Monday, September 12, 2022

Hyperlocal News Was Supposed to Thrive -- But Now It's Not. So What Happened?

Several years ago, as regional newspapers began shutting down in droves, the smart money was that hyperlocal media would not survive, it would thrive. As we wrote in  "The Prospect for Hyperlocal Continues to Look Good -- But Can It Capture the Ad Market?" back in 2009!, the reason was "because while there will always be sources for national news, people still want local news."

Many top national media wrote about the gleaming prospects for hyperlocal media. For example, Fast Company wondered: "Can Anyone Tap the $100 Billion Potential of Hyperlocal News? Community-driven news services have been the next big thing online for years. Can The New York Times or AOL find the $100 billion local-advertising pot of gold?"

So we weren't alone in thinking that hyperlocal would survive a meltdown among local media. After all, there are many competing sources for local and regional news but generally only one voice for hyperlocal media.

(By the way, it's worth pointing out that the subhead in the Fast Company article references AOL -- as an example of how much may have changed since 2009.)

We have a nonprofit client for whom hyperlocal is critically important to their work so we've been paying close attention. Over the past year, there's been a lot of cutbacks in hyperlocal media. The problem isn't interest in or support of hyperlocal media from readers. In many cases, the subscribers still want hyperlocal news but the economics outside the community remain terrible.

That's in part because newspaper chains like Gannett borrowed billions to acquire hyperlocal media to generate growth only to find out they had taken on too much debt and needed to make cutbacks.

Lots of cutbacks. According to a Boston Business Journal article, "Northeastern professor Dan Kennedy... referred to the latest round of layoffs as a ‘bloodbath.’ The company has closed at least 19 Greater Boston weeklies this year and has replaced much of the local coverage with regional stories."

The BBJ further noted "80 terminations across more than 50 newsrooms — but the full picture of what local readers across the country lost has yet to emerge."

19 community weeklies closed = news deserts?

That doesn't include layoffs at other hyperlocal papers, which has led to fewer reporters having to cover larger territories. That has led to fewer hyperlocal news and feature articles, which have been replaced by regional trend articles. A recent example: a look at the wobbly post-COVID locally owned restaurant market (as opposed to fast food chains) actually didn't quote any hometown restaurateur; instead, the article provided quotes from owners from several different communities -- some of them that may be an hour away. While the article was still interesting, it was not hyperlocal. The benefit for the editors is that that single regional article was published in different hyperlocal papers. That's how understaffed newsrooms can continue to publish news. It's just not hyperlocal news.

And that means that communities are not getting the kind of hyperlocal information they want or expect.

They've been what's been called "news deserts," defined by the UNC School of Media and Journalism's Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media, as "a community, either rural or urban, with limited access to the sort of credible and comprehensive news and information that feeds democracy at the grassroots level." News deserts are a problem because it means communities aren’t getting critical information related to civic life, government services, etc.

Once limited to rural communities, news deserts now include suburban communities and even larger cities where alternate weeklies have closed, affecting large parts of those communities.

The reason this is significant is that hyperlocal newspapers support their communities, the businesses and the nonprofits, the students and the seniors -- it helps bind communities. 

Here's an example of how this plays out using Marblehead, the North Shore community in which we've maintained our global world headquarters because we've experienced some of the problem of a news desert.

We've been served by the Marblehead Reporter, a print weekly that has become thinner, with less hyperlocal coverage. Please keep in mind: we're not blaming editors or reporters; they're working under difficult conditions; but we do blame Gannett and hedge funds like the Alden Group that purchase newspapers and extract value while decimating the newsroom and the quality of the product.

We're also served by the Marblehead Patch, which seems to produce one actual news story about the community per day but does a better job of sending alerts than the Marblehead Reporter. The the email newsletter from the Patch makes it seem like there's a lot of new content but most of the newsletter features regional coverage. The Patch is good about fires, school closings, etc. -- which is useful information but we don't recall seeing a lot of articles that requires in-depth reporting about issues affecting the town. That would be information residents can't get elsewhere. (We can get school closing information from Boston TV stations, which post that information on their websites.)

With fewer hyperlocal news articles, residents tend to feel less connected. It also means that the paper is less important because some readers figure they don't need to read it closely because there's less info about the town -- replaced by more content about other communities (that they don't have time to visit). 

As a result, Marblehead has three new initiatives to build hyperlocal media outlets. We hope they take hold but there are issues with all three.

  • Marblehead Weekly News, which is published by Essex Media Group, which publishes the Daily Item of Lynn, Lynnfield Weekly News, Peabody Weekly News, and other local media. It is staffed by reporters who also work on other Essex Media properties. We've seen one print edition, mostly focused on the upcoming primary so it's too early to judge. One problem is that there's not a website yet for the publication, just a weekly print edition. So there's currently nothing available at MarbleheadWeeklyNews.com. There's also not even a listing for the Marblehead Weekly News on the Essex website's listing of its various properties. We're sure that will happen. The weekly also includes some sports and features on the "Historic Building of the Week"; in a town with a starling number of pre-Revolutionary homes, the first choice was a local movie theater. On the other hand, the Marblehead Weekly News has brought out the Police Blotter, something the Marblehead Reporter used to publish and seemed to be quite popular (because the items reported included a report of spilled Cheerios in front of the Post Office). But, so far, and it's early yet -- no real news coverage.
  • Meanwhile Marblehead News has an actual website. But it may not have a name because it posted an item in June 20, 2022 that it's crowdsourcing for a permanent name. Which is a good thing. We found it only because we were searching for Marblehead Weekly News and found them instead. Most of the news currently available on the site is campaign statements. Plus one article about the local movie theater -- we don't know who's handling its PR, but kudos! One thing that makes Marblehead News interesting is that two of the founding staff formerly worked for the Marblehead Reporter so we think that's a good sign because they know the town and they know journalism. But it's also a nonprofit that will try supporting itself by raising donations. Also, it seems like a part-time gig for them, and we don't blame them because they're taking on a risk  by working on this at all.  
  • The third new outlet is called the Marblehead Beacon, which also launched in June 2022, and is run as a "citizen-based news site." As of press time (this article was written a couple of weeks before the updated blog and website were finalized), because the Massachusetts primary are a week away, the Beacon has a lot of content about local candidates. While we're hopeful about the Beacon, it is run by two businesswomen with limited journalism experience and other business interests along with a high school student who is handling technology (as one might expect). 

