Many of us still remember the 2011 marketing campaign the Newspaper Association of America introduced. Called “Smart is the New Sexy,” the campaign was met with mixed reactions. Many critics were wary of the campaign’s message during a time when newspapers were struggling with layoffs and declining advertising and circulation numbers.
At E&P, we have long called for the newspaper industry to create a national marketing campaign in order to attract new readers and spread the message that newspapers are still relevant. From time to time, we even run full-page marketing ads in our print magazine to help inspire publishers. A few years ago, I wrote a feature that envisioned a Super Bowl television commercial promoting newspapers during one of the most watched programs, and earlier this year, another story we published stated that the industry had a brand crisis and needed to find a way to effectively communicate the mission and value of newspapers.
Things have really changed since that misguided “sexy” campaign. My wish of a Super Bowl commercial sort of came true this year when the New York Times aired a commercial during the Oscars promoting its “Truth” brand campaign. And in March, the News Media Alliance (formerly the Newspaper Association of America) introduced its “Support Real News” national campaign, which was created to “(shine) a light on the harm…caused by fake news and the importance of real news produced by respected, trusted news organizations employing high-quality, investigative journalists.”
Whether it’s due to President Trump’s heavy criticism of the press or the public’s thirst for trusted information, we’ve come a long way since “Smart is the New Sexy.”
So, what’s on the schedule for the Alliance’s new era? I recently spoke with Alliance president and CEO David Chavern and Alliance vice president of innovation and communications Michael MaLoon about the organization’s marketing campaign, what the Alliance will be working on in 2017 and beyond, and why real journalism matters now more than ever.
Promoting Real News
The Alliance revealed its “Support Real News” campaign on March 29 at a “unique time for the news industry,” said Chavern.
“This is a special moment in time where the public wants to spend more time with quality journalism,” he explained. “The campaign is able to capture this moment and remind people about the real business of the news industry and that’s to produce good journalism.”
MaLoon said it was an opportunity for the Alliance to switch the narrative from “fake news” to promoting and supporting “real news,” hence the campaign’s name. It was also a chance for the nearly 2,000 members of the Alliance to come together as a news community, to lock arms and stand up for themselves, he added.
The Alliance developed a variety of campaign resources that could be used on digital, social, video and print platforms. They included two ads in print and digital formats; a 90-second online video; infographics; social media graphics and profile badge; and blog posts and an op-ed by Chavern.
According to Chavern, the campaign took about three months to put together. The Inland Press Association and Local Media Consortium worked as campaign partners with the Alliance. When the campaign went live on the Alliance’s website, they also held a Facebook Live event to talk to the public about their goals.
So far, feedback has been positive, and only a small percentage of negative comments came from people who thought the campaign was anti-Trump or showed media bias, said Chavern. But overall, he said people seem to appreciate the message they are trying to send and publishers are excited for the opportunity to talk about how they do journalism with their readers.
One of those publishers was Sara Glines of the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C. Glines said the paper ran one full page, full color ad on March 29, along with other papers owned by parent company McClatchy.
“While we didn’t hear an outpouring of response from readers, I believe there is a quiet majority that is passionate about local journalism and particularly about our investigative reporting,” she said. “I hear from readers when I am out in public with that message. The emails and phone calls I receive are generally pretty specific to a complaint about delivery, their subscription or a piece of content. But when I’m out, readers stop me to thank the News & Observer for what it does and urge me to keep doing it.
“I think the ad did as much for our staff members as it did for the public. This was also a moment for McClatchy to share the quality of its brand and its dedication to good local journalism. It helps all of us, within McClatchy and even more broadly across (the Alliance), to feel that we are in this fight together. I think the quiet majority is behind us.”
The Alliance’s MaLoon reported about 500 media properties ran the print ads—that’s around 14 million print editions right out of the gate, he said.
That’s just the first wave, according to both Chavern and MaLoon. A second round of advertisements and other promotional materials will come out later this year. “The tone will not change,” MaLoon said, although the focus may be about news literacy and critical thinking.
Chavern again stressed the importance of the campaign and added in today’s media environment, there was more pressure from the public to identify what is real news and what is fake news.
“It’s about quality versus non-quality, and we are quality journalism,” he said. “This is also a call to action, to support and subscribe.”
A New Identity
In the short time since Chavern was named president and CEO of the former Newspaper Association of America, the organization has undergone a dramatic transformation—starting with his unusual hire.
