With declining trust in all institutions, from government to business and major media, few organizations can rest on their laurels. This is especially true for the news media, under ongoing attack by new leadership in Washington, D.C., and by skeptical readers and viewers on both sides of our political divide. Trust in news media, reports the Edelman Trust Barometer, is at an all-time low, with just 35% of those surveyed saying they trust the media. Gallup tracked trust in media even lower, at 32%.
And yet… subscriptions to leading traditional media outlets have leapt in numbers since the Presidential election, and new campaigns reflect how the press have been inspired to recommit to their mission of holding the powerful accountable.
Why Journalism Matters
A New York Times campaign has unfolded over the past month via email and online ads, and went wide during the 2017 Oscars telecast with a stark, copy-focused “Truth Is Hard” TV spot—the Times’ first brand-focused TV ad since 2007. The campaign acknowledges that our perceptions of truth vary greatly depending on our points-of-view, and expresses the need to support journalism that digs deeper and asks hard questions. Outdoor and print ads join a dedicated microsite sharing stories about how NYT’s journalists and editors investigate and report the news of the day, especially their in-depth coverage. All marketing is tied directly to subscriber calls to action.
Some pundits, including some branding experts, feel the campaign is reacting to the new administration in Washington, with its accusations that the press are the “opposition party” and even “the enemy of the people.” But as a registered user of NYTimes.com, I have been receiving “Truth: It needs your support” subscription offers since at least Election Day 2016. This may be a response to the election results, but the campaign has been in use for several months with good effect. It is not reactive, but strategic—jumping on an opportunity to attract new subscribers at a time when many people are seeking more in-depth reporting. The Times says it garnered a record 276,000 new digital subscribers in the final quarter of 2016—and a not too shabby 10-15% increase in ad revenue since January 1.
Since the 2016 presidential campaign and election, many people who previously paid little attention to politics have begun to pay more attention to the news from Washington. Regardless of whether they support the new President, or “resist,” people are freshly aware that we are going to see big changes in Federal government, and want to know how that is likely to affect them, their families, jobs, investments and health insurance. Those impacts are being poorly explained by leaders in D.C., so people are looking for reliable sources to learn more details. It’s a great time for the traditional media to boost their profiles and emphasize their value.
Related Campaign Launches
The 160-year-old The Atlantic’s “Question Your Answers” campaign, its first in a decade, includes a new video featuring actor Michael K. Williams playing different aspects of his own persona while touching on topical issues including race relations and the 2016 election. The magazine also has a dedicated landing page discussing the campaign and the publications guiding principles, and will roll out a series of interviews with people like Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Caitlyn Jenner under the title “Bold Questions.”
Elsewhere, The Wall Street Journal claimed their position, “No Tilt: Coverage that’s on the level,” during the 2016 campaign season, and enjoyed a nearly 12% increase in subscribers in 2016’s final quarter. The Financial Times and USAToday also reported large subscriber increases.
Then there are the stealth campaigns. The Washington Post inadvertently started a discussion by replacing its motto under its nameplate. It now reads, “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” a public reveal of its internal mission to throw light on the machinations of government and policy-making in the nation’s capital. Again, some branding experts think this is a stronger, more emotional appeal than the Times’ “Truth.” That would appear to be a matter of perspective. Personally, and as a reader of both papers, I find the Times’ campaign more believable; WaPo’s motto seems melodramatic, and better suited to an “SNL” skit than a national newspaper’s slogan. [link 248]
Facts and “Alternative Facts”
Edelman’s deep dive into trust issues reports that people still trust politicians who promise to help them even when they exaggerate the truth; are more likely to believe a search engine than a human editor; and filter what they read and view based on their already-held opinions. “A person like yourself” is now tied with academic and technical experts as the “most credible spokesperson.” And this year saw the widest trust gap (15 points) since Edelman initiated its Trust Barometer between the “informed public” (college-educated who consume significant media and business news) vs. the mass population. Can the media survive in an environment where facts no longer matter to many people?
The New York Times and their brethren are asking that question. At least for now, the view is improving.