Out of Reach: If the Media Covers You, You’d Better Bring an Audience

If an item runs and no one reads it, does it make a sound?

I’ll be the bearer of bad news: the press that most publicists chase for clients isn’t really worth anything. There’s a good chance no one will actually see it. Except the client, that is. The flack will make damn sure of that.

But other than that, the assumptions of publicists, clients and journalists—that being featured matters, that being written about will drive awareness or sales or public image—are a collective chimera. The widespread belief is that the media has “reach.”

Trust me, they don’t. Not anymore. It’s become almost pathetic.

It hit me the other day when I snagged a profile for a client on a well-known website. The day it ran, the editor sent me an email: “Hey, we hate to ask but could you guys be sure to tweet and share the article for us?”

Dear God, I realized, my client has more readers than they do. The website needed us to attract an audience for them. They wanted the subject of the piece to send his readers over to them rather than the other way around.

This is our new media reality.

Today, after a media outlet or a blog writes about someone or something, the outlet typically engages in a frank discussion with that subject on how they can promote the piece together. The bigger the draw or online presence of the subject (whether an individual or a brand) being written about, the more conflicted the media is. A publisher can hardly expect to do solid journalism when the real reason they’re agreeing to the article is because the person has a lot of Twitter followers or a big email list.

The problem is, unlike the old days, when a media outlet could count on a set number of subscribers or tune-in viewers or newsstand sales, online there is more competition for everyone’s attention and no guarantee of anyone seeing what gets published.

Check out Forbes.com or Business Insider, two sites honest (or stupid) enough to show their pageview stats. Despite the sites’ huge viral reach, it’s not uncommon to catch articles with 250 views. Or 25. Or 2. Gawker has a better floor, but from time to time you’ll see a post do less than 1,000 views. Sure, these numbers are better than nothing, but these sites claim to have millions of “readers” each month. Many sites get far less. Which means that placing an item (as we used to say) is akin to pissing in the wind unless you’re willing to do the extra legwork of promoting it’s existence.

Check online versions of articles from some major magazines and you’ll notice the same thing: Most pieces draw zero comments (another way of saying nobody read it or cares). It’s true for this column as well: if I don’t get it started on social media, there is a risk it could go unnoticed.

In an environment with zero publishing constraints—where it doesn’t cost anything to publish and there is infinite editorial space—most modern media outlets have adopted the simple but self-defeating strategy of publishing everything they possibly can. Translation: throwing a bunch of shit at the wall and hoping something sticks. Well, most doesn’t.

Unsurprisingly, readers have an awkward relationship with this kind of content. Mostly, they don’t value or trust it much. So nobody—or basically nobody—reads Business Insider every morning. They read articles from Business Insider (or Politico or buzzfeed (BZFD) or Huffington Post or Bleacher Report), in a one-off capacity. Most readers have probably never even seen the home pages of these sites.

Pulling up one site and browsing for good stuff is increasingly rare. Instead, we read the links that get passed around or come up in web searches. Or we see them on aggregators like Reddit or Google or Yahoo News. In other words, we’re an audience of glancers, and sites have to do whatever it takes to catch our eyes.

Aside from the obvious implications of this One Off reality—which mostly means more of the kind of content that is easy and fun to share, like BuzzFeed listicles—it undermines an important power once reserved by media outlets. They used to have an audience they served and could count on. This gave them an upper hand when it came to what or what not to write about. It allowed them to preserve an editorial mission and perspective.

Either that or was necessary illusion, because when nobody really knew how many old media subscribers actually plowed through that 7000 word feature on Richard Gere, we could at least hold onto hope. The media was in the driver’s seat because there wasn’t sufficient evidence to dispute their right to it.

Today, when stories risk going unread or unnoticed, the subjects of such coverage must ask themselves why they should bother cooperating at all. (For a small business, the equivalent is when Groupon or LivingSocial asks you to advertise their offer to your existing customers. Um, I thought you had your own audience and if you don’t, why are we working together?) The purpose of getting media is exposure, to spread the word through an impartial source. If the media no longer has a dedicated audience, what good is it? Why would Taylor Swift (21.3M followers) ever need the New York Times (6.7M followers)? In the future, the Times might think twice about bashing Guy Fieri, considering he’s got nearly 1M of his own followers, a television platform and I’m sure an enormous mailing list.

As PR person, this means I’m doing two jobs. I take one of my clients and get them an excerpt or an article or a guest post on a “respected” outlet and then also have to drive an audience to it if I want people to know that it happened. Why not cut out the middleman and publish myself?

Simply put, it’s more effective to borrow a publication’s name. It makes an article seem less self-serving, more objective. And the website goes along with it because they need the pageviews. We create the news and then launder it via your “trusted” media outlets.

The saddest part is how the desperation for traffic makes media brands so easy to hijack. Marketing firms—the smart ones, anyway—will get an article published, then drive tens or hundreds of thousands of “visitors” to it through paid traffic sources like StumbleUpon in order to make sure that the article seems like a hit—driving it to the front page or most popular lists. (The same happens on YouTube, where the first 50-100,000 views might well be fake.) From here, cumulative advantage takes care of the rest.

How much longer media brands can greedily spend down the credibility that took decades to build? They sure aren’t making many deposits these days. In my view, it’s akin to a high fashion brand that started off doing a little bit of licensing with third parties but then grew addicted to the cheap cash flow. At some point, when you say yes to everything, you start undermining the intangibles that made the brand worth licensing in the first place…and the whole house comes crashing down.

It’s a short term play by both parties—exploiting the difference between perception and reality. Outlets hoping to catch handfuls of the audiences they’ve lost their grips on, marketers and brands leveraging their own access to fans in order to get the “credibility” that comes from being featured. The result is readers being fed more crap news.

It’s going to stay that way—and getting press will continue to be of less and less value—until media outlets start thinking about a new business model.

Until then, I, along with every other public figure, brand, and business, am stuck tweeting about my own article. So please, for the love of god, share this on Facebook and Twitter for me. Thanks!

Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of  Trust Me I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator and a PR strategist for brands and writers. Follow him on Twitter: @RyanHoliday.

Out of Reach: If the Media Covers You, You’d Better Bring an Audience