When we started thinking about this blog, we did not realize there were three news startups trying to provide a variety of print and online news for a community of some 20,000 residents. That's kind of a problem since we're media junkies who live in the community -- so we know they're not having significant impact yet. But we hope that will change.

Right now, political candidates are getting the most attention but it will be interesting to see how this plays out. Will the Marblehead Reporter respond, and if so, how? (We assume the Patch won't be able to.) And we don't know how closely part-time journalists will be able to cover the community news and issues beyond fires, roadwork/construction issues, etc.   

We're using Marblehead as an example but there may be similar efforts in other local communities. And we're not necessarily endorsing one of these outlets over another but we want them all to succeed in finding an audience and delivering news. Our point here is to continue a discussion about hyperlocal news sites and news deserts.

Let us know what you think about news deserts and news startups in your communities. 


Monday, July 25, 2022

Five New Lessons about Crisis Management

Given the state of politics, it's probably never been easier getting into a crisis and never more difficult to get out of one without alienating someone. Unfortunately, this became true for a client that had been in business for a decade or so, and, for most of that time, had the good luck of avoiding any crises. 

We provided counsel to them, and compiled the following five lessons (some based on other observations):

  1. Develop a crisis plan before a crisis. You may have built up goodwill and strong relationships with your customers and your community over the years, and have avoided a crisis – but that doesn’t mean you don’t need a crisis plan. Crises can happen to good companies but it makes sense to develop a plan. The plan should include a range of crisis scenarios – even though you should expect that the actual crisis probably won’t exactly fit into any one of your scenarios. But at least it starts the process of how to respond. If you don’t have a process when a crisis hits, it’s harder to know how to respond, and that’s when a potential small fire can start to burn out of control. The other aspect of a crisis plan that’s is important is developing an internal communications process so that when a crisis hits, different layers are informed and understand 1) that the company recognizes it’s dealing with a crisis; 2) that it is taking the crisis seriously; and 3) that people inside the company have the information they need to know to manage their jobs during the crisis. We’ve seen situations where board members, for example, didn’t know what the plan was and were second-guessing every time the company issued a statement.
  2. Make sure to allocate appropriate resources. One of the other aspects of a crisis plan is to determine a task force of people who can focus on the crisis. Another aspect is to understand the potential costs. According to a colleague, one client felt the crisis would quickly die down so it asked that its agency to stop work several times over a two-week period, to save the budget, only to be caught short-handed as its crisis continued to spiral. They kept a short-term perspective both in terms of budget and in terms of working towards an outcome. Also make sure to have people monitor social media, and decide what to respond to and what doesn’t need to a response. And also to develop messages that appropriate staff can communicate to key stakeholders that include employees, customers, and others.
  3. Sometimes clients are in a no-win situation. It’s important to understand, that through no fault of their own, clients may several possible paths – and none of them may be ideal because one group or another will be left unhappy. Social media reactions can make the in-crisis organization feel like they’re between a rock and a hard place. In that case, organizations need to consider:
    • What’s the worst-case scenario and how can we minimize the likelihood?
    • What’s the best-case scenario, and how can we make that happen?
    • If we can’t avoid upsetting people on both sides, how can we minimize the impact?
    • What steps do we need to take after the crisis is over to rebuild goodwill?
    • Do we announce a post-mortem showing that we’ve learned our lessons?
    • Do we suspend any of our operations – like advertising or even what’s on our social media platforms?
  4. If you send an email to employees, expect it to circulate. This did not happen with our most recent client crisis but we’ve all seen this before. So keep in mind: Even a well-intended note to employees can be hard to craft, and you should expect that any email will be distributed to outsiders or posted on social media. Also keep in mind that if you communicate to employees in a town hall setting, someone may tape the discussion. The point here is just make sure that whatever you communicate to employees is something that you won’t mind seeing in print or on social.
  5. Make sure to communicate via the channels most relevant to the upset. We have seen clients who responded to traditional reporters but ignored social media. Responding on social media may not be the right vehicle but it’s important to look at options. Please know that whatever you post could be misconstrued as easily, if not more so, than employee communications.

Please keep in mind that your experience, as they say, may vary. No-win situations are more likely given the politicized nature of decisions that used to be ones you didn't discuss with others. But that ship has long set sail. We're just saying that organizations may need to re-evaluate their plans, policies and responses based on this not-so-new reality.   

Monday, April 25, 2022

New York Times Again Validates our 'Energy Crunch' Prediction

Back on March 9, just short of two weeks into the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we posted a prediction that there would be a lot of coverage of what we began calling the Energy Crunch, and the need for clean energy. We first started talking about the need to improve battery technology and battery life and said that there would be a lot of coverage of gas and oil not just from a climate or economic issue but from a strategic perspective.

At this point, that may seem like a basic call, given Russia's role as a major supplier of gas and oil to Europe. 

But the New York Times published an article about that topic on March 22nd, almost a month after the invasion began and nine days after our prediction. The print headline: "War Spurs Europe to Clean Energy" while the online headline read: "Will War Make Europe’s Switch to Clean Energy Even Harder?" Of course the Times had to do the actual research, conduct the interviews, cite sources -- when all we had to do was write, edit and hit submit. But we're proud that our prediction and subsequent validation shows we understand how the media works.

At the same time, we do want to note the tragedy that Ukrainians are going through. Individually and as a firm, we have donated to various causes to help relocate and support people whose lives have been permanently disrupted by Russia's invasion. We remain proud of several former clients that were either based in Russia and subsequently left that country or had significant number of employees in either or both countries and helped to get those employees out of the region. One former client, based in London, spent two weeks picking up Ukrainian families and driving them to places in Europe where they can be safe.  

Monday, April 18, 2022

Print Editions of 20+ Local Boston Community Papers Will Cease in May + 10 Observations about the implications

More than 20 local communities, particularly in suburbs west of Boston, will lose the print edition of their local weekly papers. The papers' print editions are shutting down in May due cost-cutting decisions by parent Gannett, the newspaper behemoth that took on a lot of debt after some recent acquisitions including with GateHouse Media.

The largest community to be affected is Newton, whose Newton Tab had 22,386 weekly print subscribers in 2021, according to a Boston Business Journal article, "Gannett kills several local print editions." We take issue with the word "several" because that seems to indicate a handful while more than 20 is significant. 

