Where does journalism fit into the increasingly complex brand news companies are projecting onto quickly emerging multi-media audiences?

Two covers of Birmingham News.
Two covers of Birmingham News.

In presentations to INMA members in the United States in recent weeks, this seemingly incongruous question emerged in the context of the practicalities of culture change, department by department and profession by profession.

The crux of my argument is: News is going from a print bundle whose attributes are at the core of the marketing message — home delivery, tactile benefits of print, shutting out the world, print as a status symbol — to a multi-media subscription bundle to be enjoyed across platforms. In that emerging world, no news company has the budget to market platform by platform. Thus, branding becomes essential to an experience that now transcends platforms.

So, what makes up that brand? Surely it’s journalism, the core mission of most news companies.

I argue that journalism is too insider, by itself, to be a differentiating benefit for news brands. The consuming public cares little about journalism or its role in keeping democracy honest. The consuming public cares only about what’s in it for them: benefits, benefits, benefits.

Let me take a slight detour to show how difficult it is for publishers to get to a benefits-laden brand message.

Talking with enough publishers over time, I conclude that this generation of owners is truly married to two competing concepts: big profits and big journalism. They would gladly bleed the rest of their company to keep their heart-and-soul, prickly newsrooms happy. The counter-culturists in newsrooms lament newspaper owners as modern-day Scrooges or bean-counters trying to keep them down from their noble cause.

Let me paint a different picture.

Owners are too committed to big journalism, hoping to preserve the largesse and nebulousness of yesteryear. They bulked up newsrooms in the 1970s and 1980s with no circulation returns on investment. Advertisers didn’t buy journalism; they bought audiences and experiences. Newsrooms were largely exempted from meaningful cutbacks for two decades; they receive the lion’s share of cutbacks today because there’s little else to cut.

Instead, had owners three decades ago committed resources to marketing, research, and sales — the oxygen connecting audiences to great journalism — we might see a softer landing than we're witnessing today. We might see a smoother transition to multi-media.

What this detour shows is a 2012 news company struggling with its own DNA in crafting a multi-media brand message that will pave the way to more effective reader and advertiser sales.

Newspaper owners desperately want to promote their journalism. They’re proud of their newsrooms — even downsized newsrooms. Yet the journalism for which they are proudest doesn’t contribute a penny back in revenue. Not in subscriptions. Not in advertising. At best, it adds a credible dimension to an oddly defined brand — which brings us back to what a news brand should represent now that we’re stretching ourselves across platforms.

I believe there are two models for positioning journalism within news brands:

    • Reposition journalism as a benefit.


  • Bury journalism altogether, play up benefits.

I think either model is workable. The choice involves your company’s DNA and its objectives.

I can imagine that most publishers would like to cleverly reposition journalism as a benefit. The Birmingham News in the United States has done a smart job in their “Our Story” campaign of crafting the greatness of journalism without ever using the word.

Yet for companies that want the best of both worlds, maybe stressing the inherent and explicit benefits associated with a news brand — in their external messaging combined with an equally strong commitment, internally, to journalism — might make as much sense. This may be messaging about ubiquitous reader access or the reader experience or wrapping the brand in the positive attributes of the community served (city, region, country).

Both models provide great journalism. One model loudly embraces journalism even while repositioning it in the consumer’s mind. One model largely ignores the journalism for more consumer-friendly benefits. Definitely nuanced. Definitely clear choices.

No matter the brand model, remember that in all marketing it’s always about them (the readers) — not us (the newspaper). It’s not about what we produce, but what they enjoy.

When you take the paper wrapping off of the marketing message, the journalism that remains must be clearly positioned in a brand that transcends platforms.

What will you do with your journalism in the new multi-media brand?