In the Age of ‘Fake News,’ Media Brands Are Turning to Advertising to Promote the Importance of Journalism

New York Times, The Atlantic and others have launched campaigns

The NYT launched a campaign during the Academy Awards to combat 'fake news.'
The New York Times

The proliferation of “fake news”—be that the insult lobbed at journalists and publications that President Donald Trump and his administration detest or the websites peddling false information across the web to make a quick buck—has brought about a wave of advertising from news media organizations looking to underscore the value of responsible journalism.

Earlier this month, Gannett became the latest publisher to release a campaign touting its publications’ efforts and showing how they had impacted the communities they cover.

“Media has gotten a lot of attention in the political cycle that we had in 2016,” said Gannett CMO Andy Yost. “It’s important for media organizations like ours to showcase the great work we’re doing and the importance of journalism.”

Gannett’s campaign, which highlights the work of local papers like The Tennessean or the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, was created by its in-house marketing team and will be running across Gannett’s digital network (the USA Today Network has 110 million unique visitors per month) and print properties (the company has in excess of 3 million print subscribers).

Gannett certainly isn’t alone: In recent months media brands like The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, The New York Times and WNYC have released their own advertising campaigns.

“We’re in an environment where the press has been under attack and is reasserting the values that we provide people—the ability to hold power to account, that a free people require a free press, and that civil discourse is critical to a functioning democracy,” explained Peter Weingard, WNYC’s CMO. “With free expression under attack, the press, including WNYC, is reasserting our mandate to report fearlessly and accurately.”

In March, WNYC released its latest ad campaign, from its creative agency Eyeball, which included lines like “Fake news is nothing new, but it’s still fake,” and “Tweets are not the whole story.” The effort is “purposely provocative, playful in tone and meant to attract attention to get people to listen in,” noted Weingard. The latest ads, which were placed on Metro North and subway cars, bus shelters and even a Times Square billboard, told consumers to “Wake up to Morning Edition for fact-based, independent journalism.” Listeners for WNYC’s combined AM/FM and digital streams are up 28 percent year to date, according to Weingard.

For some media brands, like The Atlantic, a branding campaign has been in the works for quite some time. Nearly three years ago, the 160-year-old publication tapped Pereira & O’Dell to come up with a brand strategy, and early last year began working with Wieden + Kennedy in New York on its “Question Your Answers” campaign. In February, it released a short film, Am I Typecast, starring actor Michael K. Williams that has garnered over 10.5 million views.

“The goal of the campaign wasn’t necessarily to drive subscriptions or to advocate for the importance of journalism,” said Sam Rosen, vp of brand and consumer growth for The Atlantic. “This was about us communicating The Atlantic as a brand … as opposed to a plea or appeal to support journalism. That said, obviously we do feel this is a particularly important moment for journalism and that The Atlantic is particularly suited for this moment.”

For others, like Vanity Fair, it was about realizing how to use the fact that the president of the United States was tweeting falsehoods about the publication to draw positive attention to the brand. After a negative review of Trump Grill was posted on the site in December, President Trump tweeted that Vanity Fair was “Way down, big trouble, dead!” and that editor Graydon Carter had “no talent, will be out!”

Soon after those assertions—which Vanity Fair digital director Mike Hogan called “totally unfounded”—were made, the publication found that people had begun rallying around the brand on social media. That’s when the editorial team decided to flip Trump’s language on its head, tweeting “Vanity Fair: big success, way up, alive!” After seeing the success of that tweet, which garnered over 2,000 retweets, the team decided to run ads that read, “Vanity Fair: ‘The way down, big trouble, dead!’ magazine that Trump doesn’t want you to read,” via paid social on Facebook and Instagram.

That day, the magazine sold 13,000 subscriptions, and since then, has sold a total 94,000 subscriptions off of the Trump posts, according to Hogan. “It’s not my favorite way to sell subscriptions—being attacked by the president of the United States, or president-elect at that time—but it turned into a success for us,” he said.

The New York Times has also dealt with its fair share of Trump tweets, but its branding effort from Droga5, which focuses on the importance of the truth, wasn’t a direct reaction to Trump. “The reason we did this was because we’re becoming a consumer subscription business and we need to explain our value to a large audience,” explained David Rubin, svp and head of brand, New York Times. The 30-second spot that aired during the Academy Awards has been viewed more than 20 million times online, according to Rubin, who declined to provide subscription results from the campaign.

Astute news brands are embracing their historical missions, clearly defining their purpose and placing it front and center,” noted Nancy Hansell, strategy director at brand consultancy Siegel+Gale. “Long-held institutions focused on objectivity and free press are under attack and cannot rely on their rich legacy and reputation alone.”

This story first appeared in the April 17, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.