How does a constantly shifting media landscape impact earned media objectives?

The recent closure of BuzzFeed’s award-winning news division and Vice News’ bankruptcy once again surfaces an ongoing concern for public relations practitioners—which is, how do we design effective earned media plans when the media landscape has the consistency of quicksand?

While BuzzFeed is mostly known for its clickbait headlines and annoying listicles, its news division won a range of prestigious prizes. These included National Press Foundation awards in 2014 and 2016, and it won a Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting in 2021. Distressingly, we’re losing the award-winning reporting but the listicles will apparently live on, using AI to fill the gaps left by laying off 15 percent of its workforce.

Earned media has long been the primary objective of PR practitioners. Earned coverage, unlike paid content or publishing to a client’s owned online properties, has a level of third-party validation that elevates its value.

It can also be very difficult to secure. With shrinking newsrooms, most news outlets don’t employ a lot of journalists. Media consolidation has exacerbated this, as conglomerates purchase local papers and local TV stations. The next step is typically enacting cost-reduction measures that include laying off staff, only to have media properties sharing content and resources. So, fewer journalists are producing pieces that need to appeal to larger audiences.

Add to that the ubiquity of smartphones and social media, and suddenly we’re all drowning in news-related content, much of which has been passed through someone else’s filter.

This has consequences for PR practitioners who are working to land earned media placements. But it also raises an important question: with cost driving so much of these changes, how are audiences consuming media? Or to look at it from another angle, if a PR person pitches a publication that puts the story behind a paywall, who reads it, when and how?

Consumption has changed

You can still purchase newspapers, the kind that get ink on your fingers. But many daily newspapers have either dramatically reduced the number of days they print—and some have gone to online-only formats. Cable news, with 24-hour programming, has largely supplanted nightly evening news broadcasts.

And, as noted earlier, practically everyone has a smartphone, and most are on one or more social media channels. The way we consume news has changed.

Delivery has also changed

Newspapers arguably were the hardest hit with the move to online consumption. Because their finances were based on advertising and subscriptions, shifting to digital resulted in a lot of failed experiments with models that attempted to mimic how things had always been done. However, broadcast news has also been impacted, as more people watch news when they want to and wherever they want to—including on their smartphones. So, news supported by television advertising has also been transformed.

One model that appears to work at least well enough that it has been fairly widely deployed is the news paywall. If you really want to read the news directly from certain sources, you’ll have to pay for it.

How are people getting their news?

However, it’s evident that not everyone who consumes news pays for it. A 2021 Pew Research report found that around half of Americans “at least sometimes” get their news from social media—primarily Facebook..  But, what does it mean to say one gets their news from social media? Are they getting information from news sites that post to social channels, or are they receiving information second-hand from someone they are connected with who is posting an opinion about a news item?

A piece on the World Economic Forum’s website states that Eurostat, the European Union’s statistical office, reports that online news consumption in the EU continues to grow, with 72 percent of internet users aged 16 to 74 get their news online from news sites and online newspapers and magazines. Although the numbers vary by country, with Finns the most likely to get their news online (93 percent) and Belgians the least likely (at 67 percent), the numbers overall are quite high. And, the number of people who directly access news sites is declining—and the numbers of those getting to news sites via a link on a social channel are increasing.

How much of the news people consume is filtered through others, either in what they are choosing to share, or are sharing opinions not original reporting?

Or, perhaps even more importantly, what do these changes mean for the end user experience? If more and more news is being consumed on mobile devices, it isn’t just news organizations that have to think about how news is packaged and presented. PR people have to think about this as well, because the manner of consumption can affect how a client’s stories are told. Audience has always been a consideration, reader experience less so—but this is changing.

Does age matter?

For news consumption, yes, age matters a great deal. Not only are people under 30 harder for news organizations to reach in general, they are also drawn to highly visual formats, such as TikTok, according to the eleventh edition of the Digital News Report, issued by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

This global report looks at data on trust, consumption, and trends in digital media. Some key findings:

  • People are consuming less news overall—the report finds that consumption of traditional news sources (TV, print) continues to decline, but online consumption isn’t bridging the gap.
  • In fact, self-reporting from consumers saying they outright avoid the news has “increased sharply across countries.”
  • The trend in growth in paying for online news appears to be “levelling off.”
  • Young people aren’t paying for news—the average age of a digital subscriber is 50.
  • Global inflation may be having an impact, as some respondents are assessing how many media subscriptions they can afford.

The report also finds that when people do elect to pay for news, the subscriptions are largely going to a few big-name national news brands.

What does this mean for PR practitioners?

At very least, it means that an earned media strategy needs to be bolstered by other channels and shareable content. And if the intended audience is young people, visual elements need to be considered as well.

Of course, if you are looking to other channels for coverage, you must also have in place ongoing monitoring and analysis of those channels. Monitoring before you seek coverage can help you to identify what resonates, determine which outlets might be most receptive to your news, and assist you with finding the right ways in which to connect with your audiences.

Media consumption will continue to change. The economics of collecting, reporting, and distributing news are driving much of this shift. How earned coverage is secured will need to evolve along with it. PR practitioners are going to need to look at what earned media coverage means through a very different lens than standard pitches to local news outlets, with more imagery and video.

Speak with one of our experienced consultants about your media monitoring and communications evaluation today.