The Brand Strategy of the Fourth Estate?

by Gregg on December 3, 2011

Jason Whitlock wrote a column this week that I found intensely interesting, because of its potential brand strategy implications.

The piece questioned the motives of print and TV media, and the journalism industry in general, in wake of allegations of improprieties made by a now-former Syracuse University assistant men’s basketball coach. At heart for Whitlock is why the Syracuse Post-Standard newspaper didn’t turn over to police in 2003 a tape recording it apparently had that could have prompted an investigation of that coach. ESPN, the biggest global brand in sports entertainment, apparently had that tape as well and did nothing.

Whitlock charges media outlets and the journalism profession itself with forgoing its responsibility to protect our communities by having a hyper-focus on the “big scoop” (his words, not mine).

“We don’t care how we get it …. we’ll conceal potentially incriminating evidence to protect our right to be first with the news,” he says. “It’s the time we live in. Corporate interests trump human interests.”

Interpreting Whitlock’s remarks, he seems to suggest that media outlets are willing to leverage a potential news story to benefit their own brands, instead of doing what he considers to be morally right. In other words, a media outlet may have information that could ultimately become a big story, but will elect to sit on it and monitor the situation, all the while working both its sources and a carefully crafted approach so at the appropriate time, it can be the first to talk about it, trumpet it at every turn and thus enhance its brand position. Meanwhile, the subject of the story could be a bad person who’s still on the streets.

That’s a cynical way of viewing brand strategy, and frankly, I don’t agree with it. Whitlock includes links in his column to separate statements from both the Post-Standard and ESPN about why they chose not to pursue the story in 2003, and as an ex-journalist, I was compelled to agree with the rationale. There wasn’t enough to pursue the story until recently, and it’s not the media’s responsibility to be an extension of the police department.

But I will say this: It’s been well-chronicled that the newspaper industry has been suffering declining circulation for decades, and has been especially hard-hit since the turn of the century. Pew Research numbers at this link are almost breathtaking. Ad revenues have fallen 48% since 2006, while daily circulation has fallen 30% since 1990. The Post-Standard itself cited diminished ad revenue when announcing pay cuts in 2009.

So through that lens, could it be that some media outlets are realizing that how they find and produce news is integral to brand strategy – more integral than the news itself? In fact, could it be crucial to solvency – because being first can be golden when competition is fierce for diminished ad revenues and circulation/viewership?

I like to think not. I like to think that when I was a cub reporter at the Lake Country Reporter, Oconomowoc Enterprise and Waukesha Freeman that chasing the big story was more about good journalism than brand building, that how I did what I did was less important than the end result.

But that was then, and this is now.

(As an aside, congratulations to the Lake Country Reporter for being named Newspaper of the Year among small suburban weeklies by Suburban Newspapers of America.)

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