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Wild 2023 in Media May Be Just the Opening Act for Greater Disruption: 2024 Media Trends to Watch for Professional Services Firms

The media landscape continues to shift, and 2023 was certainly an eventful year. Layoffs abounded based not just on the slash-and-burn tactics deployed by private equity to gut local newspapers, but also on the national level – with significant reductions at large outlets, such as the Washington Post and NPR. (Spoiler alert: the early part of 2024 hasn’t reversed this trend at all: rather, it seems to have accelerated.)

Does Social Media Care About News?

In 2023, Meta (parent of Facebook and Instagram) decided to pull news from its Canadian users rather than pay for its use. It also launched Threads, a new app aimed at competing with X (formerly Twitter) and a widely used news platform (with high use by media members). Meta’s interest in presenting high quality news to its app’s users is unknown, especially since in July 2022 it cut off funding for U.S. news publishers.

X, owned by Elon Musk, conducted sweeping layoffs and enacted a near total embrace of free speech, reinstating accounts previously banned and removing most content controls.

Musk, of Tesla and SpaceX exploits, made this plea, “I hope people around the world engage in citizen journalism, so we know what’s truly happening and we get real-time, on-the-ground coverage!” His platform did gain former Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s next program iteration (after Fox took him off the air) and was the home of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ presidential campaign launch, a rather buggy affair.

Also significant on X is the blue check verified user badge, which Musk made available for all with a monthly payment. Previously this mark meant that a noteworthy outlet or individual had been verified as being who they purport to be. Now this is unclear to users, leading to potential confusion. One person who is for sure real, but won’t be paying to prove this: NBA superstar and frugalista LeBron James who succinctly responded to the fee proposal with, “I ain’t paying the $5.” (Musk apparently picked up his and some other “legacy” celebrity tabs.)

The biggest risk to elections and possibly humanity (included in this subset are professional services companies) are unverified “deepfake” videos and photos, like this one of the Pope in a puffy jacket. (Were we 100% convinced it was real? Yes, indeed.) Novelties are one thing, but we also saw former president Trump being dragged into custody in a deepfake, emphasis “fake,” video. The Gen AI tools available to users now, combined with lax (or non-existent) content controls on Meta properties and X create a real risk for nearly everyone with the onus suddenly on proving something that looks real is actually fake.

Social Media Shrinkage

But, maybe social media doesn’t matter as much as it once did?

Twitter/X, Threads, TikTok, Pinterest, Instagram, Snapchat… The list goes on. A recent report from Morning Consult suggests 61% of adults with social media accounts have become more selective about posting. Additionally, Gartner estimates that 50% of consumers will significantly limit their interactions with social media by 2025 and notes “a perceived decay in quality” as the driver.

What does this mean for professional services firms?

  • Pick your social media channels carefully and curate them wisely. Firms that try to be everywhere will end up nowhere. One thoughtful, firmwide LinkedIn or Instagram channel can be your hub.
  • Beware of channel taint and proceed thoughtfully. The “suggested content” that can accompany your carefully planned post on YouTube or X has the potential to reflect poorly on the firm if you aren’t paying attention to breaking news.
  • Blow up your “engagement” metrics. A whole generation is literally coming up that lurks (sees content, but does not engage). Quality content where feedback flows through online and traditional channels is its own reward. It’s not 2007 where we set marketing budgets and content runs by the number of “Likes.”

Losing Newspaper Barons

In California, the legal trade outlet the Daily Journal lost its owner Charlie Munger (the Robin to Warren Buffet’s Batman at Berkshire Hathaway). The DJ is the only statewide legal trade and maintains a five-days-a-week printing schedule.

Rubert Murdoch – a newspaper champion and devotee – stepped down from The Wall Street Journal’s parent company News Corp. – and shortly thereafter changes started to be noticed.

Disney’s Dilemmas

Disney CEO Bob Iger, who returned to the Mouse House after a glorious stint and restless retirement has made hints (later walked back) that he could sell off ABC – a seemingly unthinkable thing even five years ago.

Disney’s ESPN unit also shifted a longstanding stance against sports betting and partnered with a gaming company, all while hinting that it may want/need “strategic partners” (think sports leagues) to ensure its long-term success. ESPN also completed significant job reductions, coincidentally after inking a massive contract with an ex-NFL kicker to bring his YouTube sports show to its network (to run seemingly all day).

The possible sale of ABC and the anointment of a tank-top-clad sports influencer suggests: 1) the old ways to reach a mass audience (and advertiser money) are in trouble (likely only saved by live sports); and 2) it’s now a reasonable proposition to pluck a niche-audience influencer into a mass market machine in the hope of cobbling together a sizeable hybrid audience and resulting ad dollars.

