“A newspaper should have no friends,” wrote Joseph Pulitzer, articulating the spirit of editorial independence that won him the admiration of his readers and an indictment from the US Government.
That spirit is, for the most part, alive and well in newsrooms around the world, but the economics of news publishing and its core proposition – fact-based reporting – are being challenged as never before. While any one newspaper should indeed have no friends, the Press as a whole needs as many as it can get.
The pressure on the news business is coming from all directions: from the digital media duopoly of Google and Facebook, from the changing habits of consumers, from fake news, even from the political podium.
The long-term decline in the sales of printed newspapers is now matched by falling commercial revenues as advertisers look to digital channels for greater reach, precise targeting of individual consumers and the ability to trigger an immediate purchase.
Most publishers’ own digital dreams have yet to be realised, hopes of building a large-scale online advertising business fading as Google and Facebook gobble up the large majority of incremental digital ad spend.
Meanwhile, efforts to leverage newspapers’ collective strength through collaborative approaches to advertising sales have struggled to get off the ground.
And yet, opportunities remain. Perceived and real flaws in the digital media ecosystem are a potential source of competitive advantage to newspapers – in both their print and digital forms.
As Google, Facebook, Twitter and others face accusations of giving a platform to hatred and fake news, and even of swinging elections, distrust in information shared on social media ought to increase public appetite for more traditional, reliable news providers.
There is circumstantial evidence that this may be happening: The New York Times added more than a quarter of a million new subscribers in the last three months of 2016, while The Wall Street Journal recently reported that it had grown its paid subscriber base to more than 2.1 million.
Advertisers and their agencies have raised concerns about vulnerabilities in the digital media supply chain. Last year, for instance, Facebook was forced to admit that it had repeatedly overstated important metrics for advertisers – showing what happens when digital media giants are left to mark their own homework.
Viewability, the extent to which digital ads can actually be seen by consumers, has been the subject of much industry debate. Keith Weed, Chief Marketing and Communications Officer at Unilever, has long argued that “100% viewability of ads… is the only acceptable metric”. Fraud (for example when advertisers end up paying for “views” by bots rather than humans) is another issue on clients’ radar.
There is also a risk that advertising appears next to contextually inappropriate or offensive material. Companies like ours have fought hard to ensure safe environments for digital advertising, just as we have fought to raise standards throughout the market, while recognising that ultimate responsibility for properly identifying and policing content lies with the digital media owners themselves. Mark Zuckerberg himself has conceded that Facebook has obligations as a media company.
News brands (the print and digital manifestations of newspapers) are seeking to use all of this to their advantage, positioning themselves as trustworthy sources amidst a sea of digital misinformation, and as responsible gatekeepers for advertisers.
Our own media investment business, GroupM, which buys advertising space on behalf of clients, is platform-agnostic, offering neutral advice to help companies meet their goals. Part of that role is to make sure clients fully understand the particular benefits of newspaper advertising.
Independent research commissioned by Newsworks, the marketing body for UK national newspapers, revealed that newspapers can increase the overall effectiveness of an ad campaign by 300 per cent. Studies worldwide show that people are more engaged when reading a newspaper than they are when using social media, an important consideration for advertisers seeking consumers’ attention – and access to their wallets.
There are few people on earth who know more about that than Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon, whose acquisition of the Washington Post in 2013 was an act of faith in the future of journalism and newspaper publishing.
By pairing the digital innovation and iron discipline that built Amazon into an e-commerce juggernaut with an old-fashioned commitment to newsgathering, he appears to have turned the Post around, growing audience, revenues and – critically – the number of journalists it employs. Deep pockets help, but it’s a story that nonetheless gives encouragement to publishers and reporters everywhere.
The trade body representing advertisers in the UK, ISBA, has urged its members to show similar faith in newspapers, agreeing with Newsworks that current advertising spend on national press is “below the effective weight” and “should return to 2013 levels” (25 per cent higher than they are now).
Advertisers benefit from healthy news brands (what Pulitzer called an “able, disinterested, public-spirited Press”) just as society as a whole benefits from them. They are more than a way of reaching customers; media scrutiny of business, however uncomfortable that may be for those in the lens, makes for a more efficient and transparent corporate world.
For all their failings, newspapers are an essential component of public life, with a value that goes far beyond the commercial. Few chief executives – even those who have been on the wrong end of a headline from time to time – would argue with that.
A version of this article was first published in the Sunday Telegraph