Six PR Insights from the Pew Research Center’s State of the Media 2014

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The Pew Research Center’s annual State of the News Media should be required reading for PR professionals.

While I took issue with last year’s study – struggled to make sense of the overlap between journalism and business storytelling – the 2014 report is back on track.

I’ve highlighted six points with relevance to business communicators along with my commentary.


As an industry, news in the United States generates roughly $63 billion to $65 billion in annual revenue, according to Pew Research analysis of official filings, projections by financial firms and self-reported data. While admittedly an estimate, the figure provides a sense of scale.

For context, the PR industry generated around $11 billion on a global basis on 2012. I knew the business of communications was smaller than journalism. I just didn’t realize it was this much smaller.

Digital players have exploded onto the news scene, bringing technological knowhow and new money and luring top talent. BuzzFeed, once scoffed at for content viewed as “click bait,” now has a news staff of 170, including top names like Pulitzer Prize-winner Mark Schoofs, and is the kind of place that ProPublica’s Paul Steiger says he would want to work at if he were young again. Mashable now has a news staff of 70 and enticed former New York Times assistant managing editor Jim Roberts to become its chief content officer.

Nothing like economic success to legitimize the pure online media plays. It’s really a derivative of the “follow the money” line associated with Woodward and Bernstein. As media properties like a BuzzFeed generate profits, they’ve got the financial wherewithal to poach high-end talent.

It’s interesting to drill down into that phrase “technological knowhow.” This wave of new media properties doesn’t compartmentalize technology. Instead, technology underpins every aspect of the operation.

Consider how the poster child of new media, Vox, describes its mission:

“We’re solving the problem of developing high-value digital journalism, storytelling, and brand advertising at scale.”

In digital news, the overlap between public relations and news noted in last year’s State of the News Media report became even more pronounced. One of the greatest areas of revenue experimentation now involves website content that is paid for by commercial advertisers – but often written by journalists on staff – and placed on a news publishers’ page in a way that sometimes makes it indistinguishable from a news story. Following the lead of early adapters like The Atlantic and Mashable, native advertising, as it is called by the industry, caught on rapidly in 2013.

This is one of the more amusing passages in the study.

Overlap between PR and news is called “native advertising?” Given that it’s paid media with the publication’s staff often writing the content, the overlap exists between ADVERTISING and news.

I think watchers of journalism like Pew continue to be in denial that companies increasingly funnel dollars into owned media, taking their stories directly to the target audience.

More than six in ten U.S. adults now watch videos online – and roughly half of those, 36% of all U.S. adults, watch news videos, according to new Pew Research Center survey data. This is roughly the same percentage of Americans who now get news from Facebook or watch cable news channels regularly.

Pew Research Center graph- percentage of Americans who watch news video online

And, while no firms break out digital video advertising revenue specifically for news, the category of digital advertising as a whole is up sharply, growing 44% from 2012 to 2013, to an estimated $4.15 billion, according to eMarketer. Technological improvements lowering the barrier to entry, both for the audience and those in the news business, have spurred a wave of new entrants into the digital news video space.

As PR retools for visual storytelling, video must be in the mix.

Half of Facebook and Twitter users get news on those sites as do 62% of reddit users.

Pew Research Center graph- Americans use of social media

The data shows the social sharing of news is a key driver behind consumption, particularly Facebook and YouTube. I wouldn’t discount LinkedIn even though it sits in the fifth position with a paltry 3 percent consuming news. Between velocity and a higher quality audience, it deserves to be a priority in communications planning.

In this study of U.S. internet traffic to 26 of the most popular news websites, direct visitors – those who type in the news outlet’s specific address (URL) or have the address bookmarked – spend much more time on that news site, view many more pages of content and come back far more often than visitors who arrive from a search engine or a Facebook referral. The data also suggest that turning social media or search eyeballs into equally dedicated readers is no easy task.

Pew Research Center- graph of referral traffic to news sites

A person spring boarding from Facebook to a media property is seeking instant gratification from specific content. The same mentality drives the person plugging [Justin Bieber problems] into Google. I see the glass as half full with media properties benefiting from incremental traffic. Rather than convert these visitors into “dedicated readers,” the better approach lies in how to immediately feed them more content like the stuff that originally brought them to the site.


A healthy state of journalism is good for everyone, including PR.

Yet, as media properties reinvent the model as we’re seeing with Vox,  communicators need to rethink how they go about media relations.

It stands to reason that what worked five years ago isn’t going to align with journalism’s new world order.

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2 comments

2 Comments so far

  1. toni muzi falconi April 23rd, 2014 2:20 pm

    I normally read your posts with interest, and this post had the same effect.
    One initial point however I hope you will want to reconsider.

    You say that
    ‘For context, the PR industry generated around $11 billion on a global basis on 2012. I knew the business of communications was smaller than journalism. I just didn’t realize it was this much smaller.’

    If you read this paper from 2006 on the institute for pr’s website http://www.instituteforpr.org/topics/how-big-is-pr/ ,
    as much as you might not wish to agree with its proposed methodology, I am sure you will agree that the arguments indicating how flawed traditional pr economic impact analysis methods are.

    There is no point in using the same methodology to guestimate the economic impact of a mostly people intensive activity such as public relations and a mostly capital intensive activity such as advertising.

    Your thoughts on this?
    thank you

  2. hoffman April 23rd, 2014 3:40 pm

    Toni,

    I’m glad you took the time to weigh in. Even after I wrote that $11B number, it didn’t seem quite right. Your calculation of the U.S. PR business at $48B back in 2006 probably puts PR’s 2013 number horse-shoe close to the Pew estimate of journalism at $63B to $63B.

    Of course, as the boundaries of PR increasingly take in digital communications, we’re going to see the industry’s value spike. Blue Focus, the largest “PR company” in China, recently reported a massive increase in revenue reflecting its digital work now falls under the PR umbrella.

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