Podcast Armageddon

A commercial cheekily shows us a person who knows there is a “Podcast About That,” “that” being nearly every topic. It’s a truism of today’s podcast world, but not for long. Podcasts are facing an inflection point, with millions of dollars in previous studio acquisitions being written off. Spotify, which purchased Parcast and Gimlet Media for nearly $300M effectively killed both studios in 2023.

There is a very eerie and parallel track to what we saw with online news outlets, particularly BuzzFeed – going from quality and award aspirations to reality and listicles, because there was no profitability in the former. This is a troubling development as it puts more pressure on journalism-forward outlets to up their game. (Thankfully, the New York Times launched an audio app with a lot of great, substantive content.)

For professional services companies the “red alert” light should be flashing: the return on podcasts is tough, the resources needed to succeed are large and we really, really, really don’t need more niche offerings. The podcast world right now is like a Baskin-Robbins, but instead of 31* flavors, we have 10,000, and there just aren’t enough ears for all that content to work.

(*Yes, we know Baskin-Robbins now has more than 31 flavors. The point still stands!)

The Real “Fake News”

As more communities become “news deserts” and as distrust of national media remains high, the yawing gap and need for “news” has increasingly been pursued by veiled (and sometimes thinly) partisan or advocacy groups offering old-time sounding titles that even have managed to infiltrate media databases.

Take the Pennsylvania Record, which aims to cover that state’s legal system in a way that enables its reader to make the public business their business. A deeper dive reveals a group of publications that Wikipedia explains are produced by the ILR or  Institute for Legal Reform (ILR). The Wikipedia entry goes on to suggest:

Critics of ILR and other tort reform organizations argue that the organizations limit the access of ordinary citizens to be compensated for harms done to them by corporations through faulty products and/or harmful services. Critics argue that such interest groups do not promote judicial efficiency, legal ethics, or any other public purpose, but merely protect corporations from the consequences of their misdeeds.

Critics further argue in order to pursue their agenda, the ILR has created several newspapers around the country that present readers with biased, anti-victim accounts of cases and pro-“tort reform” commentary.

Now, depending on your firm’s viewpoint, this outlet may constitute perfectly good publicity. For other organizations, being seen as engaging with such an outlet may be grounds for contract termination. It’s a matter of perspective, and it’s advisable to understand yours before hitting “send” on your firm content (or worse, linking from the firm website to an outlet in conflict with the firm’s perspective).

Zombie News = Clicks!

As media outlets consolidate (and slowly kill off local editions) and multi-publication parent outlets adopt the hub-and-spoke model for reporting we noted in 2023, company mentions that performed well in terms of clicks get shoehorned in to every. single. possible. article. This can be great if your company was lauded for an innovation (think Gen AI use), but lousy if you were dinged by negative news (think layoffs).

The click strategy revolves around number of exposures, and the bigger the names/“brands” featured, the more clicks ensue. Media outlets, particularly in the trade space, are facing incredible pressure to show numbers for advertisers and to do so with ever slimmer writing staffs. Instead of cutting total content produced, a wave of AM and PM newsletters have been spawned with gently reshuffled content – to allow this new “news” to get another set of eyeballs. Then, when a development happens that is thin on context, instead of devoting resources to broaden the story, an old story is just stapled on – leading to zombie content. This is why your bad news (and that’s often what repeats) seemingly never goes away.

Gen AI

No forward-looking list would be complete without dragging Gen AI into it. The New York Times is suing OpenAI and Microsoft for training AI with its news coverage. AP is licensing its coverage to train ChatGPT. And Sports Illustrated, a once-respected sports authority, has fired its CEO after public backlash following allegations that  the publication was using AI-generated content and fictitious reporters.

Bottomline, while it’s not going away, Gen AI is not ready for primetime. Choose your use cases carefully. Understand the implications of feeding your company materials into the machine. Be transparent in your application of the technology. And edit and fact check the heck out of any materials produced with a Gen AI assist. There will be more exposes of Gen AI missteps in 2024. Be sure it’s not your company.

Magic 8-Ball Says

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Our constant connectivity and access to technology has firmly destroyed the bedrock on which traditional media was built. Audience fragmentation is extreme, and attention spans are short and in hot demand. We’re likely to see a similarly disruptive 2024 in the media. Professional services firms are well advised to hold on. The contours of what works and what doesn’t are slowly becoming clearer. There is still a great need for explainers and real news. Continuing to offer thoughtful analysis and high-quality content should be the goal. There has never been so much noise, nor a greater need to serve as the trustworthy signal.

 

— Michael Bond, Traci Stuart

 

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