The Boston Globe also covered this story in an article with a more-dramatic headline that better captures the situation, in our opinion:

‘It’s devastating.’ As Boston-area weeklies close, towns ponder civic life without local news.

Gannett plans to fold or merge two-dozen print papers in Eastern Massachusetts in shift to more digital, and regional, coverage of local news.

We agree with that conclusion.

Here's a list of local papers whose print editions will close or be merged in May: 

  1. Newton Tab – making Newton, with 89,000 residents, the largest city in the state without a local newspaper
  2. Brookline Tab
  3. Dedham Transcript & Bulletin, which also covered Westwood and Norwood
  4. Sharon Times Advocate, which also covered Walpole
  5. Needham Times
  6. Weston Town Crier
  7. Wayland Town Crier
  8. Waltham News Tribune
  9. Bellingham County Gazette
  10. Saugus Advertiser & Melrose Free Press Observer will be merged into the Free Press & Advertiser
  11. Medford Transcript & Summerville Journal will be merged into the Transcript & Journal
  12. Arlington Advocate & Winchester Star will be merged into the Advocate & Star

Keep in mind: these are not the only communities being affected. Gannett has been cutting costs, and staff for some time. Only three Gannett weeklies -- in Cambridge, Plymouth and Provincetown -- will retain dedicated staff. The others will share resources, as many Gannett weeklies have done for more than 18 months.

Here are some observations and lessons learned:

  1. Some of the community weeklies had strong print subscribers. Approx. 1/4 of Newton's 89,000 residents subscribed to the Tab. So the decision to shutter some print editions has nothing to do with the number of subscribers, even though subscriptions to the Tab fell 20% from five years prior -- that's probably similar to most other print subscriptions.
  2. Western suburbs are primarily being hit but we suspect that the decision will be rolled out to other communities.
  3. Longtime Boston journalist and journalism professor Dan Kennedy told the Globe, "To eliminate local beats at all but three of their weeklies is really unconscionable. The loss is really to civic life. The loss is to accountability journalism that all of us need to know about what’s going on at City Hall or Town Hall, the school committee, even connecting with our neighbors.”
  4. Gannett said its mission is to move print readers to digital platforms. But we know that print subscribers tend to be older but we don't know that they will successfully transition to checking out community news online -- and neither does Gannett. It means that a certain percentage of local residents will be disenfranchised when it comes to local news and events.
  5. Some online sites do a better job pushing news out. The Patch is very good at sending daily updates via email, especially with local news. We've been less impressed with Wicked Locals from that perspective. 
  6. The loss of hyperlocal print editions makes it harder for marketers to reach local readers. On our staff, we tend to check out hard news on our local online community news sites, while ignoring lifestyle news because, for example, we expect to have seen any health and wellness news in the Globe, the New York Times or other national news outlet. 
  7. For those of us who stopped subscribing to the "dead tree" edition, but still care about our communities, it still takes extra effort to remember and click onto our "online news destination." Our guess is that instead of checking out community news each week when the paper edition reached our homes, we check out local news randomly, a couple of times a month at most. In other words, at a time when national and international news flow is overwhelming, most of us are not checking local news regularly but we did more when we had the reminder of the print edition.
  8. Because of the constraints of shared resources -- i.e., reporters who cover a region, not a specific community, many online sites are cluttered with news about other communities. In this respect, the Patch newsletters don't do a good job; they aggregate news so that only when you click the link do you find out that the headline refers to some town that could be an hour away. That's not really helpful when you're interested in local news. By the way, that's not a rare occurrence; to us, it feels like that happens on a daily basis because there's just not enough news being generated from each of our home towns.
  9. We also see that, because there's not a lot of new articles being produced, that many online news sites continue to list news that's several weeks old. So that when you click onto the site, it looks like lots of coverage but many stories are old and just haven't been displaced by new content. Please note: This is not to slam reporters. We know there are fewer of them and they have a lot more to cover. This is a problem that can be resolved by hiring more reporters. But it makes it harder for residents to find current news because there's not as much being written or posted.  
  10.   Marketers need to find new ways to reach communities. That may mean doing more than issuing a press release or submitting a potential hyperlocal news story. That may mean taking out ads in community newsletters or finding ways to partner with local businesses or organizations like chambers of commerce or local churches, synagogues and libraries, that also have newsletters to committed and interested members.  But that will will likely require ad fees and additional coordination. This may not be feasible for nonprofits looking to get the word out about events, programs, etc. so we need to be more creative in approaches.
We're advising some clients about how to reach out to hyperlocal communities that are losing their community print editions. There are opportunities but they will require a willingness to try new things and more budgets and resources to support events.

Monday, April 11, 2022

10 Components of a Success Thought Leadership Campaign

In the past several posts, we've written about thought leadership campaigns, comparing them to product PR and identifying five ways thought leadership can benefit an organization.

In this post, we wanted to identify ten of the success factors for conducting an effective thought leadership campaign:

