The digital revolution has permanently altered the media landscape. It has not only forced thousands of traditional newspapers to go bankrupt, but has also required many of the largest, and most respected outlets to shift their focus to digital content and adopt a ‘subscription-first model’ in order to survive. It has also ushered some fresh faces into the fold.
Taking this into consideration, PR professionals must take stock of their own profession and the practice of strategic media relations. The symbiotic rapport between companies and the press will undoubtedly change shape and public relations will be there to manage it.
A Pew Research Center analysis conducted in 2017 revealed that, contrary to what many may believe, advertising revenues are declining: total ad revenue for the industry in the United States in 2016 was $18 billion – nearly a third of what it was just 10 years ago. On a par with this, The New York Times saw a year-on-year decline of 9% in advertising revenue but a 3% rise in circulation revenue in 2016. Following the election of Donald Trump, The New York Times added more than 500,000 digital subscriptions marking a 47% year-on-year rise. The business models are shifting to accommodate social movement – something that must be observed from a PR perspective as well.
A fresh crop of independent outlets are also emerging as a result of digital transformation. Civil, a startup launching this spring, has spearheaded an innovative news platform using blockchain technology. A quick explanation, according to co-founder Matt Coolidge:
“Civil’s worldview as it relates to ‘why blockchain for journalism?’ is that it unlocks two critical functions for journalists: 1) a self-governing model that effectively takes the middleman (advertisers, publishers, etc.) out of the equation, and allows journalists to focus on serving their readers and 2) permanent archiving – storing text on a decentralized ledger means it’s immune to a single point of failure (e.g., a publisher or censorship-prone government making the unilateral decision to suddenly pull the plug on an outlet / deleting all of its archives… a frequent, existential fear for many journalists).”
From the perspective of Columbia Journalism Review, Civil is trying to take a quantum leap beyond existing efforts to fix journalism, not just inventing its own platform for news and journalism, but also inventing its own currency. Civil’s infrastructure is based on Ethereum, meaning that once a journalist receives an assignment via the platform, compensation will be allocated in tokens. Users can support the projects or writers they like, and if a group of journalists identify a topic that needs reporting, the individual who volunteers to take the assignment will be paid not by an editor, but by the collective.
It is of utmost importance for PR professionals to stay well-informed about the vicissitudes within the media landscape, and in essence, recalibrate our role within it. In his lecture ‘Public Relations and Society‘, given nearly 50 years ago to the Foundation for Public Relations Research and Education, Scott M. Cutlip addressed this very issue – and his words are still relevant today:
“Just as institutions and government depend in the long run on public confidence for effectiveness if not survival, then so must practitioners depend on the credibility of the nation’s public information system. If you debase the currency of confidence in our news media with your obfuscation and censorship, you do a disservice not only to your institution and to the consumers—you debase the coin of your own realm. You have an important stake in the credibility of the news media as a journalist or citizen.”
Currency and coin may be literally changing shape, but the fundamental dynamics between journalists and practitioners remain essential elements in the public information system. Regardless of whether we are interacting with a well-established newspaper or a newly launched independent outlet, our stake in a free forum continues to be equal to that of journalists and citizens.