Super Bowl ad aside, newspapers suck at marketing

Washington Post logo

The Washington Post ran a commercial during the Super Bowl, usually the most watched television event of the year, that was quite stirring. From terrorism and natural disasters to the moon landing and D-Day, the ad reminded us journalists who cover such major events, sometimes at the cost of their own lives, empowers citizens and feeds a healthy democracy.

So it naturally begs the question: what took the news media so long to do something like this?

Put quite simply, the news media, particularly newspapers, really suck at marketing. Which is ironic, since journalists are in the business of communication yet their owners and bosses have proved quite inept at selling the product to the public.

I hold a unique perspective on this issue. I spent 18 years as a business journalist at some big newspapers, including the San Francisco Chronicle, the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and the Seattle Times.

Today, I work as a content writer for a financial services firm and see firsthand how marketing– social media campaigns, outdoor ads, e-mails, search engine optimization– can really make a difference in boosting brands, attracting new customers, and generating more revenue.

Yet newspapers never do anything like this– at least nothing in a meaningful, strategic way. The best we see is an occasional, halfhearted attempt to plug newspapers but only in vague, esoteric ways that rarely connect on a deep emotional level with readers, never mind obtain new ones. Even getting newspapers to promote their Pulitzer Prizes, a kind of no-brainer, requires some Herculean effort.

There’s no doubt that newspapers could use some good marketing today. Falling print ad revenues have shrunk or outright eliminated several newspapers and countless reporting jobs. In addition, President Trump has attacked the press as “enemy of the American people.” From politics to economics, things don’t look so good for newspapers.

Digital media upstarts, despite their millions of dollars in venture capital money and tech savvy executives, have proven equally bad at marketing. Witness the latest bloodletting at BuzzFeed and Vice.

Allergic to marketing

So what gives? You don’t need an MBA to know that products rarely sell themselves and that you need marketing to effectively run a business. But that’s the problem: most newsrooms don’t see themselves as businesses but rather venerable institutions of public trust protected by the First Amendment.

Such high-minded thinking, while not completely unfounded, has led to a kind of arrogance; that journalism doesn’t need marketing because the work simply speaks for itself. People are supposed to intuitively understand why newspapers and journalists are important.

Case in point: the Washington Post’s own journalists are ripping the paper’s Super Bowl ad because of the high price tag.

This is not a surprise. Journalists hold a special disdain for marketing, which they view as just another cynical corporate attempt to manipulate the public for financial gain.

Television stations are the exception. From dramatic commercials to large billboards, TV hype their talent and their “exclusives” more fervently than any other media. No wonder newspaper reporters generally look down on their broadcast counterparts.

Newspapers are just allergic to promotion. I once a broke a fairly big story, in which I added “the Chronicle has learned” at the end of my first or second sentence. Editors quickly removed it.

When it comes to social media campaigns, most newspapers simply repost their stories on Twitter and Facebook. The Chronicle hired social media managers, who actually asked the reporters to come up with their own headlines and hashtags. (Um…isn’t that your job?)

Plenty to sell

Here’s the sad thing: newspapers have plenty to sell. Despite cutbacks and other hardships, journalists across the country continue to produce quality work that frequently leads to positive change. Newspapers also feature some well-known columnists and a few superstar reporters and critics.

Newspapers can focus on two things: the brand itself and individual work of its staff. The former has more to do with the heart of journalism: First Amendment, an educated citizenry, democracy…you get the picture.

The latter invokes the brains of journalism: how the paper’s investigative series on corruption forced the governor to resign. Newspapers need to show readers how journalism impacts their lives in both obvious and subtle ways.

Newspapers have occasionally done these things but nothing that resembles a coherent, sustained campaign that can be tracked and quantitatively measured. Marketing requires money and effort and newspapers don’t like to relinquish either.

Newspapers’ biggest problem is finding a viable business model, not marketing. But you have to wonder, if newspapers marketed themselves years ago in ways similar to the Washington Post’s Super Bowl commercial this past Sunday, the industry might have afforded a few more journalists to remind people why they need them.

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