Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

In the age of 'fake news,' media outlets turn to advertising to tout the importance of journalism

The motorcade of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump makes its way past the New York Times building after a meeting in New York U.S., November 22, 2016.

Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

In Donald Trump's America, inaccuracies have been rebranded as "alternative facts," facts that the administration does not like have been recast as "fake news," and the President has labelled the press "the enemy of the American people."

Partly in response to those pressures, media outlets are investing more in marketing campaigns – some for the first time in years – to emphasize the importance of the work they do.

On Sunday during the Academy Awards broadcast in the U.S., The New York Times will launch its new national ad campaign with the slogan: The truth is more important now than ever. The campaign will continue to run on television for more than a week, and will include billboards and other advertising in some markets. It's the first time The Times has run an advertising effort of this scale since 2010.

Story continues below advertisement

"There is a national, or really a global dialogue going on right now about facts, and the truth," said David Rubin, senior vice-president and head of brand at New York Times Co. "How does one know what the truth is? We've already been part of that dialogue, and we've seen that that dialogue is leading to an increase in interest in supporting the news and organizations like ours. We thought this was a good time to continue that debate."

This debate is not just important from an ideological point of view for the fourth estate: It is also a matter of business survival. As all news outlets grapple with declines in advertising revenue, many, including The Times, have shifted their focus to digital and print subscriptions to sustain themselves. Whereas, traditionally, advertising has made up the majority of revenue, that balance has shifted in recent years. Last year, 56.6 per cent of New York Times Co.'s revenue came from circulation; advertising accounted for 37.3 per cent .

And while journalists are operating in a more hostile climate than usual, it has not been entirely bad for business. The U.S. election season saw a huge bump in subscriptions for The Times, which added 276,000 new subscriptions in the last three months of 2016, its best quarter for such growth since 2011.

But how people approach the news is a growing concern: "Fake news" is often used by those who don't agree with a perceived slant in some media coverage, particularly of politics. The term also applies to hoax stories that have proliferated on social media.

One reason inaccurate stories can spread so quickly is confirmation bias: people tend to share things that confirm their view of the world, and with the dominance of social media in our digital lives, many people are self-selecting the groups of people they hear from most – and the types of stories they share. That news consumption happens so often through social-media referrals means information now reaches people through ideological filters even more often.

"Moving from a 'subscribe now' message to 'this institution is essential to a thriving democracy,' has already been a shift that has happened, certainly in the past few months if not the past year, as we've entered into an increasingly partisan political environment and a distributed and fraught media landscape," said Sam Rosen, vice-president of brand and customer growth at The Atlantic, which has launched a digital ad campaign, called Question Your Answers. In a video, the actor Michael K. Williams of The Wire and Boardwalk Empire fame, has a debate with himself over whether he has been typecast in his career. The conversation touches on the politics of race and identity, the idea of free will and self-determination.

"Challenging ourselves to think more deeply and critically about whether we're exposing ourselves to a diversity of opinions or just confirming our existing biases, I think that message does take on a particular importance and poignancy in the moment that we're in – not necessarily just reactively to what Trump has said about the media, but also the way that media consumption has changed and really transformed over the past four to five years," Mr. Rosen said.

Story continues below advertisement

"We as a democracy, and media specifically, are facing a new set of challenges in terms of, on the one hand, how to engage in the kind of civic discourse that has been the bedrock of democracy since our founding; and on the other hand, pursue truth and navigate the complexity of the world that we're living in, guided by reason and fact and open-mindedness."

The last time the magazine launched a campaign nearly a decade ago, it focused on its transition into a digitally savvy media company. Now, the magazine and many other media organizations are starting to talk more about the importance of journalism to democracy – whether in pop-up ads on their own websites or in Facebook ad campaigns.

The Washington Post has introduced a tagline – Democracy dies in darkness – appearing on its website and other digital properties, such as Snapchat.

"This is actually something we've said internally for a long time in speaking about our mission. We thought it would be a good, concise value statement that conveys who we are to the many millions of readers who have come to us for the first time over the last year," Post spokesperson Kris Coratti said in an e-mailed statement.

The New Yorker is currently running ads on social media with the slogan, "Fight fake stories with real ones."

The Globe and Mail is currently running an advertising campaign pushing a similar message with the slogan, Journalism matters.

Story continues below advertisement

Mr. Rubin expects The Times to invest more in advertising, particularly to communicate the depth of resources required to produce independent reporting – and why it is important to support that effort. "Fundamentally, what we're talking about is raising awareness for the entire category of quality, independent, original reporting – and the importance of paying for it."

Report an error Licensing Options
About the Author
Media and Marketing Reporter

Susan covers marketing and media for Report on Business. Before joining The Globe and Mail in 2009, Susan worked as a freelance reporter contributing to the Ottawa Citizen, the Montreal Gazette and other publications, as well as CBC Radio's Dispatches and Search Engine. She has a Masters degree in journalism from Carleton University. More


The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

We’ve made some technical updates to our commenting software. If you are experiencing any issues posting comments, simply log out and log back in.

Discussion loading… ✨