Hold the front page: the news business remains a work in progress

Hold the front page: the news business remains a work in progress

A well-functioning news media is critical to democracy. A series of recent studies report on the health of the business of news.

The impact of the internet on the news and information business is a well-rehearsed story that’s played out over the last 20 years.

The original promise of the internet was that mainstream media would be disintermediated and the public would have access to a huge variety of blogs and websites.

Anyone could create and publish content, connect with like-minded individuals, and engage an audience.

The borderless nature of the internet made it possible to connect with anyone in the world with an internet connection.

PR spotted the opportunity to create and publish owned content, alongside earned, working with traditional media. In time it also turned its attention to shared and paid, as search and social media advertising and promotion matured.

Today half of the world’s population have access to the internet, with the remainder predicted to come online by 2030. It’s been a defining opportunity not only for the media but also for the PR business.

And yet it’s hard not to be disappointed by how the story of news and information on the internet has played out so far. Mainstream media has fragmented and been replaced by a handful of gatekeepers.

Print, not news, in decline

The quarterly Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) data is a depressing read. Print has ceded to digital in all but a few niches. Very few publishers have been able to throw off the shackles of legacy business and make the transition to digital.

Digital news is a commodity business. Distribution channels long ceased to be a means of differentiation. It’s why much of the local and regional media is on its knees.

The typical success story is a strong point of view, or specialist content, and a multi-channel approach. The Daily Mail, The Financial Times, and The Economist, are bucking the trend in the UK.

Ad funded free sheets such as The Evening Standard and The Metro are also resilient.

But these are exceptions and not the norm. Advertising, at least in Europe and the US, has shifted from local and national media to Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and to a lesser extent Twitter.

The ability of these technology companies to collect data and connect citizens with brands and organisations, at a moment in time, is potent. Twitter aside, they’ve each become hugely profitable billion dollar businesses.

There’s a harsh irony that news publishers are reliant on many of these same technology companies to distribute their content via apps, search and social media.

Advertising revenue and audience, the two fundamentals of a traditional publishing model, have been squeezed in a pincher movement by the technology giants. It almost seems unfair.

Their market dominance has led to media becoming weaponised. The result is a corruption of conversation in the public sphere.

“It’s dangerous having a handful of companies control how ideas and opinions are shared. A regulator may be needed,” said Sir Tim Berners-Lee, founder of the worldwide web.

Faking news and information

Weaponisation takes the form of fake profiles and misinformation, shared via apps, search and social media.

Trust in media has been eroded by a fake news and a slow decline in news values.

However the Reuters Digital News Report 2018 suggests that we may have reached the bottom. 44% of us trust the media most of the time, with the figure rising to 51% for media that we regularly consume.

By contrast only a third trust news surfaced by search engines. Social media is deemed to be even less trustworthy at 23%. Fake accounts and bots stoke tension and propagate fake news in social media.

The Reuters report is based on a survey of more than 74,000 people in 37 markets. Research was conducted by YouGov using an online questionnaire at the end of January and the beginning of February 2018.

Another report, this time quizzing PR practitioners, suggests that half of communication professionals believe that misleading news in mass or social media influences public discourse in their country.

According to The European Communication Monitor 2018, the main sources of misleading content are social media (81.3%), but mainstream media (59.6%) also plays a huge role.

This year’s edition of is based on almost 3,100 respondents from 48 European countries.

Fake news isn’t a new phenomenon. In 2009 Nick Davies wrote about the distortion of the media by propaganda in Flat Earth News. He cited wire services as a primary source of pollution.

Today it’s social media. Individuals within our networks act as beacons and amplifiers, adding authenticity and veracity to a story as a result of trusted relationships.

The plain fact laid bare by social media is that fiction spreads faster and further than fact.

Building a truth machine

A study by MIT Sloan School of Management published in Science in March reported that fake news spread significantly further than true news stories.

Soroush Vosoughi, Sinan Aral, and Deb Roy studied 126,000 Twitter cascades spread by 3 million people, more than 4.5 million times. Twitter supplied raw data for an 11 year period from 2006 to 2017. It’s the largest ever study of its kind.

The research team found that false stories were likely to be retweeted over 70% more than true stories. They also spread further and faster. On average a false story reaches 1,500 people six times quicker than a true story.

“The novelty of false stories attracts human attention and encourages sharing, conveying status on the sharers,” said Aral.

Tackling pollution of the public sphere

He suggests using algorithms to label stories and the creation of financial incentives to halt the spread of false news. Advertising on social media platforms currently supports content that is widely shared.

Technology is a possible solution. The research team scraped content from fact checking websites such as FactCheck.org and Politifact, in a bid to generate a robust list of online falsehoods.

The use of rogue accounts and fake news at such an industrial scale are a threat to public discourse and democracy itself. It’s an issue that is exercising law makers around the world following the EU Referendum in the UK, and US Election, in 2016.

