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The World Will Always Need Story Tellers

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of making a road trip to Athens, Ohio to present to The Ohio University Society for Professional Journalists. I spoke about the potential opportunity for journalism students to find happiness, and maybe even a steady paycheck, in the field of marketing. The presentation forced me to think about the future of both journalism and marketing – two disciplines that have been joined at the hip for centuries.  The following post is a summary of my message to them.

My message was pretty simple. While the future of journalism is unclear, the future for those with journalism skills is bright.

During the 20th century, journalism and marketing had a stable relationship with one another. Journalists, along with entertainers, were hired by a small number of large media outlets to create content. These media outlets had huge audiences, and thus Marketers would subsidize the cost of content creators in exchange for access to the media companies’ audiences. Journalists got paid to report. Entertainers got paid to perform. Marketers signed the checks, placed the ads, and sold to the masses. Life was good.

Now, digital media has completely changed the landscape of both journalism and marketing. Audiences for traditional news and entertainment outlets are smaller and more fragmented.   While this is seemingly obvious, here are some facts I found in the Pew Research Institute’s 2010 State of The News Media report:

  • 2009 Television Ad Revenue was down 22%
  • 2009 Newspaper Ad Revenue was down 26%
  • 2009 Radio Ad Revenue was down 22%
  • 2009 Magazine Ad Revenue was down 17%
  • The projected loss of revenue for these channels between now and 2013 is another 41%
  • Newspaper reporting  editorial capacity has declined by $1.6 Billion dollars since the year 2000
  • Local television has lost 1,600 jobs in the last 2 years – a trend that is predicted to continue.

People are now consuming content from a seemingly infinite array of sources. As audiences for traditional media outlets have declined over the years, these organizations have reduced in size.  Newspaper staffs are smaller. Local television stations have fewer reporters. Local radio stations barely exist, and corporate radio continues to decline in listeners.  As a result, smaller audiences are less appealing to mass marketers, meaning that big companies are less willing to pay huge sums of money to subsidize content creation. Traditional media is not dead, but it is shrinking to fit into this new world. Bottom line for journalists is that there are fewer opportunities to go to work for newspapers, television and radio stations, or print magazines. Yes, there are still jobs in these areas, just fewer of them.

Still, it is not all bad news.  The world for journalism students, journalists, and marketers, is not worse – it’s just different.  Today every person is a broadcast channel. Everyone has the ability to build an audience, create and distribute content, tell stories, and garner attention.   In the ecosystem of message, messenger, and recipient, we are increasingly cutting out the middle man. Modern journalism is less about going to work to create content for a behemoth media outlet, and more about finding your voice and using to educate the world.  Modern marketing is far less about catchy advertising and far more about authentic story telling.

These two fields that once occupied opposite sides of a brick wall, now are on a more divergent path.  Marketers are still tasked with figuring out what people want and create new ways of delivering it.  What the public seems to want is the authenticity and engagement that comes from being part of a compelling story.  They are weary of corporate speak and tired marketing schlock. Rather people increasingly want the real, transparent, unfiltered truth that journalists are trained to create.

What about that wall between journalism and marketing? It used to be described like the Great Wall of China – a firm barrier that served to separate the two fields from one another. Now, I see the future of the two fields more like the fallen Berlin Wall.  A new reality has been created.  It is filled with uncertainty.  There are concerns for governance.  Still, all this apprehension and fear is far outweighed by a growing sense of exuberance, excitement, and possibility.  However that uncertainty is offset by The new world of paid, earned, and owned media is emerging before us and creating new, more flexible career paths for those with passion, creativity, and determination.

So what does the future hold for these Journalism students? I wish I knew, but alas I can only make an educated guess.  It is clear that the future of journalism will be radically different from the past.  For those who are flexible, opportunistic, creative, and hungry, the future will be incredible.  Individuals are flocking to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube as both creator and consumer – spending their time exploring their individual interests on their own terms.  Because of this, brands are likely to rely less on traditional media outlets to talk at people, and instead increasingly use social media to build their own audiences.  To do this well, they will need their own reporters and entertainers. Ethical challenges may still apply, but the increased transparency of the digital world makes these new relationships more possible and plausible. It may well be that today’s journalism students will be working in ad agencies and marketing departments instead of in newsrooms.

Journalists are trained to create authentic, engaging content. They understand research, analysis, story lines, point of view, tone, and topic. They are highly skilled at creating narratives that resonate in people’s hearts and minds.  Skilled story tellers, capable of grabbing our attention and engaging us in an ongoing conversation are now in high demand.  As my friend Kevin Dugan said when I asked his opinion on the subject, “The world will always need story tellers.”


My thanks to the Ohio University Society for Professional Journalists for inviting me to speak. I really enjoyed getting back to Athens for the first time in over a decade – the first time ever for the purpose of education.  Thank you for a wonderful time.