“Going Direct”: Structural Shifts, Challenges, and Implications

Earlier this year, venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz set off a shockwave through the technology, tech investing, and the media chattering classes by announcing it is expanding its in-house editorial operations. Unsaid but understood was that this also meant a decreasing emphasis and dependence on the press for storytelling.

The discussion around the announcement has mostly fallen into predictable tropes about the rivalry between tech and media, from it being another widening of the relational chasm between two groups who don’t much like one another all the way to an act of war on journalism itself. The conflict framing has a natural appeal. Everyone loves a rivalry, and journalists love writing about the State of Journalism.

But the tech-media rivalry narrative is the least interesting aspect of what’s happening, or at least an aspect that can’t teach us very much. Bigger things are happening under the surface.

As I see it, there are three distinct structural shifts happening that both explain and give merit to a shift in emphasis toward businesses using their direct channels instead of relying on media coverage. Collectively, they have some profound implications for companies, communicators, and journalists.

1. The trust gap benefits business over the press

Put simply, Americans on the whole trust business as an institution more than the press as an institution. That’s not conjecture. It’s backed by data.

At Edelman (where, full disclosure, I work in the corporate communications practice), our latest edition of our annual Trust Barometer — measuring levels of trust in different facets of public life for over 20 years — revealed a nine-point gap in trust between the two institutions. Business is seen as both more competent and ethical than the media, too. This hasn’t always been the case: back in 2013, business and media were basically equal in trust levels. The two have been drifting apart ever since.

The tech industry specifically stands out as being even higher on trust than business as a whole, even though no industry has suffered steeper declines in measured trust over the last 10 years than tech. (The greatest industry trust gainer over that span? Financial services. We’re a long way from 2008.) Other surveys like The Verge’s most recent tech survey also validate that the technology industry enjoys very high levels of favorability and trust.

Once you dive into subgroups of the population, there are divergences, some quite predictable. For instance, people who identify as Republicans trust the media quite a bit less than the mean, while Democrats trust it quite a bit more. But for the population as a whole, we end up with a picture that’s quite favorable to businesses telling their stories directly through owned media.

The relative trust advantage business as an institution now holds over media provides a bedrock of legitimacy for going direct.

2. Consumption changes prioritize good stories over outlets

Radical changes in information consumption over the last two decades also lend more favor to a direct approach, starting with the shrinking of the atomic unit of news consumption. That atomic unit used to be the daily newspaper, the weekly or monthly magazine, or the nightly broadcast. These offered, in theory, more comprehensive information wrapped in a masthead or news brand. The web generally, but especially social media platforms, have split the media atom to the point where the unit is now the individual story, column, or video. People can create their own editions every time they pull open a timeline or news feed.

What’s less understood is the way in which this shift levels the playing field for owned content in how people decide the items they consume. The change in the atomic unit means people are likely using a new calculus to make those decisions. There isn’t yet a large body of research into shifts here, but at least one early paper would indicate it puts news and brands on an equal footing.

In a University of Colorado study published in 2019, two groups of Millennial audiences were exposed to two different sets of Facebook news feed items. One group saw items that appeared to be from a news organization; the other saw the same stories but modified to appear as if from a non-news organization. The result? The two groups gave both feeds the same levels of credibility.

This one study isn’t conclusive in and of itself, and I’d like to see far more scholarship on this phenomenon particularly as it relates to high-stakes issues where businesses are speaking from a position that’s more overtly self-interested. But it does provide substance to the notion that, in a feed-based news world, good high-quality stories tend to play no matter where they come from.

3. The PR/reporter spread is widening

There are far more stories businesses want to tell than there are reporters to tell them. How do we know that? Let’s look at U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data. In 2000, there were about two people working in public relations for every one working reporter in America. By 2019, that spread more than doubled to over five, driven by both an increase in PR jobs and a decrease in reporter jobs. By 2029, BLS projects the spread will keep expanding to over six.

This data likely understates the situation for the technology industry and tech coverage. Even if a news outlet were to double its tech-dedicated staff over the last ten years it would still be behind the growth of in-house comms jobs. Companies like Google and Facebook have hundreds of full-time global communications staff, all incented to drive awareness of and affinity for their particular remit within the company through storytelling. Imagine being the single beat writer at an outlet dedicated to reporting exclusively on one of them. Or a singular reporter dedicated to the entirety of venture capital.

Those are extreme examples, but there are and will continue to be dramatically more comms people competing for ever fewer chances to have a reporter cover their company or organization. That pent-up pressure has to externalize somehow. Corporate storytellers will use other means of getting their stories out.

These three trends are not just occurring but accelerating. So how should companies, communicators, and journalists think about this new landscape, and what does it mean for the future?

Not for the faint of heart — or light of wallet

Going direct takes organizational commitment and clarity of purpose, plus non-trivial amounts of money and time.

In pursuing this strategy, company leaders need to be clear on what they’re building. A corporate editorial content strategy focused on storytelling and community-building is a very different beast than an SEO-focused content marketing strategy. One is about brand, the other concerned with driving leads. Confusing the two tends to lead to misaligned and frustrated teams unclear on what kind of results they’re supposed to deliver.

Let’s assume there’s organizational alignment, though. Lots of CEOs would love to have a weekly podcast or YouTube show to speak directly to their customers and the public. But many fewer are willing to shell out the dollars for the people and tools to actually produce such a thing, and make it good. Since we know people will willingly consume corporate content just as they would news content, it needs to meet the same high-quality bar to be seen as credible. It has to be interesting, useful, even entertaining.

