Folks have always understood that the various news outlets have brands. But I think this understanding has been superficial. People are highly aware that major news outlets have different logos and colours, different focus on issues, and have different reporters with different voices. But there is a more substantive underlying brand. This deeper brand has remained largely invisible. Established brands often are.1
The deeper brand is a set of unconscious beliefs. It is the ground on which all news outlets stand. This brand includes the notion that news outlets are responsible to our communities and our nation state. It includes the idea that news is part of the effective functioning of a democracy. The brand includes the concept that the press know the difference between opinion and fact and that by and large and in the long run, they don’t get their facts wrong.
Perhaps most important, and perhaps most invisible, the brand includes the idea that the journalists and editors know what is most important and most relevant to investigate. News is not sales. News is not public relations. News is not advertising. News is not influence on behalf of a single political ideology. News does not work on behalf of a special interest. News is not just for a small portion of the population. News is driven by values and ethics. This is the brand on which news stands. Because I like the challenge of naming brands, and because it will make the writing more interesting to have a name, let’s call this news brand, gravitas.
News outlets depend on this brand
People consume the news of a particular outlet when they trust the news from this outlet. Advertisers in turn pay to keep the lights on for news rooms when there are enough readers to justify it. But as important as readership is, it’s not the only determinant. Advertisers care about the brands of news outlets, quite aside from the readership. Yes, of course the brand affects the demographic: an affluent readership is better than a poor one: a larger readership is better than a smaller one.
But advertisers can also be understood as sponsors. If an athlete is discovered breaking the law or acting unethically, their brand equity drops and advertisers will pull their sponsorship deals. This behaviour is not simply because the athlete will have fewer fans; in many cases their fan base is not affected. As we are discovering with The News of the World, advertisers care about the brand. 2 My point is simply that it’s not a straight line between a brand and readership and advertising dollars.
My broader point is that we need to pay attention to the brand of news outlets and how these brands are developed and managed. Most importantly, we need to ask ourselves if news outlets are living up to the brand they depend on.
Business interests versus press interests
Many newspapers and other outlets have been financially rescued in the last ten years by shifting in the direction of sales and entertainment. More sports, more tragedy, more fluff, more gore, more sex. FOX news is an obvious example. Some analysts, academics and historians think this is not new. The hard business of keeping the lights on has always been part and parcel with the history of the printing press. But even if we accept the weaker thesis, for generosity’s sake, that this is simply an artifact of news rooms trying to survive the growth of the internet, we can still see the dilemma that news rooms are faced with.
Any given news room relies on it’s brand, on it’s gravitas, to sell advertising, keep the attention of readers and meet it’s social responsibilities. On the other horn, business interests are requiring that news outlets have fewer experts on staff, have less time to understand and contextualize issues, do less serious reporting, and move in the direction dictated by the surveys and metrics of the sales and marketing department. And you end up with something pretending to be news, but ultimately failing to be news.3
Three techniques to maintaining the news brand
One classic technique has been referred to by some as bundling. Newspapers could retain their gravitas despite the large section of sports, the large section devoted to cars, and the large amount of advertising, because these portions of fluff and public relations and , well, advertising, were physically bundled with some hard hitting, socially responsible, reporting on business and arts and politics.4
A second technique is to keep a few reporters around that actually do serious reporting. Call this human resource bundling. News outlets need entertaining, business savvy “journalists” and they also need some actual journalists to maintain the brand. Of course it’s not black and white. This phenomenon is a spectrum and it’s context dependent and a particular reporter can write pieces that have more and less gravitas. But it’s worth identifying this as a seperate phenomenon from bundling because there is sometimes a difference in the quality of individual reporters and it’s important to understand that journalists are kept around by news outlets for the same sort of strategic reasons that baseball players with different virtues are kept around by professional baseball teams.
