Interview: Screen Rant editor, Ben Kendrick, and journalist Harriet Marsden talk the future of journalism and PR and how we can help each other out
Will Hobson London & PR Director
12 min read
Tuesday, 14th July 2020
The Mirror, Lonely Planet, Buzzfeed and now the Guardian - all HUGE publications making job cuts as a result of COVID-19.
Because of this, we spoke to journalists and editors themselves to get their opinion on what this means for journalism and the relationship with PRs and what the future looks like for the media.
Journalists facing job cuts
COVID-19 is responsible for the loss of over 600,000 jobs in the UK alone. Even if it hasn’t impacted you personally, the knock-on effect is likely to.
Just last week Daily Mirror owner Reach cut 500 Jobs and over the past few months, Buzzfeed and Lonely Planet have shut their UK offices. And even more recently, The Guardian announced 180 job cuts. This means that an already competitive market for journalists and the PR’s pitching to them is about to get a hell of a lot more difficult.
Because of this, We sat down with two journalists from leading publications across the UK and US to get their opinion on what we can expect from the industry over the next 12 months, and how we as PR’s and digital marketers can work together even more in this ever-changing world.
First of all, meet our two stunning contributors:
Ben Kendrick Content Director at Screenrant
Ben Kendrick is a journalist, writer, movie critic, media expert, SEO, professor, and online content guru. The Director of Organic Content Operations at Valnet Inc, Ben serves as Publisher of Screen Rant and Comic Book Resources as well as overseeing content initiatives across Valnet’s diverse network of web properties and social media platforms
Harriet Marsden- Freelance Journalist
A drop in advertising and an increase in social media acting as a publisher!
What is your opinion on the future of journalism - what's next for the industry?
Harriet- "It's a very worrying time, between the drop in advertising and the buying out of media companies to corporate interest who prioritise profit over editorial endeavour. That's not even to mention Facebook and Twitter effectively acting as publishers with none of the oversight or ethical grounding. No publication can compete with Google, and it's hard enough learning how to work with the algorithms to get your pieces ranking when most journalists have little or no training in SEO.
What's next is some form of a shared subscription model - people don't want to subscribe to multiple publications but the diversity of sources is important. There are many companies looking into this now. Proper on-the-ground reporting and investigations also need to be properly funded. You do have to pay for your news, whether you like it or not".
Ben- “It’s clear that in the age of divided readers who would rather brand reporting as “fake news” or “clickbait” it’s going to be increasingly important that online media, especially, roots reporting in journalistic principles. Outlets need to develop, encourage, and highlight experts on their team to build trust with readers and critics alike.
Despite formal journalism training, it was my knowledge of pop culture, a background in creative writing, and a little SEO savvy that positioned me for success as an entertainment journalist in the current industry landscape. Frankly, I don’t think that should have been the case and do not particularly think people like me have left journalism in a better place - at least compared to where we found it. I’m hopeful that the next iteration of online publishing will take the energy, passion, and ingenuity that powers the industry now, season-in some old-school journalism benchmarks, and produce something that’s just as engaging but able to instil greater trust and authority”.
A better understanding in SEO, communication and relationship building!
How can PR and journalism work even closer in the future as we see an increase in online publications?
Harriet- " It's all a question of communication. Most of the trouble between PRs and journalists come from a lack of understanding of what the other is trying to achieve, and who they have to answer to. PRs and journalists work well together when they understand that one answers to an editor and another answers to a client, and sometimes inevitably you get caught in the middle.
Initiatives like the Lightbulb group on Facebook, the No 1 Media Women and the Twitter journorequest hashtags all help PRs and journalists work more effectively together. On a personal level, I would like to see far fewer random press releases and irrelevant offerings from PRs I don't know, and instead, work to establish more fruitful and efficient relationships with a smaller group of PRs with more relevant clients to my beat. Finally, if more journalists had a better grasp of SEO then PRs wouldn't have to chase for links as much.