In an op ed in The Washington Post in January US Senator John McCain said fake news is being use to silence reporters, undermine political opponents, stave off media scrutiny and mislead citizens.

Facebook for its part is attempting to code trust and quality into its distribution algorithms. Trending topics have been removed from the platform in 2018 in order to prevent them from being gamed. Twitter has no such plans.

Another project by Nuzzel intends to assign a trust rating to media, based on the sharing behaviour of micro influencers.

Nuzzel identifies popular conversations in a network. It’s useful as both a monitoring tool and means of spotting filter bubbles. It’s a useful PR tool.

Newsrooms themselves need to be mindful of the characteristics that drive editorial strategy, namely engagement and sharing. These are the same metrics that drive the spread of fake news.

The PR Council, a collective of US PR agencies, is supporting an initiative called the News Literacy Project. It’s spearheading a response to what founder Alan Miller terms a public health crisis.

Anne Green, CEO of PR firm CooperKatz, a participant in the project, wrote on her blog that fake news has brought about a sweeping devaluation of the media and fuelled social media sensationalism.

Green calls on PR professionals to help combat the issue through education and action. She says we must be precise in our use of language.

The News Literacy Project and PR Council have published seven behaviours aimed at improving personal and professional news literacy.

  1. Check your emotions. Don’t let misinformation hijack your rational mind.
  2. Determine the purpose of what you are reading or hearing. What’s really behind it? What is it trying to get you to do – and why?
  3. Be aware of your own biases. Even the most media-savvy among us are vulnerable to confirmation and unconscious biases.
  4. Consider the message. It is too perfect? Does it claim to peddle a “secret” no one else knows?
  5. Search for more information and cross-check whether something has already been debunked as false – or confirmed by multiple credible sources.
  6. Go deeper on the source and who is behind it.
  7. Then go deeper on the content itself – including reverse image search or independently verifying specific facts cited in a story.

Missed opportunity for PR to tackle fake news

Back to the European Communication Monitor. It suggests that 22.5% of European organisations have faced a reputational impact from fake news in the last 12 months.

Despite these challenges only 12% of organisations have already established advanced routines for monitoring for fake news.

Bizarrely only a quarter of professional communicators feel that dealing with fake news is relevant for the daily work of their communication department or agency.

In my view fake news creates an opportunity for organisations and their executives to become trusted sources of information around topics related to their business.

Fake news and changing patterns of news consumption

There’s evidence that awareness of fake news and improved digital literacy may be having an impact on how citizens consume news.

The Reuters Digital News Report cites a decline in the use of social media to access news for the first time. Usage of social media for news consumption is down six percent in the US. It’s also down in France and the UK.

45% of US citizens access need via social media. The corresponding figures for France and the UK, are 39% and 36% respectively.

Changes in social media usage are almost entirely due to Facebook. News consumption via the platform is down 9% in the US and 2% down in the UK.

Polling for the Reuters study took place before the recent Facebook algorithm change. The results will almost certainly be even further pronounced in any future analysis.

Other platforms may be taking up the slack. WhatsApp has overtaken Twitter as a news channel in many countries according to the report.

Voice activated speaker are driving growth of audio. Devices such as Alexa and Google Assistant make it easy to list to podcasts on demand. The market is early stage but shows strong adoption and opportunity for growth.

Rise in subscriptions

There’s further evidence of citizens turning away from free sources of news within the report. The average number of people paying for online news has edged up in many countries in the past 12 months, albeit from a low base.

Nordic counties lead the way in paying for online news: Norway saw a rise of 5% to 30%; Sweden climbed 6% to 26% in the same period. These are small markets will a strong tradition for reading and subscription.

According to Reuters The Guardian has received 600,000 voluntary payments since 2016. It has also started to crowdfund around specific stories such as the US school shootings when it raised $125,000.

It’s evidence that maybe we’re willing to pay for news after all.

Summary: PR and the news business

#1 Internet disruption of media ongoing

Media is fragmenting. Half the world has access to the internet. In 2030 everyone is expected to have internet access. Print has ceded to digital but it’s a work in progress.

#2 PESO and the opportunity for integrated PR

Modern PR works across PESO, namely paid, earned, social and owned media. Owned and earned media is typically the lead. It’s wholly integrated.

#3 Role of PR in tacking fake news

50% of PR practitioners believe that fake news has an influence on conversation in the public sphere, and yet only a quarter believe it’s an issue for PR. It has created an opportunity for organisations and their executives to become trusted sources of information.

#4 Paying for news

Social media has peaked as a source of news. There’s evidence that people are starting to reappraise the value of news and recognise the need for payment.

#5 Business models

Social media as a channel for news has peaked. There are early signs that citizens and willing to pay for news. The Nordic markets lead the way but publications such as The Guardian have also developed innovative models.

Hold front page image by Lenscap via Shutterstock with thanks

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