When Chavern came on board in October 2015, he was an industry outsider, having spent 30 years in executive strategic and operational roles, most recently completing a decade-long tenure at the United States Chamber of Commerce.
“I want to tell the story to the public and to policymakers that people still want the product,” he told E&P at the time of his appointment. “They want news; they want journalism.”
Although his role has taught him a lot about the industry, he also experienced some growing pains. Last summer, “Last Week Tonight” host John Oliver did a segment about local journalism and the economic hardships newsrooms today are facing. Most journalists appreciated Oliver’s humorous segment, but Chavern was quick to offer a rebuttal, stating that Oliver was filled with “petty insults” and that the TV show host was making fun of the experiments newspapers were doing. Unfortunately, not a lot of media insiders agreed with Chavern’s response.
Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan wrote, “(I) have a suggestion for Mr. Chavern. When someone hilariously and poignantly celebrates the industry that you are paid to defend and protect, you ought to laugh at the funny parts and then simply say ‘thank you.’ Or maybe nothing at all.”
Looking back, Chavern told me he had “overacted and would do it over again.”
“My first instinct was to defend my members and the industry,” he explained. “I should have taken a breath and waited 10 seconds before I said anything. At the end of the day, John Oliver did a good thing for the industry. It was a love letter to journalism, and I acknowledge that now.”
As Chavern was learning more about his position, the group that had hired him also decided it was time for a new identity to clearly reflect the changing industry. First, it started to accept digital-only sites as members, and then it dropped “newspaper” from its name and rebranded to the News Media Alliance and launched a new website last September.
“The announcement is the culmination of a larger strategic plan to highlight the news media industry’s evolution to multi-platform, digitally-savvy businesses and premium content providers,” the Alliance announced at the time. “The organization’s new focus better reflects the fully-integrated multi-platform media organizations that comprise its membership.”
MaLoon’s newly-created position also signaled a turning of the tide. MaLoon was hired in April 2016 to focus on innovation, and he spent his first six months on the Alliance’s rebranding efforts. Over the course of his first year, MaLoon held quarterly innovation roundtables with different newspaper leaders, and he hopes to bring more events focused on revenue and advertising to Alliance members.
In addition to the “Support Real News” marketing campaign, the Alliance has been aggressive on policies and public issues that affect the media, such as cross-ownership and copyright. Chavern also puts out a monthly CEO column to members; his recent topics have addressed the Trump media attacks, the freedom of press and the business of news in a Trump presidency.
This year, Chavern said one of their key initiatives is to deliver more value to their members. Recently, the Alliance introduced a new dues structure to accommodate print-only, print and digital and digital only members. The group also launched metricsXchange, a new digital benchmarking tool exclusively for members. According to the Alliance, “The dashboard will allow comparisons between markets and publications, providing new insights into the news media industry’s digital business efforts. The Alliance will also provide analyses and highlight newsworthy trends mined from the tool.”
For anyone still confused on what the Alliance’s role is, Chavern had an answer. “We’re fighting the fight for you,” he said. “The easy part would be to make an argument for quality journalism, but the conversation about the business of news needs to be developed…That’s our job at the Alliance.”
Futures of News
As I write this story, the annual mediaXchange conference put together by the Alliance has just wrapped up in New Orleans. Nearly 700 newspaper executives were in attendance. Based on this year’s program, it’s clear that the Alliance believes the futures (yes, the Alliance believes there is more than one) of news is heavily focused on digital. With speakers from Facebook and Google on the agenda, perhaps the Alliance is telling their members it’s time to consider them as partners and not as disruptors. Maybe more collaboration is needed especially during this unique time.
“This is our moment actually. The public eye has never paid closer attention to what we do in real news,” Chavern said during his opening speech. “Defending real news has never been more vital, and the successful start to the ‘Support Real News’ campaign shows how powerful journalists can be when they work together. Make no mistake; we are in a golden age of news media right now.”
After the conference, Chavern told me, “We were really pleased with how well mediaXchange 2017 turned out. It was just what we wanted—high value content and high energy. The response from the attendees so far has been almost universally positive (which is unusual). The attendance was good but not great, however, so we are going to again reevaluate our events for 2018 and make sure that everything we do is totally focused on value and meeting industry needs.”
The Alliance may look different than it did a year or two ago, but their mission hasn’t changed: to help the news media grow and prosper.
We’re at the halfway mark in 2017, and if this year’s news cycle is any indication, we cannot predict how this year will continue. One thing is for sure—as long as there are groups like the Alliance around, helping newspapers support each other and supporting real news, the industry is in good hands.