  1. An executive willing and able to provide industry insight, even if it might be controversial. As we mentioned in the prior article, we helped a semiconductor startup take on Microsoft regarding industry standards. That only works if executives are confident in their position. 
  2. An executive able to commit the time necessary to brief your thought leadership team and to conduct interviews with them and with reporters, podcasters, and other influencers. We had secured a live CNN interview at a major trade show for one executive but he decided he didn't want to get up in time to be in position for the interview at 7AM so we had to decline. 
  3. Identify your objectives. It's important to identify why you're conducting a thought leadership campaign. If it's because the company is looking to raise money, that will help focus on the topic and the audience segment to address. If it's to find business partners, that means a different set of topics and audience, etc. Of course, one of the goals is to build trust and credibility but how you achieve that will be determined in part by the topics you address.
  4. Identify the right topics and expertise. The issues you address can be a point of differentiation but pick topics that you can "own" and that are relevant to you and your customers. It can be okay if other companies are also addressing the same topic -- but you need to figure out a compelling perspective. (More on that in the next bullet.) We've had clients who were serial entrepreneurs so that their expertise and topics might be different from a CEO who helps grows companies but doesn't launch them. (Launching requires different skill sets from growing a company.)
  5. Need a compelling viewpoint on industry issues. The topic may be the same as what others are discussing -- that's how you know it's a good issue. But you need to make sure you have a compelling perspective on that issue. And that viewpoint can't be seen as self-serving because editors won't be interested and it could turn off potential customers. The viewpoint and insight needs to touch on issues that are important and relevant. And the executive needs to be able to discuss the insight in a compelling way -- and that may not always be possible. We once had a terrific client who, on one topic, couldn't give a compelling interview even though he was excellent on every other topic. We asked him about that, and he said, "Oh, I find that topic boring." We then never let him talk to a reporter about that topic; we used a different executive whenever that topic came up. You need to educate (not sell) audiences about your topics and you need to develop insights that help distinguish your company from others in your market. In addition to insights, we've found that using analogies can help audiences grasp clients' perspective.  Avoid jargon when possible. Provide best practices and lessons learned.
  6. Need to use that viewpoint to convey the organization's values and personality. The viewpoint needs to match the company's values and personality. Many customers look for companies that are authentic and whose values mesh with their own -- and they get upset with anything that seems deceptive. By way of example, we recently got approached from an advocacy group but when we checked them out, we found that they weren't nonprofit (though their URL was a dot-org) and they weren't actually nonpartisan (though they said they were). Those were red flags, and we quickly and easily decided not to pursue the opportunity. 
  7. Set reasonable, achievable goals. The term "reasonable" means different things to different organizations. It depends on the industry issue -- for example, the issue may be seasonal so it means in off months, there's limited activity. It depends on the executive's availability -- he or she might be able to devote only a couple of hours per month to briefings and to any actual interviews; in that case, you shouldn't pursue dozens on potential media interviews -- you should focus on just a handful. We also once had a potential startup client in stealth mode that wanted two articles in the Wall St. Journal before they actually announced anything. (We told them, respectfully, that if they were in stealth mode, it was for a reason, and therefore two articles before launch was unrealistic. They went elsewhere, and as far as we can determine, never secured a single article in the Journal.)
  8. Set reasonable demands. This is slightly different because by this we mean: expecting to blog twice a week may be a very aggressive timetable. We know that executives need to review content, and they may not have time to review content on a timely basis to meet the expectation of posting twice a week.
  9. Identify the appropriate channels. One client, for example, didn't have a social media presence. That's okay, we can (and did) set that up for them. But we've had clients, even recently, who didn't have and couldn't secure because they were already taken, social media IDs that made the most sense for the organization. Ideally, a thought leadership campaign will take content and reformat it to be distributed as a blog post, a bylined article in a publication, cross-promoted across social media, pitched to reporters and podcasters for possible interviews, pitched to conference organizers for a possible panel discussion, used as the basis of a webinar produced by the company, etc. However, not all channels may be appropriate so the team needs to look at what are the best channels.  
  10. Test and update your content and perspective. It's important to test what content and which channels are most effective. We've found that LinkedIn is great for some clients but that might be true for your organization; we have one nonprofit client where Facebook is more important than LinkedIn or Twitter. Realize that could change over time, and that it's important to test what you're doing from time to time to make sure it's working, that audiences are engaging or sharing your content. Over time, issues evolve and it's important to make sure your thought leadership perspective evolves as well.
Ok that's enough for right now. We'll pick up thought leadership in future posts.

Monday, April 4, 2022

The Climate Beat at the New York Times is, um, Heating Up & Times' Columnist Validates our 'Energy Crunch' Prediction

One trend that we didn't highlight in our 20th anniversary list of predictions is climate change. The reason: because it's already something the media covers.

That said, the New York Times is bulking up its climate desk.

The latest addition is David Gelles, a longtime Times business reporter, who wrote its popular "Corner Office" column that interviewed CEOs. Gelles will now help cover "the nexus between government and the private sector." 

According to the Times, 

"David will examine the corporate influence on government action on all levels — federal, state and local — to reveal which corporate players are serious about mitigating climate change and which are just posing, or worse. He will report deeply to uncover actions and conflicts on the government side while also closely scrutinizing the role of companies, business interests and the financial sector."

 In the past few months, the Times added:

  • Somini Sengupta has shifted to head up its Climate Fwd newsletter, which the Times said is "one of the most important ways we connect readers with our climate content."

  • Ray Zhong, who formerly covered Chinese technology for the Times and is currently based in Taiwan, now covers climate science.

  • Former culture reporter Cara Buckley now covers "the more quiet, human stories about how people around the globe are living on a warming planet."

What's going on at the Times? A statement says, "Climate change is an urgent concern of NYT readers, who turn to us as a definitive source of coverage about all facets of the crisis — from the news to the science to the policy and politics as well as ambitious investigative pieces and stunning visuals." So it is finding new ways to cover climate change.

We expect other media outlets -- but not all -- to increase their attention and coverage of climate change. That does mean that companies should be looking at ways to tell an environmental story when possible.

The need to cover the climate is an ongoing trend but it becomes more important given our recent prediction about an Energy Crunch. Back on March 9, we predicted there would be more interest in renewable and clean energy, based on several factors including the reliance of European countries on Russia for gas and oil. In a recent opinion article headlined, "How to Defeat Putin and Save the Planet,"
Thomas Friedman: wrote:
Nothing has distorted our foreign policy, our commitments to human rights, our national security and, most of all, our environment than our oil addiction. Let this be the last war in which we and our allies fund both sides. That’s what we do. Western nations fund NATO and aid Ukraine’s military with our tax dollars, and — since Russia’s energy exports finance 40 percent of its state budget — we fund Vladimir Putin’s army with our purchases of Russian oil and gas. 

It may seem obvious but we feel national security and the need to protect our environment are converging and that renewable and clean energy will continue to be an important trend. 

 

Monday, March 28, 2022

What Makes an Article Go Viral? The Answer May Make You Angry

 At one point social media was supposed to lead to more transparency, which would result in more democracy.

That was the narrative, at least, framing the Arab Spring back in 2010 and 2011. The world's hopes were that pro-democratic protests -- including peaceful demonstrations, marches, occupations of plazas, non-violent civil resistance, acts of civil disobedience and strikes -- that started on Twitter would lead to the overthrow of Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak, and that that movement would challenge other authoritarian governments in the region.

Mubarak did step down as a result of the protests. But, unfortunately, social media did not lead to more freedoms in Arab countries or anywhere else.

True, social media has impacted how most of us get and consume news. But the trend isn't pro-democratic, as evidenced by increased polarization, hatred and bigotry, and disinformation. Social media played a large roll with the Jan. 6th insurrection. So social media is decidedly not pro-democracy.

