Why Traditional Media Still Matters

“Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” —John Adams, 1770

This is the time of year when content marketing pundits of all stripes make their predictions for 2016 in terms of emerging communications issues. I’m hardly a recognized pundit, but based on my 20 years’ experience developing and placing thought-leadership articles and securing nearly 800 media interviews for business executive in diverse news outlets, here’s my one prediction: no matter how advanced and sophisticated social media marketing becomes, traditional media will remain relevant for the foreseeable future for five reasons:

Facts Matter More Than Ever
Social networks and the outgrowth of streaming technologies that allow consumers to pick and choose to which online and broadcast outlets they want access makes it possible for many Americans to never hear, watch or read any news that contradicts or conflicts with their previously established views or belief systems. That may be psychologically reassuring to some, but it also degrades both how democratic societies and free market capitalism function, resulting in the type of governmental impasse we’ve experienced of late from Tea Party Republicans and other ideologues on both the left and the right who purposefully twist, ignore (scientific evidence overwhelmingly and consistently demonstrates that carbon emissions resulting from man-made activities are responsible for global warming), or fabricate facts (e.g. US Congressman Todd Akin’s claim that rape victims can’t become pregnant) to fit their already proscribed beliefs.


Fact-checking sites like the Pulitzer Prize-winning PolitiFact, produced by The Tampa Bay Times, and FactCheck.org, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, act as a form of checks and balances against not only political leaders who make false statements, but also so-called “citizen” journalists who help spread, perpetuate or even start such rumors in the first place.

Trained Journalists Write Better Stories than Amateurs
Just because today’s technologies make it possible for nearly anyone to develop an online magazine, publish a book, make a movie or host their own video or audio podcast, that doesn’t mean the content or the quality of the production is of value. A 2013 report from the Pew Center for Research found the majority of Americans think professional journalists are more important than ever in today’s news environment because they help make sense of all the information that is out there. That same report showed that 79% of those surveyed believe that to be a journalist requires special skills and background. This includes the ability to:

  •  Draw on diverse sources, including quoting thought-leaders (experts) who have the proven professional experience and educational background necessary to provide or confirm factual information about a specific topic
  • Objectivity- presents all sides/facets of the topic
  • Concrete examples or evidence to demonstrate claims
  • Ability to explain concepts through use of analogies or anecdotes to help readers relate (paint pictures)
  • Convey the anticipated impact if one or the other side “wins’

With notable exceptions such as The Huffington Post, many of the “reporters” writing for the most popular blogs such as Gawker or BuzzFeed aren’t journalists as much as aggregators, basically summarizing information gleaned from the New York Times, WSJ, Forbes, CNN and elsewhere and do not conduct interviews with their own sources. And so-called “citizen journalists” far more often tend to be editorialists than providers of what we have come to think of as “hard news” or “investigative news.”

While op/eds and editorials are also the purview of traditional news organizations, they are regularly vetted to ensure that the author has the necessary credentials and understanding of a complex topic to be able to present a persuasive argument based on factual evidence, insights from having personally been impacted by, or worked on behalf of those impacted by, a particular situation, law or activity.

News Organizations Still Set the Standard
Despite the fact that traditional media has overwhelmingly had to slash the size of their newsrooms, and nearly every week, we read about yet another local newspaper or magazine that is calling it quits, the outlets that have survived still have far more resources and reach than social media or exclusive online outlets.

For example, when Paris was rocked earlier this month by ISIS terrorist attacks, The New York Times posted a myriad of stories covering all aspects of the situation within a matter of hours. Not only did the Times site feature the traditional who, what, when, where pieces, but also infographics detailing exactly where each of the attacks took place in Paris and the number of people affected, an op/ed from its editorial team, a very moving column from a stringer living in Paris who wrote about the attacks from her personal perspective as a woman and mother, and video coverage of the French and American governments’ response to the attacks. While survivors of the attacks tweeted and posted information almost in real time to Facebook and Instagram, the information they provided was necessarily limited to their own observations, and therefore lacking context and concrete facts to round out the story. Clearly eyewitness accounts is a crucial component of any effective news story, but the bottom line is that today’s most complex, challenging problems simply cannot be covered adequately in 144 characters and a few selfies posted to Instagram.

Social media news consumers still get news from other sources
While Pew Research Center’s 2015 State of the News Media Report confirms that more Americans receive their news through mobile devices and via social networks like Facebook, it also clearly shows that the majority of Americans still also visit/view traditional media to obtain their news. YouTube, LinkedIn and Google Plus news consumers are more likely than Facebook and Twitter news consumers to watch cable news. Twitter news consumers are among the least likely to turn to local and cable TV. And nearly four-in-ten LinkedIn news consumers listen to news on the radio, compared to about a quarter of the general population.

Pew Center chart

No client has ever asked me to secure coverage for them on Gawker
Even though more and more companies are contacting me for help building their social media profile, clients still primarily hire me because of my ongoing relationships with, and knowledge of, the top-tier business and trade industry press. A visit to ebizmba.com, which ranks popularity of websites by topic, e.g. Most Popular News Sites, Most Popular Political Sites, Most Popular Health Sites, clearly demonstrates that traditional media still dominate even if fewer and fewer people are actually getting their news from print or broadcast channels. Indeed among the Top 15 most popular business news outlets, apart from the search engine sites which essentially just aggregate news from all online coverage, Forbes, CNN.com and WSJ.com top the list. Among the Top 15 most visited business sites, only two, Motley Fool and BusinessInsider do not have previously established print or broadcast counterparts.

That’s not to say that there are no valid, well-written and researched online news outlets: Slate, Salon, and Politico, for example, all rate rather strongly when it comes to credibility and trust according to the Pew Center for Research, but that is because they rely on seasoned reporters and editors to craft content and following the ethical and journalistic standards of traditional magazines.

Yet even my consumer-oriented clients such as Coca-Cola, which is recognized for its social marketing savvy and as a cutting edge producer of branded content, still desire the cachet and credibility that comes with established, trusted third-party coverage in Advertising Age or Fast Company. So while a robust social media presence definitely helps companies further their interactions with customers, as long as C-Suite executives still view positive coverage in The New York Times, WSJ, Forbes, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, NPR or CNBC as a home run, traditional news organizations will continue maintain their importance and influence.

Sandi Sonnenfeld is author of the PR and the C-Suite Executive blog, which provides short commentary and practical tips that helps newer executives better understand PR basics and enables experienced senior executives to have more productive discussions with the head of their PR department and/or outside agency in order to meet their communications goals.




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