If brands really believe in having purpose, they should support local media

—Not advertising around the news might make sense in the short term, but letting local news crumble harms everyone, says Jeromy Lloyd—

While working at home with my wife for the last few weeks, I’ve been privileged to watch her do her job up close. I always suspected she was a superhero, and now I know for sure.

Every day since the pandemic began, she’s gone to extraordinary lengths to help the millions who live in our city deal with the COVID-19 crisis. She and her team work 14-hour days and have been giving up precious hours every weekend so that accurate information reaches an anxious public.

My wife is a section editor for a daily newspaper in a major American city that has completely transformed into a work-from-home pandemic task force. Her day begins with an 8 a.m. editorial meeting on Zoom and doesn’t end until she collapses into bed with her phone still pinging last-minute questions about the next morning’s stories. Her life is a constant stream of research, editing, breaking news and finding new ways to connect with readers to learn what information they need most.

Her team amazes me every day, as do the thousands of journalists doing the exact same thing in small towns and big cities across Canada and the U.S. They keep our communities up to date on which businesses are open, what government services are still available, how food and supplies can be safely accessed and how to mitigate the risks of infection. They show us how hard hit our communities are, and what’s to come. And they do all this while calling bullshit on the torrent of misinformation spewing from social media and, occasionally, the government.

Like grocery store employees and first responders, local reporters have become an essential part of our society’s pandemic survival strategy. But way too many are going to lose their jobs as a reward for their dedication. And it’s avoidable.

Newspaper ad revenues have fallen significantly at least in part because advertisers want to avoid having their ads near COVID content. Even though reporters’ work is yielding record-breaking traffic and new subscriptions, brands are pulling back their marketing. And I get it. Advertising is an investment and—as with any investment—caution can mitigate risk in a fast-changing market.

Running ads next to headlines about infection rates can be risky. Depending on the messaging and creative, an ad designed for a pre-pandemic market may come off as tone deaf or exploitative. So at first, it made sense for brands to blacklist coronavirus-related terms from their online buys. But doing so comes at a real cost beyond their brands, one that frays the social fabric.

When professional journalism is discredited, starved and increasingly replaced by user-generated content in social media “news feeds,” it becomes difficult for communities to work together because they can no longer agree on a basic set of shared facts. If that happens—pardon me: now that this is happening—we’re starting to see dangerous divisions in terms of how we should protect each other.

Journalists are not perfect, but their core intent is to report truths that people need to hear; algorithms give people the content that confirms their beliefs and biases.

I started covering marketing and media just before the last downturn. Not long after, and increasingly so in recent years, more marketers have claimed to seek a new, often ill-defined goal for their brands: purpose. Post financial meltdown, more people were loudly and repeatedly asking brands tough questions about ethics via the new power of social media.

Companies learned they needed to stand for something, prove they were more than a crude engine for commerce, or at least offset their social and ecological impact. Purpose isn’t a fad—it’s become a pillar of branding.

Preserving local news is a huge and urgent social need. I think saving a pillar of society is a great purpose to have.

As antithesis, I’ll say that there is certainly much to criticize about the news business in 2020 and how “the media” hit such dire straits. But this current crisis isn’t about out-dated business models or shifting audience behaviour. It’s not about the columnists and pundits we disagree with, or the politicization of big media, or fake news, or cynicism.

This is about the media doing exactly what we need it to do—keeping people informed—even though that steers the industry towards its death. Newspapers are uniquely vulnerable: as for-profit companies they can’t capitalize on record-breaking demand, but as essential social institutions they aren’t protected from market forces by government fiat or social convention.

Here’s the thing: we’re on wartime footing. It has come time to ask people to sacrifice what’s “normal” so that there is a “normal” to return to when the crisis is over. In the 1940s, that was about food rationing, volunteerism and scrap drives. Now, it’s about creating safety nets for those who lost their jobs. The wartime comparison may seem like an overreaction to some, but to quote a smart online guy, “it only looks like overreacting if you have no idea what’s going on.”

While Ottawa and Washington aren’t using wartime language or authority yet, people—your customers and workforce—have already figured it out. With billions already voluntarily sacrificing their freedom in quarantine, the internet is rife with examples of people helping others stay safe, fed and financially secure.

The business world is starting to catch on. GE’s employees demanded the company shift production to manufacture ventilators for overrun hospitals, and management agreed, partnering with Ford to make it happen. Smaller companies are retooling their production lines to make—and donate—essentials for health care workers.

It is charity. It is a sacrifice of resources. It is necessary. These companies are investing (i.e. donating) in the market (i.e. society) to ensure it survives the crisis.

The service provided by local news rooms deserves that same investment. Luckily, it’s a much easier investment to make. It doesn’t require retooling production lines or pivoting an entire workforce. You just run ads. Avoiding exploitation and backlash is dead simple if you stay true to purpose and honest about your intention.

Run ads that simply say thank you to local journalists who keep us informed and politicians accountable. No salesmanship. Just show your colours. Run ads that say “Our company supports local journalism. Our brand has your community’s back.”

By the standard crisis management playbook, backing away from newspapers might make good business sense in the short term. But there’s nothing standard about this crisis. Avoiding advertising around the news might protect profitability and corner office jobs, but the result of letting local news crumble harms literally everyone else.

Jeromy Lloyd is an award-winning journalist and editor who has covered marketing, branding and media since 2007.