We mention this because of a recent New York Times article entitled "What Makes an Article Go Viral: Shares, posts and page views: we examine why an article spreads online." The article says "People share articles to strengthen social bonds." That certainly makes sense. 

But that leads to a new question: why do people share the articles they do?

The answer comes from a 2012 study of over 7,000 Times articles that sought to understand sharing behavior. Researchers led by Jonah Berger, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania: 

Found that articles evoking high-arousal emotions like awe, anger, surprise and anxiety were more likely to go viral. 

Those emotions are easily seen across social media. And of those four, we'd say anger, anxiety and surprise probably drive a lot of the posts we see when doomscrolling.  


Those emotions are the ones that keep us not only up at night but engaged on social media even when we know we should stop. Those emotions keep us glued. 

They are not helpful, and most of know we should stop doomscrolling. 

But understanding what drives us to doomscroll and what makes us more likely to share articles and content that makes us anxious and angry may help us control what we're doing. 

Interestingly while Twitter and Facebook allow you to complain about posts, often times it seems like they don't respond -- and we've seen jaw-dropping bigotry that gets let up on Twitter -- there's a suggestion that by enabling users to complain but then doing nothing to delete those comments, social media increases your anxiety and anger. And that keeps you engaged on their site. That's pretty cynical.

But the answer, perhaps, is to just not engage. Have a specific time limit or reason to go onto social media, and then disconnect. 

Honestly, we could all use less anger.

Monday, March 21, 2022

Axios & CNN Validate Our Prediction that "Vibe" is Trending

 Last week, we issued a secondary set of three trends we think will be important to note, in addition to the to the original 20 we issued back in January. Two of three are connected to the Russian invasion of Ukraine: media coverage about fighting disinformation and about the energy crunch (as a result of higher gas prices -- and both of those have been validated in media coverage that appeared after we published that blog post.

The third trend we identified was that the word "vibe" is trending. We don't exactly know why but we're seeing it and felt it worth discussing on our blog.

As it turns out, CNN and Axios this week validated our prediction by using vibe within the same 24-hour period.

In teasing up it's SXSW coverage, Axios said: "Situational awareness: Kerry is still at SXSW, which continues all week. More on the vibes and highlights of this year's conference below."

Meanwhile, CNN's Reliable Sources newsletter, an excellent source for media news, used the word in highlighting a New York Times opinion piece. Check it out here

This NYT Opinion headline crystallizes the "vibes" of the moment: "There Are Almost Too Many Things to Worry About..." (NYT)

So we dug a bit more and found that New York Magazine wrote a story in Feb. headlined: A Vibe Shift is Coming” by Allison P. Davis. Apparently, “Vibe Shift” originated in 8Ball, a Substack newsletter by Sean Monahan, who is known for coining normcore fashion -- something that had nothing to do with Birnbach Communications president Norman Birnbach, despite some people's assumptions. Here's how Davis describes it: The concept behind 

A  vibe shift ... is that In the culture, sometimes things change, and a once-dominant social wavelength starts to feel dated. Monahan, who is 35, breaks down the three vibe shifts he has survived and observed: Hipster/Indie Music (ca. 2003–9), or peak Arcade Fire, Bloc Party, high-waisted Cheap Mondays, Williamsburg, bespoke-cocktail bars; Post-Internet/Techno Revival (ca. 2010–16), or the Blood Orange era, normcore, dressing like The Matrix, Kinfolk the club, not Kinfolk the magazine; and Hypebeast/Woke (ca. 2016–20), or Drake at his Drakest, the Nike SNKRS app, sneaker flipping, virtue signaling, Donald Trump, protests not brunch.

The idea is that we're now in a post-pandemic vibe shift, and that may be why the word "vibe" is seeing a resurgence not seen since the 1970s.

Will "vibe" survive the "vibe shift"? We think it will because it seems clear there's a lot of societal change.


Monday, March 14, 2022

Five Ways Thought Leadership Can Help Your Organization

We recently wrote about the difference between thought leadership and product PR. But we want to provide additional insight into why thought leadership can help your organization.

Thought leadership is generally focused on educating the market on a key issue that's relevant to customers. It's not necessarily about pushing product or directly promoting the organization. Instead, it's about enhancing awareness and perception of the company.

While we know that in the current environment, budgets are such that C-Suite executives are looking for bottom-line results, we also know that thought leadership can breakthrough the sales and marketing noise. For example, one time, a CEO asked us to pitch them. They had a very focused market, with about 100 customers. They had a strong sales team that was hitting a wall. At one point, the CEO asked us, "Why should I hire you, and not just bring on board one more sales rep?" Our answer, respectively given, was this: "You said you know who your customers are and in some cases, they don't return your calls or engage with your sales reps. One more sales rep would be just another person trying to sell customers who aren't interested. But with thought leadership, you might be to get those customers interested by showing how you understand their issues."

So, here are some ways thought leadership can help. 

  1. Thought leadership campaigns need new content -- and that can lead to media coverage. That content can be used to develop blog articles, bylined articles, presentation content and interviews. We've often pitched thought leadership content and generated interviews and requests for bylined articles.
  2. Thought leadership builds credibility, relevancy and trust. This is because thought leadership is focused on educating customers and the market, not on directly selling product. With the right content, your organization is relevant and earns trust among your target audience, which can include customers, employees, partners, etc.
  3. Thought leadership programs can influence the industry. For one company, our thought leadership content not only generated ongoing requests for bylined articles, with editors contacting us but our content was cited by other third parties and was included in at least one peer-reviewed article! Based on the thought leadership we created from content briefings with the client, the client was invited to address a Congressional committee dealing with the client's main issue.
  4. Thought leadership can raise brand awareness. Thought leadership can be connected to product marketing, and in several cases, our work to help educate the market on key issues resulted in significant awareness. In one case, we got a small tech client mentioned in coverage about a larger competitor because reporters responded to the key message we helped the client communicate. In a second case, we helped a security startup be included in coverage that previously only mentioned Microsoft and Cisco.  
  5. Thought leadership can help raise funds or get acquired. When a semiconductor client came to us saying that the industry standard was wrong, and that their approach provided better results, we made that the focus of our communications, and our work not only got the media's attention, it helped get the client acquired after only 18 months by picking a battle in the media over industry standards that took on Microsoft. In other cases, clients have used thought leadership results to help them make the case that convinced VCs and others invest in the company. For nonprofits, we've also seen our work help raise money from benefactors.
In our next article, we'll address some of the components of a successful thought leadership program.

