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Media love to brand themselves independent. It doesn’t mean much

Media love showy descriptions of themselves. The problem is they usually don't mean much to readers.

[Editor’s note: Growing dependence on reader revenue means media need to connect with audiences. Current approaches to branding aren’t doing publications any favours. We are refreshing this article, initially published in late 2019]

The way media brand themselves is clearly not working. A study of 100 media companies show the main theme of slogans is “independent”, or some variation on the idea. That doesn’t mean much to audiences.

Ask journalists anywhere what sets their media apart and you’ll probably run into one of the following answers. 

“We’re objective – we give you the real story.”

“We’re truly independent, we’re not some mouthpiece.”

“We have a [fill in the blank – smarter, edgier, more interesting] take on news.”

How media position themselves is an almost existential question. News organisations live in an overcrowded field, fighting not just against other outlets for precious seconds of audience attention, but also against such giants as Facebook or Netflix (not to mention non-sedentary activities like sport or, God-forbid, family time). 

But media are not equal. Topics covered, political leanings, style are all different (or at least should be) to suit the specific audiences needs.

So how do media actually position themselves? A look at 100 media organizations from across the entire world (mostly large, recognized organizations, but also national leaders, digital start-ups and niche non-profits) shows some surprising, and some painfully obvious results.

More from The Fix: Too many news media are terrible at communicating their value proposition

Media love to brand themselves as independent
Word cloud of media slogans from 100 media across the world. Source: The Fix research team

An increasingly global challenge

Media in many countries feel growing pressure from over-bearing governments and oligarchs. So it is not surprising to see how many outlets – particularly on the non-profit and investigative end of the spectrum – bandy about their independence.  

But that’s where things get complicated. Revenue streams for most media have been decimated over the past two decades. Hence, many depend on just one or two sources of revenues (e.g., a dying print run and some grants). As a result, running around town shouting about independence can look like living in denial. 

Grant-based financing isn’t bad in itself, but it typically has a turn on/ off mechanism for annual budgets. That gives a lot more power to funders than is typical of most advertisers. It’s chunky, unlike subscriptions which come and leave in gradual waves (allowing more freedom to change and adapt).

The London-based team of The Conversation (slogan: “academic rigour, journalistic flair”) emphasize their publication’s independence in their description, further explaining that most funding comes from a bunch of UK universities and a few foundations.

“Saying you’re independent doesn’t mean anything for readers”

Jakub Górnicki, co-founder and head of Outriders

That’s pretty much a best case scenario. Most donors don’t have the perceived neutrally academic institutions. Indeed, alt-right figures from failed Toronto mayoral candidate Faith Goldy, to the UK’s Paul Joseph Watson have made a career (at least a social media career) decrying the support media and other civil society organizations by the likes of billionaire philanthropist George Soros

(Disclaimer: I received a master’s degree from the Central European University founded by George Soros. It was a great education).

Campaigns by populist forces from Budapest to London have harmed the image of donation-supported media. Claiming independence doesn’t solve that problem.

In fact, it might make things worse. By focusing on the futile “dependent-independent conversation”, media actually miss an important opportunity to connect with readers.

A media brand should speak to audiences

“Saying you’re independent doesn’t mean anything for readers,” argues Jakub Górnicki, founder and head of the Polish media startup Outriders. Everyone uses it, he argues, even though they depend on donor financing or other patronage.

Audiences are not followed, especially the high-brow readers most media aim for. They see that you are dependent on donor financing, and the whole thing rings hollow, Górnicki summed it up.

Whether you’re a non-profit media or already have a viable business model, turning readers into fans is critical to survival. 

Terms that keep coming up in media slogans – “breaking,” “journalism,” “reporting,” “leader” – are often meaningless for audiences. At best, they tell you that you are dealing with a media company.

As a result, many media are now shifting towards messages their readers can identify with. Ukraine-based English-language publication Kyiv Post, for example, went from “Independence. Community. Trust.” to “Ukraine’s Global Voice”. The goal: better reflect its role as the top international source of information about Ukraine (80% of its online readers are outside Ukraine).

Poland’s leading daily Wyborcza made things political (like Washington Post, which changed its slogan to “Democracy dies in darkness”). The outlet decided this July to go from “We are not indifferent” to “No freedom without Solidarity” (a historical reference to its slogan from the transition from communism period but that’s a longer story).

Outriders, which specializes in foreign reporting using a reportage style amplified by innovative formats, went a different way. “What makes us special is that our reporters always know the local context,” Górnicki told me at a cafe in Warsaw’s Stalinist Palace of Culture. 

“So we leaned into it,” he concluded, “and said ‘We are on the ground’.”

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Photo by Ryoji Iwata on Unsplash

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