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What Changing Publication Business Models Mean for the PR Industry

By Rudi Davis 28 March, 2016

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With falling ad revenues and the struggle to find paying customers, it’s widely accepted that we’re seeing a big shake up in digital and print media. Mequoda Magazine forecast that U.S. readers would spend approximately $1.3 billion on digital magazines in 2015, which equates to around $4 a head. Although that doesn’t immediately scream success for the media, many companies are looking into other creative ways of generating new revenue streams.

Here I will take a look at why many print and digital media publications are moving towards a freemium business model, and go into why the PR industry needs to reevaluate its approach so that the publications and their readerships are given the respect that they deserve.

Diminishing newsrooms and ad-fuelled clickbait are harming readerships

Ad-fed publications are getting skinnier; 40% of digital publishers say that their display ad revenue is shrinking or static. Nevertheless, media revenues are still mostly driven by ad impressions and clicks. As a result, there is huge pressure on editorial boards to ensure that there is a constant stream of content. Social media sharing, likes, and comments are driving publications of all sizes to focus on clickbait, rather than quality news — #fail.

On top of that, newsrooms are shrinking. The American Society of News Editors’ Newsroom Employment Census reports that newsroom employment fell by 11% in 2008, 6% in 2012, and that overall, it was down 3% in 2013 (the most up-to-date figure); leaving a total of 36,700 newsroom employees in the States.

This is putting immense pressure on journalists to produce 5, 6, even 10 articles a day, depending on their publication. And this is why you are seeing so many “Top 70 Cutest Cats Wearing Bandanas,” being shared around mindlessly–I made that up, but there is actually a website.

Just take a look at your Facebook feed; how many articles promise you never before seen, lists of things that will blow your mind? 

As Max Woolf says in his blog:

“I don’t expect clickbait to disappear anytime soon; it’s easy and provides a good return-on-investment, both of which are important to scrappy websites trying to market on social media.”

Publications are becoming diluted, ad-driven marketing machines–and it’s hurting everyone. No wonder our attention spans are being bested by goldfish.

If that’s not enough pressure, competition is rising faster than ever. Traditional media is being eclipsed by the rise of outlets like Buzzfeed and Medium, forcing the hands of journalists and editors.

However, this is not an opportunity for PR people to bombard our overworked colleagues with poor quality material in the hope that it will get published in order to fill the gaps that so desperately need filling.

Rather, it is time for the PR industry to step up and provide these journalists and editors with real articles, disruptive thought leaders, and top quality, relevant press releases. It is our responsibility to make journalists’ lives easier–and help publications thrive. Let’s be real: we cannot live without them.

Those of us in PR also need to take note that the industry is fighting back and moving towards different business models that, though not ad-free, incentivize quality over quantity.

A media change in direction: Learning from failure and striving to innovate

Rupert Murdoch – a man not famous for giving things away – famously and unsuccessfully tried to implement a member’s only model with a publication called The Daily. The digital magazine collapsed for a number of reasons, not least because Murdoch’s other publications were hemorrhaging funds, but also because it was shut firmly behind a paywall and only available to tablet users. No one could find it and if they did happen upon it, they weren’t sure they wanted to part with their hard-earned money. The limited readership and minimal exposure didn’t exactly spell ‘success’ from a PR perspective, either…

Success, however, is often born of failure and others have been cautiously walking in Murdoch’s heavy footsteps, but now with a freemium, rather than a premium model under their belts.

If you’re not already familiar, freemium services offer a certain amount of features, content or access to their subscribers for free, thus generating a market and solid user base. If a customer wants a premium service, which comes with benefits free users cannot access, they pay a certain subscription for the privilege.

The New York Times and the Pando

Although business is far from booming at the New York Times, with the publication having reported net losses of $14 million and a decline in print copies sold, it has seen a growing number of digital subscribers.

33,000 people signed up to the online service in the past year, bringing the total number to over a million for the first time.

At the time of writing, readers willing to subscribe have an 8-week free trial and then pay $1.88 week, with a 50% off their subscription for a year – following the terms and conditions of the current offer. Readers choosing not to pay are given up to 10 free articles a month and once they have consumed this content, full access is blocked until the following calendar month.

The 1% rise in total circulation that this entails is great for PR pros; the implication is that subscription models do not necessarily decrease overall readership. This means we’re likely to see more of this sort of thing in future.

The Pando, a news site that focuses on tech and startups, has taken a slightly different route. The online magazine has pivoted its business model from being entirely free to offering a subscription service to its readership, reportedly to become less reliant on advertising and sponsorship and regain editorial integrity.

Currently, the premium subscription costs $10 a month with a discount on yearly sign ups ($100 a year). For this, members are rewarded with a complete video archive original reporting and exclusive stories. Unlike The Daily, however, the popular publication already had a fervent following, and is offering an interesting twist on the freemium business model. The freemium innovation comes in with its social sharing method; readers are able to “unlock” any article for 48 hours by posting it to social media.

Pando and the New York Times have jumped on board a moving train that might well be heading in the right direction. Services like LinkedIn have been driving it so far; the pro networking site has 332 million members and brought in $114 million (20% of total revenue) in the 3rd quarter of last year.

How the Public Relations industry needs to respond

In the face of both old and new media sites heading towards freemium models, the future for PR is in tailoring our output and writing not for editors hungry for pageviews, but directly for their audiences. Any content featured in a freemium publication now has a real monetary value for the reader.

As a result, PR agencies simply looking to pump out as many releases as possible in order to get their clients coverage, need to take a step back. Agencies must reevaluate the service they are providing their clients and, in turn, the service they are offering to the media.

Press releases must be assessed for impact; if a company’s announcement is not newsworthy, what value to the reader does it have? A new partnership with a leading player might be news, but a new hire (unless super high profile), should be ignored.

We need to avoid the mistakes and PR no-no’s regularly highlighted in the @SmugJourno’s equally hilarious and horrifying Twitter feed:

“A company I’ve never heard of appoints someone I’ve never heard of as CEO. Classic inbox PR filler.”

Tweet from Steve O’Hear ‏@sohear

“When a PR agent sends out a trivial press release filled with unnamed sources, blatantly made-up quotes and half-truths. #goodjob”

Tweet from Matt Kimberley‏@PAMotors_mattk

In a similar way, guest articles penned by your client (or even a ghost writer) have to be vetted. A thought leader piece has to be just that; they must say something new. If an article doesn’t disrupt an industry trend, or add a new perspective to the argument, is it giving the readership what it deserves?

It’s time to give the reader as much respect as your client. Our output needs to be of high, saleable quality, with content that gives the reader action points to walk away with, something to think about, and with advice that truly benefits. We need to ask a simple question when we write something: Would I pay to read this?

We will see a much greater adoption of freemium service models. By attracting a new readership with free content, publications are providing PR services with a viable platform on which to push their clients, but we need to up the quality of our content–or we will not achieve success for our clients and the media will not benefit. It’s time to reevaluate our strategies and bring our clients, the media, and the world at large a real reason to click on the next article they see.