Friday, March 11, 2022

New York Times Validates Our Latest Prediction about an Energy Crunch

 Earlier this week, we issued three additional predictions for trends the media will cover in 2022:

  1. Interest in batteries and energy.
  2. Fighting disinformation.
  3. The widespread use of the word "vibe."
That last one has not been validated yet. And the one about disinformation, particularly about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, is certainly validated all over the place.

But the interest in alternate power sources, like car batteries and renewable energy, has been validated by the New York Times in an article that gives a better description than we had. In "As War Rages, a Struggle to Balance Energy Crunch and Climate Crisis" (print headline: "Energy Crunch Spurs Push for Fossil Fuels, but Climate Clock is Ticking"), the Times uses the phrase "energy crunch" to describe the current situation.

There is indeed pressure to drill and tap fossil fuels but as the Times notes, there's also more pressure to find alternate power sources in part because other oil-rich countries are problematic and may not be inclined to help the U.S. by boosting production.

We think there will be continued interest in renewable energy and alternate energy sources because the likelihood is that gas prices will remain high through the summer.

In the meantime, we will continue to track these three trends, especially our favorite of them, the use of vibe in articles and on social media. It's a bit happier than then other two, and the only one of the three not driven by the Russian invasion. 

Wednesday, March 9, 2022

Three Additional Trends for 2022: Fighting disinformation, the Importance of batteries + vibe is everywhere

We don't usually add new trends to our list after we publish our annual set of predictions. But 2022 is turning out to be more unusual than we had hoped.

The good news is that -- right now -- Covid infections seem to be declining. The bad news is the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Which is likely to get more horrific. 

One of the cliches of war reporting is the phrase "fog of war," meaning it's hard to report with the usual clarity in a war zone. Complicating reporting -- which is necessary and important for people outside Ukraine to understand what's happening inside that country, and to mobilize and frame a response to it is the disinformation, some of it inadvertent, most of it intentioned, around what's happening.

As an example of inadvertent disinfo is a story about a Ukrainian grandmother who took out a drone by throwing a pickle jar from her balcony. Turns out the can of destruction didn't contain pickles. It contained tomatoes. 

Examples of intentioned disinfo are too many, and we don't want to give them attention. That's part of the problem with disinformation or propaganda: repeating them increases the likelihood that the algorithms and search engines pick up the disinformation, making it harder to refute.

So, the first of our additional trends is not the rise of disinformation. We've been dealing with that for the worst part of a decade (if not longer). It's that we're seeing the impact of disinformation, and need to find a way to fight against disinformation.

In Russia, where journalism has been outlawed, the New York Times and others have sent reporters home. CNN and the BBC are keeping bureaus open but are not currently reporting from Russia. That country has also cut access to social media platforms -- to which one late night host complained that he wished we could be cut off social media in the U.S., too. But Russians inside the country have no access to what's happening in Ukraine.

We expect to see more coverage about the impact of disinformation and what the U.S. can do to minimize disinformation. A key suggestion from a guest essay in today's Times: "Fighting Disinformation Can Feel Like a Lost Cause. It Isn't," which suggests that we "Teach kids how to assess not only the reliability of the specific information they’ve found online but also who published it and for what purpose." That would be important not just for kids but for all of us.

The second additional trend involves batteries, whether we're talking about batteries to power electric cars or battery life in general. We expect more coverage of the next generation of batteries that need to be cheaper, charge faster, pack more energy, be cleaner, smaller, etc.

The major factor behind this interest is the move to boost production of electric cars while reducing the number of combustion engine cars on the road. China and the U.S. have issued expectations for when all new cars will be electric.

There's also a secondary factor in a heightened interest in electric cars. Rising prices at the gas pump. As everyone now knows, Russia is a major supplier of oil and gas to the West, and that means the West is helping to fund an invasion it opposes and also means the West could be vulnerable to not getting enough oil if the invasion continues over the long haul.

So we expect to see more coverage looking at the impact of rising gas prices, alternatives to oil and fossil fuels, renewable energy, especially for cars.

Okay so this has been a rather heavy look at war-related trends.

There's another trend that is easier to take.

We think that "vibe" will be a heavily used word in 2022. We're not sure why. But we've been seeing the word every day in different news outlets and social media. In fact, it's been hard to avoid the word vibe. We did a Google Trends search, and Google does not show an increase in the use of vibe. But we feel it. The Times published 18 stories that included the word over the past week, including music and art reviews and style columns -- which makes sense. But vibe was used in an obituary, a climate article, a business article and several real estate articles. Even the Wall St. Journal published eight articles over the last week that included "vibe," and we wouldn't have thought the Journal would be so open to vibes but the word was included in articles about design, food, and music as well as a sports article, a look at hybrid work, campaigning in India (though this appeared in the Journal's whimsical A-Hed column), and a look at the fallout of war.

So Google isn't confirming this trend. But it feels right to us.

Let us know what you think.

Monday, March 7, 2022

The Importance of Thought Leadership & Why It Can Benefit Your Organization

Thought leadership combines multiple elements including: 

  • Executive profiles and interviews
  • Bylined articles
  • Blog articles
  • Speaking opportunities 
  • Podcasts
  • Branded content 
From the outset, that could look like a standard PR or media relations program.

But the difference is that many PR programs are focused on highlighting an organization's products or services whereas thought leadership is often focused on key issues.

Thought leadership, on the other hand, isn't about selling. It's about advising. It's offering perspectives on issues that matter to customers so that when they do think about a purchase, they take a look at your organization because leadership clearly understands key issues that keep customers up at night.

The idea is if you provide advice -- as this blog article is doing -- without trying to "sell" the reader on your services, customers will see you as credible and thoughtful, and that may help them decide to work with your organization.

The real difference between a standard PR campaign -- and, keep in mind, touting your products and services is important, too -- and thought leadership is the focus on issues, not product. It's on educating potential customers about what they need to know.

