confident about PR’s place in the world right now, I can’t say the same for the news industry.

The conference convinced me that PR is set to enjoy something of a moneyball moment (see Wright Communications November 2018 blog), but the opposite is true for news. The media industry globally is battling allegations of fake news, declining revenues, disinterested owners, shrinking or disappearing newsrooms and a host of other issues. This too was a focal point of #PRovoke18.

Fake News

Among the conference’s standing-room-only sessions was the Washington Post’s editor Marty Baron and publisher Fred Ryan on stage together for the first time, talking to Don Baer, the chair of global communications agency Burson Cohn & Wolfe, about the Jamal Khashoggi affair, democracy and journalism under threat with the charge that mainstream media are promulgating fake news.

“People don’t know what’s true and what’s false and to a certain extent that’s been by design,” Baron said. “There’s an attitude that if it’s good for my tribe, it’s true; if it’s bad for my tribe, it’s false.

Behind it all, unfortunately, is the US president, Baron noted. The implications, he said, are frightening.

Frankly I think it’s a disturbing time to be a journo.  Shockingly, more than 50 journalists have been killed in 2018 and at least 200 detained. Many more have lost jobs or are likely to in the near future.  

Data journalism is on the rise and was a hot topic, with the Washington Post explaining how it targets audiences on different platforms such as reaching teens through Snapchat.  They also test out headlines up to five times a day and monitor which ones are sticking and generating click-through.

Closer to home

Unsurprisingly these themes are reflected in our own news industry with data journalism and the use of social media now prominent parts of mainstream media’s MO. There’s plenty of evidence too of testing headlines based on clickability. Either of the country’s two main digital news sites will often feature the same story with different headlines, settling on the one that generates the most click throughs.

But some of the more concerning trends are destined to have a more far-reaching impact on our news.

While our local media may be yet to face serious accusations of promulgating fake news, there is plenty of evidence to suggest our news is certainly becoming less real. What makes the news is increasingly being governed by who is advertising in that channel. For years there was a church and state like separation of news and advertising in all reputable media outlets. But those days are long gone, replaced by an increasingly overt cash for coverage culture.

We recently had a client report a conversation with a business editor who said his publication were not reporting on a specific company at the moment as they are no longer advertising with us. And our team are continuously confronted by editors or publications who don’t hesitate to state that some sort of advertising spend would “oil the wheels” in terms of what they are prepared to cover editorially – and those are the more subtle ones. Indeed many magazines have little or no space for editorial that is not provided by, paid for or at least supported by advertisers.

Does that equate to fake news? Well, how real is it when the reason it is there comes down to advertising spend rather than actual news value.

There are reasons for this and it amounts to a downward spiral for news – revenues are falling, space must be monetised and costs controlled, newsrooms are shrinking or being closed altogether and suddenly there are less resources to gather real news.

We’ve seen Stuff close multiple publications in 2018, as well as revamp its Auckland community news offering to the point where local reporters reporting local news are a thing of the past. Auckland community newspapers will now be made up of syndicated news copy alongside local event listings harvested from Stuff’s Neighbourly offshoot – a great success story in its own right. NZME too has announced several rounds of layoffs in the wake of the failed merger with Stuff.


What lies ahead in 2019?

While the challenges of revenue alone makes for an uncertain future for our media outlets and those employed there, 2019 could see even larger disruptive forces at play.

Since Stuff owners Fairfax Australia merged with Channel 9 earlier this year, there has been little to contradict the suggestion that Stuff is surplus to the requirements of the new owners and they are looking to offload it sooner rather than later. Likewise Mediaworks’ owners are well known willing sellers. There is talk of a possible merger between those two companies – or what’s left of them. There has also been talk of the likes of Stuff and NZME combining sports news resources into one amalgamated sports news bureau, which would equate to streamlining and more job losses. If that happens, why not expect the same for business news, travel, etc?

While it seems like we’ve been talking up media disruption for years, more prominent media commentators than I are predicting 2019 may see unprecedented upheaval in New Zealand media circles with significant further closures and rationalisation on the cards.

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