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High Five: five big ways that the world of media has changed in the last two decades

In this week's blog, Joe Saxton reflects on five of the most significant changes he thinks have taken place in the world of media in the last 20 years, and - crucially - what these changes mean for charities.
Joe Saxton 
media changes over the last 20 years
One of our staff members left us a few months back to be a Media Relations Officer. This got me thinking about how the way the media has changed since I was a Director of Communications 20 years ago. Here are the five big trends as I see them:

Trend 1: Print and word media down, social and video media up

The decline of newspaper and print media over the last 20 years has been dramatic. In 2000 the print revenue of US newspapers peaked; since then, it has declined from about $60 billion to $20 billion. In 2003 the Daily Mail sold nearly 2.4 million copies a day; now it sells 1.4 million copies a day. The rise of the internet has also changed the way that news is produced; it’s now not only continuously updated, but it has also led to a massive explosion in bloggers and social media platforms including Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. These are much more frequently the source of people’s information about the world. It’s important to note that it is not just an offline to online shift, but also a shift from words to photo and videos, and a long to short form shift. As with so many social trends, it is the smartphone as much as the internet that has made these changes possible.

Trend 2: Policy and ‘serious news’ down - people and personalities are the new stars

With the decline of print and word media has come a decline in ‘serious news’ carefully crafted and written over days or weeks. Instead we have been swamped by the rise of people and personality-based information. It is celebrities who are the new mass communicators: Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Rihanna, Ellen de Generes all have well in excess of 100 million followers on social media. Taylor Swift’s landmark endorsement of Democrats on Instagram last month is said to have caused a spike in voter registrations - more than 160,000 people are said to have registered in the 48-hour period after the singer posted her statement . Alongside celebrities are those whose entire living and fame is based on social media activity: Joe Suggs (doing rather well on Strictly at the moment), Joella, PewDiePie, Pete Cashmore and many more. This trend means that any notion of news coverage based on the importance of a story is hugely diminished, and the appeal of the people or their personalities greatly increased. From recent news stories, far more people are likely to know Justin Bieber has married Hayley Baldwin than that 1.8 million children in the UK live in poverty. 

Trend 3: Truth and facts in decline - what’s interesting is now what really matters

It’s easy to think that the media is all about the search for the truth, or revealing important news stories. Well, maybe once it was. Now, however, people are much more likely to click on a story about a cute puppy, gossip about a celebrity, or a story about someone getting free chicken nuggets for life. Charities tend to think that numbers of people who are suffering matter, and serious policy issues matter; increasingly these are less relevant, and it’s the moving stories about babies who need medical treatment that often catch the public eye – witness the £2 million that the parents of baby Charlie Gard raised for his treatment. To keep their stories relevant, charities need to be interesting and human first and get their fact-based policy message across second.

Trend 4: Established mass media outlets in decline, while social media outlets soar

As the mass media outlets of newspaper and TV have declined, they have been supplemented by the rise of user-chosen social media sources. So each of us chooses our own mix of media feeds. The days of the all-powerful newspaper editor have waned, though individuals like Rupert Murdoch still wield power. A few politicians like Donald Trump have exploited this trend to talk direct to ‘their people’ brilliantly. Equally, many people are their own social media editor, carefully sending articles, updates and photos to all their friends and family. This doesn’t mean we no longer hear serious news stories, but they are ‘diluted’ by our social and personal news feeds, and also by a variety of new media sources who provide a cocktail of ‘fake news’, alternative viewpoints and entertainment.

Trend 5: The all-powerful newspaper editor is a dying breed: the user chooses everything

In this world the choices are endless. This is part of a broad rise in choice in society. There are now 80,000 different ways you could order a Starbucks beverage, hundreds of mobile phone tariffs, 40,000 products in an average out-of-town supermarket and so on. Indeed it’s a sobering thought that there are probably few people who have exactly the same social media feeds as each other. In a newspaper the editor decides what we read, now we all decide for ourselves. Theoretically this blossoming of choice, could bring about a new era of understanding and enlightenment as we are all exposed to new views and perspectives. In practice it probably it just means we live in an ‘echo chamber’ where we here the views we agree with, and ‘don’t choose’ those we disagree with.

Winners and losers in the brave new world

Some of the winners are:

  • Celebrities. Celebrities and innovative individuals are the real winners. Celebrities are able talk direct to their fanbase if they so wish unhindered by the editing of others. 
  • Pluralism. It’s probably fair to say that the world of social media has allowed a blooming of an astonishing breadth of opinions. Not all of it very savoury, and some of it pretty bonkers.
  • Innovators. To really succeed in social media then be its vital to be innovative, to be direct, or charismatic, or have great stories to tell.

Some of the losers are:

  • The dull. Those organisations with dull (even if important) messages are often the losers, essentially if their work can’t be distilled into a few short sentences. It’s no coincidence that big celebrities (Katy Perry, etc) have far more followers than the biggest companies (Starbucks, Xbox and Samsung all have around 11/12 million). In turn these are better than the big charities who have, at best, around a few million followers (Unicef with 7 million and WWF with 4 million)
  • The slow. Any organisation who wants to flourish on social media need to respond quickly and 24/7. 
  • The formal. If an organisation makes it social media output sound like a form of corporate-speak it will be hard for it to get traction or generate interest.

What does all this mean for charities?

Charities and good causes can flourish in the new world of media. But they need to play to some natural strengths and suppress some of their corporatist urges.
  • Be personal. Scratch beneath the surface of any charity, large or small, and there are a raft of people doing amazing work. Those people are the ones who should be the epicentre of social media feeds, rather the anonymous messages/third person speak from a corporate HQ.
  • Tell stories. The stories that charity staff, volunteers and beneficiaries have to tell could be inspirational and go to the heart of a charity’s mission and work. It is stories that appeal to people’s heart and open their wallets. It is stories, rarely stats, that make supporters.
  • Use photos and videos. Here’s a simple test. How many photos are there on your website homepage of real people with their stories? And now how many videos? In a world where the fastest growing social media is the photo-based Instagram, it’s amazing how many charities still let words and anonymous photos dominate their websites and media output.
  • Take risks. Nobody breaks the mold by doing what everybody else has done. 
Charities who want to stand out from the thousands, nay – millions, of other media choices need to try things out, take risks, be prepared to fail, and innovate, innovate, innovate.


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