Ben- “The two are increasingly intertwined but I believe that to work even closer, PR needs to be less mechanical and deliver content that deserves coverage. Google has made it clear that content is king and competition is fierce. As a result, publishers who strive to be major voices in the coming years need to produce the best, most engaging content on the internet - and if PR teams want their clients to breakthrough, it’s essential that they’re putting something worthwhile in front of publisher contacts. In a given day, I receive over 100 e-mails from publicists, marketers, and SEO companies wanting coverage or collaboration - and I read less than 5% of them.
Journalists are busier than ever, because most are expected to create multiple pieces of content in a single day. There’s little time or incentive to sift through a flood of emails promoting products, services, or talent that are of little interest to our respective readerships. We’re journalists, we can tell when someone is trying to BS us. The absolute best way to get me to cover something: present me with a piece of content that is going to engage my readers and help my team hit their KPIs. As a result, PR agencies that build sincere relationships with publishers (rather than massive email lists), get to know our content operations, what we cover and how we cover it, are going to have a massive advantage”.
Content is set to take a shift but how will it impact UK PR’s?
With the closure of the UK offices of HUGE publications such as Buzzfeed and Lonely Planet amongst others, do you think this will impact the content they cover?
Harriet- “ The layoffs of the UK Buzzfeed editorial staff are an absolute disaster. Buzzfeed News was known for its excellent investigative work and particularly its political reporting of Westminster. They emerged on the scene from nothing but a cat listicle joke to become one of the most powerful voices in the lobby in just a few short years. Therefore, I would imagine that Buzzfeed will no longer produce any worthwhile UK content, which is a massive loss.
Lonely Planet is a different problem altogether. The defunding of travel writing means that a good deal of it is now done in office, or outsourced to freelancers, rather than by experts who can spend real time in each country. The Lonely Planet brand is still very respected but I would worry that more staff layoffs and budget cuts means more of a general output overall - e.g. round-ups, listicles, pieces that can be pulled together in office - rather than specialised research for travel guides. But Lonely Planet was always a worldwide rather than UK-focussed outlet so I doubt it will change much in that regard.”.
Ben- “There are too many opportunities in the worldwide market for region-specific outlets to limit themselves. Creating UK specific content will definitely be part of the strategy, as there are loads of opportunities they’re not just going to abandon. However, a shift to remote teams dilutes the regional identity of an outlet’s local newsroom. We’ve seen this happen before - as newspapers laid off veteran reporters and, in their place, began syndicating stories from AP and other borderless resources”.
Following on from this across the industry do you think there will be a shift in the type of content covered in the media?
Harriet - “Many publications such as The Guardian, The Times and the Athletic / Tortoise are starting to move away from trying to compete with, for example the BBC or CNN in terms of covering breaking news.
They know they can't compete with 24-hour a day digital operations. What that means is, they're moving towards fewer pieces of longer length and higher value per day to make subscriptions worthwhile. In terms of how that will affect how journalists and PRs work together, I think it will encourage longer-term partnerships and far less random cold press releases. You will start to see more long-form analyses rather than straight news stories. You will also see far less on-the-ground original reporting simply because it is time-consuming and expensive, which means that freelancers will become lower-paid but higher valued, ironically”.
Ben- “Most publishers aren’t trailblazing. They are re-reporting the same popular stories that blanket Top Stories carousels and featured news sections around the internet. While prestige journalists will continue to chase stories in deep-dive investigative reports, most outlets will gravitate toward whatever is going to get the most clicks, engagement, listeners, or viewers - which means that, absolutely, we’ll continue to see a shift in what content (and platforms) are covered in the media. In just a few years, Facebook and Twitter drastically changed how a significant percentage of people get their news and what kind of news those people are most interested in reading. There’s no reason to think that’s going to change - especially as TikTok attempts to become the next big social media platform, and engagement-based news aggregate apps (such as News Break, for example) replace dedicated news networks”.
Increase in affiliate links in 2020!
Do you think there will be a shift in how news is monetised?
