Why Thought Leadership May Save Journalism

Traditional print journalism seems to be dying a relatively quick but still gruesome death. According to the Pew Research Journalism Project’s State of the News Media 2014 report, “Full-time professional newsroom employment declined another 6.4 percent in 2012 with more losses expected for 2013. Gannett alone is estimated to have cut 400 newspaper jobs while the Tribune Co. announced 700.”

As a former journalist, I feel bad for those guys and gals.

Furthermore, the Pew report says “total newspaper advertising revenue in 2013 was down 49 percent from 2003.” That’s a terrible trend, especially as “traditional advertising from print and television still accounts for more than half of the total revenue supporting news.”

Indeed, the Newspaper Association of America has ceased compiling quarterly reports on advertising revenue. (Probably too depressing an exercise.) Its annual numbers, released April 2014, showed that combined print and digital ad revenues decreased 7 percent in 2013, with digital advertising increasing 1.5 percent. It’s nice to see something increasing, but that’s slower than 2012’s digital growth rate (3.7 percent).

I think it’s fair to say that digital advertising will not be riding in on a virtual white charger to save traditional journalism, nor will squeezing the last drops of blood from the wallets of the shrinking and aging number of subscribers who remain loyal to it. That revenue is flat, and it’s on its way down.

And the Web, despite the ballyhooed successes of Buzzfeed and Huffington Post, is not going to replace all those journalism jobs already and soon-to-be lost.

But what may is thought leadership.

A recent HBR blog by Hill+Knowlton VP Alexander Jutkowitz, discussing the “content marketing revolution,” suggested that, “Nine out of ten organizations are now marketing with content . . .  publishing (or passing along) relevant information, ideas, and entertainment that customers will value.”

Well bless my ink-stained soul. Passing along relevant information, ideas, and entertainment is what journalists can do. It’s what they’re trained to do. Conversely, it’s not what advertising copy writers or consultants are trained to do.

Journalists (the good ones, anyway) learn how to figure out what’s relevant (generally by talking to experts); they assess ideas (by staying informed), and then they present those ideas in an entertaining fashion because that’s how one reaches people. That’s how writers and editors add value, and that’s why companies smart enough to understand that they need good content should be smart enough to realize that they need good journalists to create it.

Indeed, another HBR blog, “Marketers Need to Think More Like Publishers,” urges marketers to ask themselves, before developing content, “Who’s done this before? How did they do it? What can we add?” These questions align pretty well to what my colleague Bob Buday encourages putative thought leaders to ask themselves in his essay, “The Seven Hallmarks of Compelling Intellectual Capital.” And after identifying what they can add to what’s already been said and done, marketers have to grab and hold the consumer’s attention.

Who knows how better to do that than journalists – editors and writers – who have been trained to fight for attention on the newsstand and hold a reader’s attention from the story’s lead to its kicker?

If all the people thinking deep thoughts about marketing are right, and they’re correct that companies need to provide and effectively disseminate new information to build their brands and engage their target audiences, then there still may be a future for editors and writers because they – and nobody else – have the skills to do just that. Given an increasing demand for better (more novel, more informed, helpful, and well-constructed) content and thought leadership, the prospects for journalists – and for the profession – may not be so horribly grim after all. 

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