Lady Gaga journalism and the reputation economy

Two very interesting articles crossed my desktop this week.  Reading them within hours of each other left me head-scratching.

The first was from the Fall 2010 Preview issue of American Journalism Review, titled “Traffic Problems.”  The article summarizes how the ability to track the popularity of specific online articles affects a newsroom’s future focus.  Key callouts:

 High-minded headlines and stories about foreign wars, the federal deficit or environmental despoilage might have paid the bills in the age of Murrow and Cronkite, but they only go so far these days.  Shark videos and “naked Lady Gaga” headlines get major play on “serious” news sites for an obvious and no longer terribly shocking reason: They draw traffic….

“Journalism always put a premium on speed and scoops, but up until recently we never had to make the decision that speed trumps vetting or verification,” observes my colleague Roxanne Roberts. “That dynamic is shifting because of the need for hits. It’s a very slippery slope from an ethical standpoint….”

While there are consequences for being slow, there aren’t many consequences for being wrong, Roberts says: “The feeling nowadays is, ‘we don’t make mistakes, we just make updates.'” By trying to grab traffic at all costs, “We’ve placed the premium not on being correct or thoughtful, but on being first. When you do that, everything is Balloon Boy….”

The second article, “Making Money in the Reputation Economy,” appeared in Forbes and was penned by Anthony Johndrow, a partner and managing director of The Reputation Institute.  Jondrow believes that reputation management may be more important now than ever before.  Key callouts:

Like the “innovation economy” of the 1990s or the “risk decade” of the 2000s, the 2010s promise to be one where reputation is activated as a driving force behind markets.

Corporate reputation has already become a decisive factor in the competitive landscape —companies that mobilize who they are and what they stand for to take advantage of this shift will dominate their space for years to come. Executives who understand and act on this opportunity will emerge as the leaders of the reputation economy.

Courtesy: Noble Monrose

Together, these articles suggest that speed and populist sensationalism may currently trump accurate and thoughtful media reporting…precisely at the same time that corporate reputations are more scrutinized and more important than ever before.   This is certainly a troubling combo for crisis managers, akin to “…red sky in morning, sailor’s warning.” 

How to address this dichotomy?  One idea – companies must keep nurturing relationships and providing meaningful dialogue during good times.  Up until recently, this was typically done through key third parties and influencers.  Today, companies enjoy direct dialogue with the public.  (Thank you, social media.)   When bad things happen and media decides to run fast and loose with a story (in the name of almighty clicks), these relationships can come in handy.  At best, the public will come to a company’s defense.  If not, at least the organization has a pre-existing dialogue from which it can build additional context.

If you have other constructive ideas on this, I’d love to hear from you in the comments section below.

7 thoughts on “Lady Gaga journalism and the reputation economy”

  1. G'day JD, I believe the approach you've outlined is the starting point, but the issues you have raised are so important, that they are worthy of greater scrutiny.

    Traditional mass media has been in decline for about 3 decades now, maybe longer. Media proprietors seem to view mass media outlets as commercial properties, overriding other considerations. News rooms no longer have the staff numbers, knowledge resources and time to perform the functions that traditionally have been performed by a "fourth estate".

    Yet this is the unique selling proposition for traditional media. Reliability, ethical practices and analytical investigation are some of the key factors that should make traditional media more important (and commercially successful) in the current environment, when anyone can say anything at any time. Instead, journalists are reduced to reporting what people say as news and filling news outlets with opinions, however badly informed or prepared, rather than reporting what is actually happening.

    I suggest that free communities are suffering as a result. I also suggest that if a media proprietor somewhere, sometime, breaks this cycle, and focuses on providing customers with what they need using the factors that differentiate media from all other outlets, they may well obtain a great deal more commercial success.

    I know you may well think this is off point, but I am increasingly disturbed by the trend of those of us who work in these areas to look at how we can best respond to the changing environment for our clients, and not look at the broader issues that arise, as we should if we practise Corporate Social Responsibility as we preach.

    I am a pessimist in this, as I grew up in media dominated by the Murdochs of this world, and the proprietors, editors and Chiefs of Staff I've had contact with all tell me that they know media much better than I do. I haven't seen any signs recently of traditional media even slightly attempting to fulfil the role of fourth estate, despite the best efforts of many journalists who truly believe in it but are not given the time and resources to practise it.

    So I am asking you to not just request constructive ideas on how clients, and those who help them, can deal with the changing environment, but also for constructive ideas for how we can influence the environment itself, helping us, our clients and out communities in the long term.

    All the best, geoff

    1. Good thoughts, Geoff.

      Fixing the media environment seems to be a task worthy of only Sisyphus.

      I do wonder if the environment is changing itself? On one hand, social networks are becoming (slightly) more credible conduits of information. On the other, news analysis publications (The Economist, for one) seem to be doing rather well.

      Thanks for participating — your thoughts are always welcome here. No matter how off point. 😉

  2. Two observations, JD.

    One is that The Economist, The New York Times, the Guardian and the FT are maintaining audiences because readers can discern the difference between providing solid information and pandering for clicks. Even Marcus Brauchli of the Washington Post, in the AJR piece you reference, acknowledges the difference between an SEO-optimization tactic like photo galleries of B-list celebrities, and real investments in news. I would also hope that the mantra of the information services — Associated Press, AFP, DPA, Bloomberg, Reuters — continues to be "Get it first, but first get it right." I hope. They supply every other news channel, and if they get it wrong, everybody has it wrong.

    Second, organizations need to protect themselves against the news channels whose mantra is "get it first, and don't ever worry about getting it right" by thinking through their real-time web monitoring solutions. That way they can mobilize the people they've built equity with, in the relationship-building phase you describe.

    Bob Page
    Chapel Hill

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