An example of the importance of educating potential customers came from one of our first clients, almost 20 years ago. We conducted a program that communicated information that addressed issues relevant to the customers of a small financial software startup. After a couple of months, the founder, whose still there though the company has grown and operates under a new name, told us what looked like negative news. He said that our work did not increase the number of customer calls but -- and here's the good news -- the calls that came in after our program were 90% more qualified than before. 

By helping the founder provide insight into a problem customers could not solve on their own or with Excel (the standard approach then and now), we helped customers better understand that there was a cost-effective solution for an end-of-month problem that kept them up at night.

Thought leadership in this case raised awareness, spoke to an issue that mattered to customers, and actually made the phone ring.

If you're focused on issuing press releases about your new product, a new feature in your product, etc. -- which can be important, and we've worked on hundreds of those kind of announcements -- you may be able to help with lead generation. 

But product PR generally does not help when a company seeks to raise investment rounds or to get acquired. 

For that, whether your organization is a B2B, B2C or a nonprofit, thought leadership campaigns can showcase their expertise, capabilities, values and successes.

We will be writing more about thought leadership over the next few months. In the meantime, let us know if you have any questions by emailing us at info@birnbachcom.com.

Monday, February 28, 2022

Media in a Time of War

 First, our hearts are with the people of Ukraine. We pray for their safety and for a quick resolution.

While we're seeing harrowing footage of Ukraine, we think it important to acknowledge the bravery not only of Ukrainian people -- which is significant -- but also of the journalists who are reporting on the war from inside war zones.

We think it shows the importance of accurate information -- even with the "fog of war" -- about what's happening.  It shows why it is important -- vital -- to have functioning, independent news media operating in Ukraine and the U.S. and elsewhere. 

When the only media available is state-owned, you have what appears to exist in Russia: only propaganda.  You don't have a necessary check on power that media can provide, whether local towns and communities, cities and states or countries.

Some social media has been helpful but there are lots out there that may be bots and others intentionally or not, posted misinformation.

We generally stay away from politics but we wanted to make a point about the need for credible, researched and edited journalism. 

Again, the news about Ukraine is upsetting, and we have as an agency made a donation to a respected NGO to provide humanitarian support for people in Ukraine. We hope talks currently underway are successful and that peace returns to Ukraine and the Russian military returns to Russia.

Monday, February 21, 2022

New Yorker Magazine Publishes First-Ever Digital Issue -- Meaning It Validates Our Trend of Fewer Printed Issues

In our predictions for 2022, we said that traditional print publications will be cutting back on the number of print issues due to the costs involved.

We pointed to  Forbes (used to publish 26 issues, now six), Fortune (24, now 14), Fast Company and Inc. (12, now six each) or Bloomberg Businessweek (50, now 45). 

Then we found out that Gannett is stopping Saturday print editions at 136 of its newspapers nationwide.

Then we found out that Entertainment Weekly, InStyle, EatingWell, Health, Parents and People en Espanol will stop publishing print publications in April.

Now we found out that the New Yorker is touting its first digital-only issue, saying:

This week, in our first-ever digital issue, we bring you a collection of fresh interviews with leading figures in politics, literature, and the arts, conducted by an array of staff writers and contributors. We’ll publish new pieces each day, so we hope you return to us throughout the week.

They sent this in an email to subscribers who signed up for the newsletter. But not everyone who subscribes to the magazine also signed for the newsletter, so there could be a significant portion who don't know what happened to their print edition. 

One quick point about the number of issues the New Yorker is publishing this year, and that there's some doubt to how many print editions there will be. The New Yorker used to be a weekly, meaning 52 issues per year. If you look online, an annual subscription covers 48 issues but elsewhere, we saw that the New Yorker says it is published "weekly except for four planned combined issues, as indicated on the issue's cover, and other combined or extra issues." But other places report that the New York actually publishes 47 print issues. So that's a cutback, even if not to the degree of Forbes or Fast Company.

Since the average reader of the New Yorker is aging -- its average age in 1980 was 43 and 46 in 1990 but is now 47 in 2009, it's a safe assumption that its readers are aging and probably are not expecting to have to go online to read this week's double issue. We think that some readers will be relived that there's an issue they don't have to put on a stack somewhere, unread. But others may not know that they must go online.

But the real significance of the shrinking number of print issues is that some readers -- mostly the older readers -- will be left behind without their print editions. I'm not talking about people in waiting rooms having nothing to read that week. We know that avid readers of any of the publications we've mentioned allocate time to read those magazines. They will now have to adjust how they interact with their publications. Some like to display issues on their coffee tables because having an issue of one or another of these publications may define you. (For example, although there's a significant overlap in terms of celebrity coverage, displaying a copy of Vanity Fair says something different from a copy of People  or Us.). 

Our point is that this represents a change in the way subscribers interact with these publications, and readers now have to remember to go online to access content from them. Some of the younger subscribers no doubt may always be online-only subscribers, having ditched their print editions a while back. 



But print subscribers are going to increasingly find out that their print subscriptions do not provide them with all access to the publication -- which used to be the case as of just a few years ago. Now, print and online access require an all-access subscription so some may feel they already subscribe, and not go online. Some may decide to ditch the printed issues and just go online.

But it does mean a change in habit. And it does mean that some readers may not jump to the online editions and may decide to dump the print version because clearly there's no breaking news being reported in a print only six times a year. 

We're not complaining about this, just observing this. And pointing out that this is a nation where, not too long ago that many of us could not adjust the blinking lights on our VCRs (ask your parents). We're just saying the shrinking frequency of print magazines means that subscribers are going to have to learn new reading habits to access their favorite magazines. And that publishers are going to need to figure out how to provide some way to make their remaining print editions matter and to provide readers with a reason to search for content on the publications' sites. 

We're living in an attention economy, and readers may decide to focus their attention elsewhere. As we've said before, that's why the New York Times purchased Wordle and why its Spelling Bee game is one of the top touted aspects of the app.

And since this blog is part of the attention economy, thank you for reading. 

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

The Revolving Door at Top-Tier Media

For a publicly held telco client last March, we developed a focused media list of reporters at top-tier newspapers and magazines that we thought would be interested in a specific story based on their recent news coverage.

We pitched these reporters in the spring and continued to develop and pitch different reporters for the client. By October, we had another story that we thought might appeal to the initial set of reporters, all at name-brand traditional media like the New York Times, Fortune, and others at that level.

