News branding therefore has two faces. One for the audience and one for the advertiser. “The US is the classic place where you have news branding,” says Justin Lewis, Professor of Communication at Cardiff University in the UK. “It’s very competitive; all news is commercial except for PBS” — Public Broadcasting System—“and not many people watch that. Networks brand around well-known anchors, with the same people for years on the three main networks: Dan Rather on CBS, Peter Jennings on ABC, Tom Brokaw on NBC. They’re the brand image—they’re credible and authoritative.
“But the news product is also being modified to suit another audience—the advertiser,” Lewis continues. “What is news? The black space between the commercials? In the US there is a clear awareness of that. Journalists who are too ‘purist’ are reminded about the importance of advertisers.”
Is it possible for a successful balance to be struck between the demands of the audience for truthful and balanced reporting and the demand of the advertiser for large audiences?
The Manchester Guardian (now the Guardian, and published from London) has tried to grow audience through balanced coverage. In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks in the US, the Guardian Unlimited website picked up a large American audience. These readers have remained loyal and Guardian Unlimited’s North American readership is now twice the size of its core audience in Britain.
One reason given by media analysts for Guardian Unlimited’s success in picking up American ratings is that those audiences are seeking more balanced coverage of world events—truer to Scott’s principles—as a counterpoint to biased reporting by mainstream US news brands. The Guardian is also financially successful. Reporting increased profits for the latest financial year, Guardian Media Group chairman Paul Myners noted in a July 21 news release that the Guardian Unlimited online channel had achieved record-breaking revenues and a significantly extended reach.
In the news brand constellation, however, the Guardian is a minor star. And for every news outlet that achieves high ratings reporting the news in an impartial manner, there’s another outlet that achieves high ratings from manipulating and crafting the news to suit a specific audience.
For instance, US television network Fox News attracts huge audiences—but it is also the bête noire of organizations such as campaign group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). The flagship Fox News Channel show and highest rated US cable news show is The O’Reilly Factor, hosted by journalist Bill O’Reilly. Branded according to traditional standards, the show is built around the personality of O’Reilly, whose 25-year journalistic pedigree is emphasized. Straplined a “no-spin zone,” the brand seeks essentially the same credentials as Scott’s “honest, courageous and fair” Manchester Guardian.
However, O’Reilly’s “no spin” brand is accused of being anything but. In The Oh Really? Factor, a book by FAIR’s Peter Hart, the author writes, “O’Reilly’s ‘no spin zone’ motto is really clever marketing—but who’s keeping track of O’Reilly’s own spin? […] O’Reilly consistently concocts evidence to support his conservative talking points.” Although, O’Reilly’s show is accused of not being fair and balanced, it does deliver the ratings.
Professor Justin Lewis of Cardiff University cites another instance when commercial pressures have influenced news output. Local news broadcasting in the US is commercially successful, and research studies show that crime stories consistently draw the largest audiences. “Suddenly there seemed to be a crime wave across the US,” says Lewis. “But crime figures were actually decreasing. Of course if you ask the public, they would tell you crime is increasing. It was a product of news being a product.”
In Europe, packaging of news to reflect cultural differences is all-important, says François Heinderyckx, professor of information and communication at the Free University of Brussels, Belgium. “There are more and more ways for news to reach people,” he says, “but a decrease in the number of sources—agencies and media conglomerates.”
Consequently, news content in European countries, where broadcasters often have small budgets, is characterized by generic content—common footage and whole sentences lifted straight from the wires—combined with added-value elements, such as an original interview or angle.
“It is supposed to be exciting and to bring the audience a feeling of value,” says Professor Heinderyckx. “Journalists all use the same wires but will identify particular aspects of a story to give it their stamp. And people still want to watch their national channels. Even with a choice of fifty channels, most people will choose the national broadcaster. In French-speaking Belgium, channels have very small budgets. International coverage from the channels in France is much better. But people are still loyal to the Belgian channels.”
In contrast to US news brands, national channels in Europe are generally, at least in part, publicly funded and therefore free of commercial pressure. The BBC is a case in point. It is independent of government but publicly funded, meaning an obligation to “inform, educate and entertain,” and to be “creative and trusted.” The BBC is also obliged to meet certain standards in terms of decency and types of programming.
The trust invested by viewers in the BBC brand at the national level is reflected across the UK, where the BBC broadcasts regional news programs. “The BBC is one of the biggest brand names in the world, especially in TV,” says Andy Cooper, output manager of BBC television news for the northeast region of England. “As a regional producer, we ride on the back of that reputation.” He identifies the BBC brand as offering reliability, authority and the ability to investigate news stories.
Freedom from advertising is crucial to the BBC’s mission. It allows the brand to define itself as a news outlet that concentrates on audience requirements. “A local news program needs an audience but you shouldn’t chase audience through the lowest common denominator,” says Cooper. “The duty of a regional broadcaster is to take the regional angle. Our job is to reflect the society. Crime, for example, is covered but for us to over-concentrate on it is wrong. We won’t use it as a tool to win an audience.”
By contrast, in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium, achieving high ratings was made part of the remit of the public service broadcaster, VRT (Vlaamse Radio- en Televisieomroep). TV deregulation in Flanders, which came into effect in 1988, was late compared with other European countries. VRT’s market share immediately halved. But, says François Heinderyckx, “on deregulation they were set audience targets. It was considered they had a duty to articulate news to the people of Flanders. And it was successful; they really bounced back to a 40 percent audience share. But they have resorted to more commercial techniques.”
These techniques are encapsulated in a term that media analysts agree affects most news brands: “tabloidization.” Cardiff’s Lewis says, “There is less foreign news than ever before and little investigative journalism.” Instead news about celebrities, entertainment and quirky events proliferates. But tabloidization also applies to the presentation of serious news. “It is the coverage of complex issues through anecdotes,” says François Heinderyckx. “Spending time on narrow issues and aiming to be funny and spectacular and to keep attention. The selection process of news is increasingly distorted by the need to deliver hard hits. Relatively insignificant news can become news because it’s spectacular.”
One brand attempting to deliver concise tabloid-style news to its audience is Ananova, which serves customers of Orange mobile phones in the UK, but is also available to anyone via the Internet. Ananova news editor Simon Glover says, “Our job is to maximize use amongst Orange customers. We take copy from agencies and have to concentrate on areas of best payoff such as celebrity news and offbeat news.” Ananova divides its news coverage into four main sections—news, ‘quirkies,’ celebrity gossip and sport. Copy is short and to the point.
Demographics play a major part. “Our audience is younger than traditional TV or newspaper news audiences,” says Glover. “This influences our selection of news to a degree.”
Fragmentation of audiences along age lines is a key issue for all news brands. Looking to the future, Cooper of the BBC says, “It’s very difficult to win the younger viewer for news and local news. No one knows how it will change. Will we have scheduled bulletins at 6:30 pm or 10 pm, or do these become less relevant, and should news become available in a different way?”
In short, the brave and fragmented new world of the Internet and multi-channel TV forces news brands to ask themselves the tough questions. Cooper sums it up: “How do we keep people interested in news in a world of so many distractions, when watching Big Brother and reading Hello magazine becomes more important than learning about major political events?”