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When “Earned” Holds a Different Meaning


January 27, 2016

By Jessica Ross, Senior Media Specialist

As PR pros, we are aware the print news industry is struggling. Large layoffs, consolidation of smaller community papers, and dissolving of “softer” news beats increased in frequency throughout 2015. The Financial Times and The Las Vegas Review-Journal were sold to larger companies in an effort to salvage their papers, and recently instead of a corporate buy-out, we witnessed our very own Philadelphia Media Network donating The Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Daily News and Philly.com to a new nonprofit journalism institute owned by the Philadelphia Foundation. To the general public, a nonprofit holding ownership of a news entity may help ease the unrest regarding editorial ethics and bias that can come from a corporate buy-out, but we in the PR field can more clearly see how this may not be the case.

In a recent statement, former owner H. F. Lenfest detailed the new institute’s structure was to “provide philanthropic avenues to fund the company’s journalism,” meaning other foundations, corporations, and benefactors can give money to the institute to be used for specific reporting efforts and journalism projects, such as endowing an investigative-reporting team, supporting coverage of the city’s school system, etc.  Even though Lenfest claims that the institute has no power to influence editorial decisions, the question immediately arises of how true in practice this may be. Even in the most indirect way, cash flow can dictate the amount of staff available to each beat and therefore give an industry with more benefactor support an editorial advantage over other newspaper sections that don’t have the manpower to generate organic content.

With paid integration already on the rise in the PR industry, where a company pays to control editorial content it’s clear that the lines between earned and paid media channels are becoming increasingly blurred – a trend PR people should follow closely. By funding endowments to specific newspaper sections or projects, companies’ communications teams may be able to secure more media coverage than they would through a paid integration. It will be interesting to see how this influences Philadelphia news coverage, if other papers across the country take this approach as a financing solution, and if companies begin to use this in a strategic approach to media relations in the future.

What do you think? Should we as PR professionals capitalize on the ability to fund specific newspaper projects, or is this crossing an ethical line when it comes to earned editorial coverage?