2013 Opinion Issue

Why Is Hard News a Hard Sell for Advertisers?

Marketers Still Aren't Putting Enough of Their Dollars Where Online Users Are

By Published on .

Newspapers and news magazines' print editions are fading. Their readers are literally dying. Other industries have new demography and geography to conquer, but no new generation is acquiring a breakfast-table habit that has persisted for 200 years -- even in Myanmar, where 12 daily newspapers have started since the start of political reform, only three survive.

For generations, printed news has depended on a four-pronged business model, and all four are now threatened:

1. Sell copies. This is harder when the product, or one similar, is free on another platform.

2. Sell display advertising. Newspapers' great advantages here -- reach, recency and localization -- are again easily and cheaply available elsewhere.

3. Sell classified advertising and create marketplaces for jobs, autos and real estate. This is a distant memory for an industry that resisted disruption rather than embrace it.

4. Be owned by someone rich enough to bridge the gap when Nos. 1, 2, or 3 perform below expectation. So far only Jeff Bezos at the Washington Post and Chris Hughes at the New Republic have transferred wealth from the Valley to the galleys (although eBay founder Pierre Omidyar has also promised many, many millions to a create a news platform with Glenn Greenwald.)

The irony of all this is that news organizations, those with their roots in newspapers as well as TV, have enjoyed an astonishing increase in consumption and now are far more current, enriched as they are by multimedia, by social media and citizen journalism. Furthermore their content is the most-shared across the internet.

This suggests something significant. Advertisers and agencies might take note. Digitally delivered news, both hard and soft, appears to combine reach, popularity, engagement and authority like no other collective of digital assets. And individual news outlets engage their readers and viewers frequently.

The uncomfortable truth, however, is that the advertiser has not followed the user. If ever there was a misalignment of time spent and the allocation of advertiser dollars, this is it.

Online, the received wisdom is that hard news is a hard sell and that the principal value of the traffic is as a gateway to more brand-friendly, but lower-traffic, features where the threat of atrocious adjacency is reduced.

But the counterpoint to this has been running for years on page 3 of The New York Times, where Chanel, Tiffany and others have held their place a page turn from the hard-news triumphs and tragedies of the world on page one.

News has a flavor for everyone, and by extension for every brand. Huffington Post, Vice, Gawker, the Guardian, The New York Times, CNN, the BBC and the Mail Online take different views and use different lenses, but all engage, inform and represent a critical public service: the investigation, gathering and distribution of the news that affects us all. Some put people in harm's way to do it.

Advertisers have no obligation to support the public service of news, but doing so would be not only good for the world but good for business. Advertisers might well reevaluate the news media and decide that authority, timeliness and relationships are worth a premium over some other digital-inventory types. Brands that were not the staple of news funding over the last 50 years, as well as those that were, might think about advertising campaigns that can tell stories in environments that are highly valued by readers. As always, consideration of the medium creates a message more appropriate for the purpose. In the age of the "brand newsroom," from which marketers churn out content emulating editorial, it may be that the time for hard news supported by great advertising has come.

Rob Norman is chief digital officer, global, at GroupM.
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