Let’s not overlook the importance of the logo and tagline and look and feel of the whole package. It needs to be observed that there is an institutional look and feel to quality news. We soak this up in myriad subtle ways and the authority of any newspaper or television news anchor, in the mind of an average consumer, is enhanced by the music intro, the official titles, mission statements and typefaces. Don’t want this to be true? Me neither, but just imagine if the Guardian published in Comic Sans.
A fourth technique: appearance of political balance
I mentioned in my introduction that part of the invisible brand of news is that they do not serve the interests of a particular political party or their ideology. I think it’s worth identifying a fourth technique for managing the brand that focuses on the question of political leaning. A news outlet like FOX is obviously strongly leaning towards right wing political ideology and support the Republicans heavily. Sun Media obviously have a right leaning political analysis and favour the Conservative Party of Canada. But what about the National Post? What about the Globe and Mail? They have, I think, so far effectively retained their news brand. They are both recognized as institutions with gravitas. But how?
Noam Chomsky and others have steadfastly contended there have always been loud and public accusations that the media is too liberal. 5 Ongoing public debate about whether the press is too liberal effectively frames the issue and stops inquiry into whether news outlets create a right leaning distortion or slant. This is the myth of the liberal media, and it’s an important part of how news outlets manage their news brand.
Defenders of the myth point to the likelihood of journalists to vote for center left political parties, which really shows nothing at all. Chomsky says the real question is, are the journalists free to report what they want, and what they think is important? Two recent defectors answer this question in the negative.
There is also a common belief that because news outlets generally anger all political parties equally, the news must not be serving the interests of a particular party. The assertion that the news equally angers all parties is, of course, never evidenced.
A fifth technique: firewall
In light of the phone hacking scandal of The News of the World, we need to mention firewalling. When a portion of a news empire is exposed as having lacked the right values and ethics, then the brand of the entire organization is in danger. A firewall is raised between the toxic portion of the empire and the remaining healthy portion. The Wall Street Journal is owned by Rupert Murdoch, but so far they seem mostly untouched by the tainted brand of The News of the World. But people are noticing who is coming to the defense of Murdoch‘s news outlets. So the success of the firewall remains an open question.
Final word to Jay Rosen
In a recent article by Jay Rosen in the Guardian, Rosen argues that “Rupert Murdoch’s news organisations are not in the news business. What they crave is influence.” It should be noted that Jay Rosen has high standards for the use of words like “press” and “news” and “journalism.” So when he says that News Corp are not news, what he is really saying is that they fail at being news. So while News Corp may hang on to some remnants of the news brand, they have not performed at the required standard. So they’re a glorified public relations firm. They’re a lobbying firm:
News Corp is not a news company at all, but a global media empire that employs its newspapers – and in the US, Fox News – as a lobbying arm. The logic of holding these “press” properties is to wield influence on behalf of the rest of the (much bigger and more profitable) media business and also to satisfy Murdoch’s own power urges.
But they’re not the only ones posing as news. In my humble opinion.
- I’ve been meaning to write a piece on journalism, the news brand and the modern media context, for some time. Here it is, warts and all. You will be doing me a service if you would let me know if you think something needs clarification or is simply wrong. ↩
- From following links in a tweet, or possibly a retweet by Jay Rosen. http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/blog/2011/jul/08/news-of-the-world-phone-hacking-scandal#block-53 ↩
- Here is a good article about news succeeding at being news in a this brave new modern media, er press, context: http://annarborchronicle.com/2010/03/02/18th-monthly-milestone/ And here is an article about the brave new context: http://www.shirky.com/weblog/2010/04/the-collapse-of-complex-business-models/ ↩
- The problem, commentators say, is that the news is now coming unbundled in the internet age and consumers can no longer be forced to take their medecine with their dessert. I think this is wrong. This move suspiciously puts the responsibility on consumers; a tried and true public relations gambit. But bundling was also a business strategy and this is a good read anyway. ↩
- Good film by the Media Education Foundation: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KYlyb1Bx9Ic ↩