What we found interesting was that of a list of fewer than 20 reporters, about 40% had left their perches to move to writing newsletters or for online sites that are not as well known and don't have the same clout or prestege.

Since we were tasked with working only with top-tier media, that raised several issues:

  1. We needed to educate the client that some reporters who write online newsletters -- whether for themselves via Substack or for newspapers (like former longtime Businessweek reporter Peter Coy, who writes a newsletter for the New York Times) -- are still very influential and must be considered. This is important because as the media shifts, we need to re-evaluate the media we follow.
  2. We had to evaluate reporters' new outlets to determine if those outlets met the client's criteria. Honestly, we were hoping they might land at cool new publications we should be considering as top-tier. Yet, although we expected reporters to move from one top-tier media to another -- for example, leave MarketWatch or AP for WSJ (a sister publication) or Bloomberg -- many did not. They didn't even join top-tier online publications like TechCrunch, which would still have worked for our purposes.  One reporter left Fortune for a gaming publication so that involved a change in what she wrote about. Was that move predicated by a love of gaming? By budget cutbacks? We always look for trends or for an understanding of what's driving change but we couldn't find a consistent or reasonable explanation. 
  3.  We had to look for replacements at those publications that might be interested in the client and its story. Interestingly, many of those positions remained unstaffed. And we're not talking about an obscure industry beat. We were looking for reporters who cover internet (but not social media) and telecommunications, which are mainstays of business sections. In some cases, other reporters picked up some of the coverage but in other cases. But we were shocked that beats did not appear to be fully covered. That would have once been unthinkable.
(Chicago Door Company: thechicagodoorpeople.com/revolving-door-speed-control)



So we're seeing a lot of reporters leaving top-tier media -- something, again, that would have once been unthinkable. And we're seeing beats not necessarily getting the same kind of coverage. We know that the Times has been devoting more coverage to the media world itself, including social media (an area that is not appropriate or relevant for the client). 

One conclusion is that the focus of top-tier media is on FAANG companies (do we really need to identify Facebook -- now Meta -- Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google -- now Alphabet?) and on social media as one of the more controversial and important business topics. This certainly has implications for clients that don't touch on social media. In other words, you may have an interesting client with a good story to tell, and it might be ever more difficult to find reporters who might be interested in the client.

A second conclusion is that reporters are not immune to the Great Resignation, and have left to find new opportunities in journalism. And that means we have to identify new reporters and understand what they write about and what elements they look for when they write about an industry or a topic. This is something we've always done so that's not an issue. What does make it challenging is that it hasn't always involved as many as 40% of reporters on a relatively focused list.

Clearly we don't have all the answers but we do think it's important to ask the right questions, which include:
  1. How should we define top-tier media in 2022? Who should be included now? Are there outlets that may no longer be as important?
  2. Why are reporters leaving? Is it part of the Great Resignation? Is it due to budget cutbacks? What can we learn from this?
  3. Are top-tier media changing the focus of what they're covering? If so, what are the implications for clients that do not fit into new coverage areas? 
As always, we will continue to look at the changing media world and raise questions to help get to answers that help our clients succeed with media relations. 

Friday, February 11, 2022

One Trend We Missed -- Wordle -- and One Trend That We Got Right

It's a little early for us to admit we missed a trend -- we usually wait until the end of the year to evaluate how we did. But we missed a big Q1 trend: Wordle, a daily online game that has caught fire since it was launched late last year. It is so popular that we're not going to describe how the game is played. Just a week or so ago, the New York Times announced it has acquired Wordle to add to its growing portfolio of games like Spelling Bee.


What makes Wordle a trend? We play it ourselves and find the once-a-day aspect to be part of its charm. There's a site that offers access to the Wordle archive, and binging through several at a time loses the appeal. We do see articles online every day about "the best words to use" to start figuring out the word of the day. Another way to know it's a real trend: there's a minor backlash to Wordle, such as The Verge's "The New York Times has changed Wordle’s solutions" and the New York Post's "And the Wordle backlash begins: 'Blaming this on the Americans.'

According to the Post, which generally has an "America First" mindset unless it can attack the New York Times, there's a backlash outside the U.S. because Wordle uses U.S. spelling. We know it doesn't fit Wordle's five-letter words but we don't want to spoil an solutions so we'll point out that apologise -- which is how the word is spelled outside the U.S. -- would not be accepted because Wordle would be looking for apologize.  

According to some of us in the trend-predicting world, it's not a trend until there's a backlash so Wordle can be classified as a trend.

One we totally missed. 

We don't know if Wordle has legs as a trend but it's certainly hot right now. And what we think is clear is that we're living in an attention economy. The reason the Times spent six figures to acquire Wordle shows there's money to made for them to host Wordle. 

Twenty years ago, in the dot-com era, the goal for many was to get eyeballs -- people spending time on their site. That's really what social media is all about, and why the algorithms of TikTok, Facebook, Twitter, etc. are so important and influential -- and often not in a positive or productive way.

But that's not the trend we got right. But it's related to it.

One of our trends is that publishers will move away from print editions. We love print editions, and still see the value in them. But according to the Reliable Sources Newsletter by CNN that cited a Wall St. Journal article, six magazines that Barry Diller acquired from Meredith Corp. last year -- Entertainment Weekly, InStyle, EatingWell, Health, Parents and People en Espanol will stop publishing print publications. Their last issues will be in April.

How did Diller's company, Dotdash Meredith frame its decision?

"We have said from the beginning, buying Meredith was about buying brands, not magazines or websites,” according to the CEO. 

We get it. After all, in 2022, is weekly even enough updates about entertainment? Of course not.

And Dotdash has "19 remaining print magazines," according to the Journal, including People, Better Homes & Gardens and Southern Living -- all of them major publications.

But here's the thing -- and we'll talk more about this throughout this year.

Some subscribers prefer the print editions. Certainly doctors' waiting rooms do. So what happens to those subscribers who prefer print? One of us used to go to a dental office with horrible Internet access -- everyone complained about it -- but for people waiting in those sorts of locations, they can't rely on their phones for distraction.

And we think people who used to allocate time to turn the pages of Entertainment Weekly, People en Esponol and the other magazines ending their print run. The question for them and for Dotdash and other publishers considering ending their print publications is this: How will readers spend their time? Will they go online to the app or website of the publication? Will they remember to do so or just get their entertainment news elsewhere, whether print or online? Or will they shift to playing games like Wordle?