Ad agencies can, and should, do more to support journalism


If you’re an agency professional, take a minute and consider this question: Do you support journalism?

“Of course I do,” many of you are thinking. After all, some of you pitch stories to reporters, literally giving them content and connecting them with sources. Some of you buy ads around the content journalists create—sometimes in print, more often on social channels—with these advertisements leveraging the legitimacy of the editorial to elevate your brands.

And it doesn’t stop there. You cater to reporters’ and account managers’ every last-minute request, every needy whim. You don’t bat an eye when the deadline changes or the editors’ need changes or whatever excuse you’re getting as for why the time and effort spent setting everything up comes to naught. Then you wake up tomorrow and do it all over again.

But let me break some news to you: That is not supporting journalism.

Like many others working under the broad umbrella of marketing, I come from “the other side.” I was a full-time reporter and editor for 24 years. I worked as a general assignment reporter, music critic and entertainment editor before I became one of the nation’s first dedicated cannabis editors for a mainstream news outlet.

This means I’ve seen firsthand nearly every bad thing that’s happened to the news media industry over the past few decades.

I saw my publication and its affiliates get taken over by a slash-and-burn hedge fund in 2011. I saw the newsroom empty out as hardworking colleagues took buyouts they didn’t really want—and, later, were pushed out through rounds of layoffs that ownership instituted despite the paper’s profitability. I saw us “do more with less,” piling responsibility upon responsibility upon well-meaning but underprepared and overworked people. I watched them burn out—and then had to act surprised and disappointed when they, like me, behaved rationally and jumped to other fields of work. This isn’t so much a vicious cycle as it is a very long and grim slide.

It may sound trite or stale, but this is exceedingly important: A functioning democracy needs a functioning free press. Just take a quick tour of the authoritarian regimes dotting the globe and see how the press is treated there for a basic introduction as to why.

On a more prosaic level, think about your agency. More and more recent college graduates are gravitating toward marketing and PR than journalism. One analyst estimates there are nearly six PR pros for every working journalist. The broader trend is clear: The smart career move is to ditch journalism.

However, fewer journalists mean fewer news outlets. Fewer outlets mean less vetted, professionally reported content delivered to established audiences. That means less advertising dollars and fewer earned media opportunities—and smaller marketing budgets for your clients.

See where this is going? We need journalism, otherwise our clients don’t need us.

To be clear, agencies are partly to blame here. We’re stuck on the same vicious treadmill as everyone else: We see the web traffic going to social media, so that’s where we buy our ads, further siphoning away support from journalism, the snake eating itself. And with news outlets struggling mightily on the revenue front no matter their size—from local alt-weeklies to major metropolitan dailies—I am making a plea for agencies to step up.

What does that mean? Subscribe, first. Consider it a necessary cost of doing business. Subscribe to every outlet that your agency regularly interacts with, as well as those that are major placement wins for clients and those that inform the world.

It’s also critical to spend more ad money locally. I recognize that buying ads on social media networks, rather than with the media organizations whose content Twitter uses to package their ads, isn’t the same thing at all. But it’s equally important to recognize that readers do want content from trusted local brands, so it’s a smart strategy to encourage clients to buy ads with regional and trade publications that are relevant to their target audiences.

Keep in mind that revenue models have shifted. Consider an agency sponsorship for a Substack newsletter, for example. Sponsoring other popular media formats like podcasts, recognizing both a shift in consumers’ habits as well as the continuity involved—someone’s got to be paid to create the stuff—is another way to directly support the trade.

And on a more personal level, agency leaders can set a good example in true media relations. In my eyes, a relationship with a journalist isn’t transactional—it’s symbiotic. I encourage my team to be smart, strategic partners who are also patient and understanding. That means pitching proactive ideas and striving to meet tight deadlines, even if it’s just a polite note to let them know our client won’t be participating.

And when coverage doesn’t work out as hoped, don’t ice out fair and honest reporters who published something a client might not have liked. If they got the story right, that’s something to appreciate.

But more than that, what really should be appreciated is having a free press in the first place. If my experience in journalism taught me anything, it’s that we can’t ever take that for granted.

Credit: Adweek

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