Harriet- “Most publications were already moving towards a paid subscription model, e.g. The Times, or a donation model like The Guardian or a premium model like The Independent or the Telegraph. Paid advertorials don't actually add much value to what we do and they compromise editorial integrity so no journalists like doing them. Besides, the money they made was a drop in the ocean of what we need.
Banner ads and pop-ups on pages compromise user-experience, particularly on phones and tablets, so I think we will move away from that too. I imagine there will be an increase in affiliate link usage. For example, IndyBest of The Independent compromises only a fraction of the journalistic output but makes about 10% of the profits.
Ben- “I actually think paid advertorials might lessen - given that Google and other platforms are trying to root out sponsored content. However, I believe that some of that market will shift to affiliate sales articles that are harder for these platforms to distinguish from organic content. The other thing to consider: as publishers consolidate under publishing networks, there’s a diminished return on paid advertorials for big companies. A paid advertorial might be attractive to a smaller start-up blog that needs as many sources of income as possible. Unfortunately, bigger sites, the ones that could pass the greatest amount of link equity and deliver the biggest audiences, are likely to view paid advertorials as a very small drop in the bucket - making it especially hard to justify creating any kind of workflow that would take valuable team members away from initiatives with a much higher upside”.
Shares aren't always something journalists are measured on!
What are you usually measured on when you write an article?
Harriet - “This is only really relevant to publications that are not behind a paywall or subscription model. But traffic is usually monitored by Chartbeat and editors look at various metrics, such as unique visitors or time spent on the page.
In general, most editors would rather see a longer length of time on the page than a high number of clicks but no engagement. That's why subs are encouraged to add ‘read more’ link boxes, picture galleries and further reading below a piece. Facebook is where most of the traffic comes from, but many editors actually value Twitter higher, because the shares themselves tend to be "of higher value" - e.g. high-profile journalists or MPs, for example.
An article shared once by Victoria Derbyshire will probably be valued higher than an article shared 100 times by nobodies, because it adds soft value like industry respect and expertise.
The commercial department and editorial departments are fairly separate, so often the commercial department will go into high share articles after they've been published and add banner adverts or affiliate links. The actual journalist rarely knows how well an article did in exact terms - they only know if it tops the Chartbeat board, or trends, or "does well". The editors know a lot more but a good editor tries not to let shares and traffic dictate their editorial commissioning - at least, not too much”.
Ben- “As a publisher, I’m KPI’d by revenue and site traffic. We monitor social engagement but the ultimate goal for our operation, specifically, is to increase our traffic and, subsequently, our revenue.”
Summary - What should we as PR’s be doing now as a result of these jobs cuts?
Wow, that was super interesting, I think it’s clear that although the industry is seeing socking cuts and changes we need to continue to offer as much support. I’ve pulled out below a list of three things we as PR’s can take from these learnings:
- Focus on relationships - This is more crucial than ever right now, as the number of journalist decreases means they will become more reliant on their pool and inner circle of PR’s. Make the effort and build lasting relationships, that doesn’t mean you have to go out for the typical PR lunch all the time but find your own way to build a relationship. This could even mean bonding over Twitter on your shared love of Gemma Collins GIFS.
- Make the effort to know what a journalist wants - It’s not always about the shares they get on an article. As Harriet mentioned a lot of editors would prefer time on-page. Therefore, the content needs to be super engaging, this follows on nicely from building unique relationships. Find out what a journalist wants in terms of topics and give them exactly that.
- Social media is key - Both Harriet and Ben mentioned how Facebook and Twitter have become a source of news themselves but they also act as perfect tools for PR’s to connect with journalists and amplify our stories. Make sure you keep up to date with any new platforms, I’m thinking TIkTok particularly.
My biggest piece of advice would be to be yourself, connect with a journalist just like you do your friends at work and even your clients. They are people at the end of the day and the closer we work together the easier both of our jobs are going to be.
Thought that was interesting? You can find out more about Digital PR and read all about what we do at Rise at Seven and get in touch if you have any questions.