Once you have that thing, you have to actually cultivate an audience. That also takes time, investment, and planning. This isn’t a Field of Dreams situation. Audiences get built over time and with considerable effort. You can accelerate that timeline with money and an aggressive paid promotion strategy, but that means investing even more.

Most importantly, though, none of this works without a foundation of trust in your business or organization already in place. You can do everything right, invest richly in content creation and production staff, hyper-target your desired audience and surround them with your content. But if you’re not trusted to begin with, it will fall flat.

So is traditional PR dead, then?

Well, no. But the practice of PR is going to be different. It has to be.

You might get the impression from reading this that traditional PR media relations aren’t worth the time or effort, so everyone should focus solely on going direct. That would be the wrong conclusion. Just because going direct is more advantaged than ever before doesn’t mean the press aren’t still hugely important.

Except for the very largest and most ever-present brands, most companies aren’t trying to reach a broad cross-section of all Americans. Their target audiences are more prescriptive — Gen Z gamers, Baby Boomers with a specific chronic disease, urban-dwelling working moms, and so on. Depending on the demographic attributes of these audiences, they may be more likely to trust media over business — or less likely! Audience matters more than ever, and every successful communications campaign starts with an understanding of who you’re trying to reach.

Just because the media on the whole has lower trust doesn’t mean individual outlets don’t vary greatly in their trust levels. We know they do, subject to many of the same demographic divides as trust overall. The arms-length validation provided by trusted outlets may carry less weight in a crowded information landscape, but it still does carry meaningful heft.

Even with audiences being more dispersed than ever, earned media is still a great reach and influence play. A well-timed and well-placed media hit can drive waves of attention as nothing else can. On Airbnb’s first earnings call as a public company CEO in February, founder and CEO Brian Chesky attributed PR and media relations as the most important drivers of the company’s brand equity, even more than brand marketing.

It’s also still cheaper to have someone else do or make something about you than to make it yourself.

What about journalism and journalists?

I’m not sure any journalist gives a hill of beans about what a flack like myself thinks they should do about the phenomena I’ve described. So consider this as perspective from a friend who values (and gladly pays) for journalism and wants to see good work succeed.

In my experience, journalism institutionally tends to assume a level of authority and trust based on the (mostly) noble intentions of its reporters and editors. That was a good assumption in a time where there was less total information in the world, from fewer sources, moving at a slower pace. That world is long gone, as Martin Gurri’s de rigeur book The Revolt of the Public lays out so well: the tsunami wave of information washes over all institutions, but especially legacy institutions of authority.

But as sources of news and information become more disparate and untethered from a masthead or a channel, both the institutions of journalism and the individual journalists themselves need to take greater steps to cultivate trust, to show people why they should be invested with authority.

There are some fledgling examples of new approaches to journalistic trust-building. Casey Newton at Platformer has an extraordinary public document detailing his aims, his worldview and assumptions, and the ways in which he collects information. I doubt many of Casey’s subscribers have actually read it in full, but its mere existence is a major credit to his seriousness; its honesty and openness are reasons to trust his work. Another example: for each of its product category reviews, Wirecutter starts with a section called “Why you should trust us” detailing the expertise and experience of the reviewer for the subject at hand, followed by sections showing their work in producing a review. Opinion, analysis, and product reviews are completely different animals than daily beat coverage, of course. But that doesn’t mean they can’t offer instructive examples.

While the means of news distribution have changed starkly over the previous decade, news presentation online remains largely the same: text with occasional links and photos, sometimes video, presented in a format that basically tracks the print experience. There’s a meaningful opportunity here to look at means of presenting stories that reinforce trust: presenting primary source documents in line instead of just writing in reference to them, detailing how a piece was sourced in ways people understand (a shocking percentage of people misunderstand what an anonymous source is, for instance, which is a significant problem), and presenting the bona fides of the reporter to the topic on the article, and not just in their bio linked off elsewhere.

Finally and perhaps most important: journalists and news outlets shouldn’t think of traffic, even repeat traffic, as a proxy for audience trust. Trust is its own thing and deserves its own independent measurement and minding. Tech journalists should know this better than anyone: their own coverage of social networks negates the idea that recurring usage or consumption of a product or service conflates to trust of it.

I’ve purposely refrained from making any value judgments on the phenomena above, and I imagine some may view that as a flaw of this piece. Is it good for society if business is trusted more than media? Does social media’s atomization of news and content contribute to an erosion of trusted institutions? Those are important questions that merit their own post (or book, frankly), and I won’t try and resolve them here. I imagine most people’s views derive from their relation to these institutions.

No matter what one makes of the questions above, though, owned media and “going direct” is going to continue to grow. Both owned media and the press have to — and will — find ways to coexist, and the public’s posture toward both will continue to fluctuate as business and media react and adapt to the new landscape. Savvy communicators, companies, and journalists will see this and change their mindset to meet their audiences in ways that build and reinforce trust.

[Special thanks to Karen Wickre for her keen editing and helpful input in helping me shape my own thinking on these matters.]

Pretty good cook, middling guitar player. Managing Director for Corporate & Advisory Services, Edelman. Alum of SoFi, Twitter, Google, Direct Relief.

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