Three Things for September 9, 2021

From the Public Impact Group

This week’s Three Things for public media leaders looks at:

  1. Pew Research: Partisan Divides in Media Trust Widen

  2. The State of Planned Giving 2021

  3. Defining the Next Generation of Media Brands

THING ONE: The Worsening Partisan Divide over Trust of Media

I spend a lot of time in Three Things examining trust issues between media organizations with their audience and the communities they serve, internally within organizations, and between national and station-based public media organizations.

It just so happened that I recently stumbled across a 15-year-old document, A BLUEPRINT FOR GROWTH: Moving From Current Realities to New Realities, that Dana Davis Rehm, NPR’s Vice President of Member and Station Services at the time, wrote as the closing chapter of the New Realities conversations that took place to chart a strategic course for NPR and its member stations following the transformative gift from Joan Kroc’s estate a few years earlier.

Nearly everything in the world has changed over this decade and a half, although there are pieces from the blueprint that resonate today, leading with the idea of trust.

Trust is our key value proposition. Our most precious asset is the public’s trust, and this is the central value against which NPR (and member stations) will measure itself across all activities. By building on the public trust that was established through our collective radio service, we can create a broader and deeper trusted space that transcends all platforms. The trusted space can define public radio regardless of where, when or how our service is produced, provided or presented. To live up its part in achieving this aspiration, NPR will seek to build trusting relationships between and among the institutions of public radio, with other organizations of similar values and ideals and with the audience. NPR has established a reputation as a source of trusted content. We can do more, and we will, but the breakthrough in thinking is for NPR and public radio to be the convener of the trusted space where people can learn, grow, connect and contribute.

In looking back, the blueprint outlined concepts that NPR and stations are still focused on in 20211. However, the idea of trust, more than anything else, still resonates because of the erosion of trust that has occurred in America over the past several years, particularly with those who self-describe themselves as Republicans or conservatives.

Axios recently reported on a Pew Research study noting that in just five years, the percentage of Republicans with at least some trust in national news organizations has been cut in half – dropping from 70% in 2016 to 35% this year.

Reporter Sara Fischer writes in Axios, “while Republicans tend to have a higher levels of trust in local outlets, they still trust local media far less than their Democratic counterparts.

The Pew Research backs up an earlier long-term study from Gallop in 2020 that shows the widening gap politically around trust of mass media.

How should public media respond to build trust with audiences across the political spectrum with this growing divide?

One way to start would be for stations to join the Pluralism Network from Trusting News, focused on helping journalists strengthen trust across the political spectrum to bridge divides, foster productive conversations, and fuel open-mindedness. You can apply to be a part of this project here.

As part of the project, Trusting News has been doing a series of weekly conversations to address the trust issues brought about by the polarization across our political spectrum in America.

Joy Mayer, who heads the Trusting News project, notes that this is not a zero-sum game.

The skills used to understand any group of people should be applied to other groups. And at a time of racial reckoning, the idea of trying to understand people who lean right cannot and should not come at the expense of understanding other communities that have trust issues with the press, particularly people of color. 

Further, this does not mean that journalists should cater their information to appeal to specific political views or that they should engage in false equivalencies or play into users’ hunt for information that confirms their existing views.

The first of these conversations brought together newsroom leaders discussing how they can better connect with conservative and right-leaning audiences.

The discussion addressed several items:

  • The challenges of national stories in local news. People value local reporting about their community. But their low opinions of and trust in coverage of national politics and cultural issues affect how people view their local news outlet.

  • Generalizations and polarization. Journalists’ use of catch-all phrases, descriptions, and labels can make people feel oversimplified or placed into one-size-fits-all categories. In addition, journalists often gravitate toward dramatic or extreme views, which can reinforce polarizing narratives.

  • Perceptions of stories’ fairness. News consumers often say they want stories that “just give me the facts” and “include both sides.” That’s not just about politics — it plays out in coverage of social issues, politics, and life in general. Making this more challenging is that news consumers often can’t tell the difference between news and opinion.

  • Bias in the newsroom. When newsrooms talk about diversity, the conversations often do not include intellectual diversity — diversity of thought, life experiences, and values, and the diversity of race, gender, age, geography, and socioeconomic status.

  • Outreach and listening. The journalists who participated told us how much they learned from their conversations. The same was true for the community members they interviewed, who expressed thankfulness and appreciation to the journalists for taking the time to get to know them.

We should also be open to looking outside of our public media tunnel for other ideas.

This week, TVNewsCheck published a piece on what local television news outlets are doing to maintain trust with their audiences. The focus was primarily on transparency, i.e., “showing your work.” This isn’t easy for a smaller newsroom to do, but there might be ways to work with journalism schools to help build that window into the work that takes place every day.

Another option would be to follow the efforts of commercial TV owner Tegna, who has partnered with the nonprofit First Draft. The mission of First Draft is to protect communities from harmful misinformation. First Draft works to educate journalists and citizens on misinformation and disinformation and how to combat them. They could be a very valuable partner for public media.

Aaron Sharockman, executive director at PolitiFact based at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla., closes the loop on news organizations and trust issues.

“I think we still have a lot of work to do as a community to differentiate ourselves from the people who create false information and misinformation,” Sharockman says. “When we act the same as the bad guys, we self-own ourselves. Trust is built up over a lot of time and in the internet age, it should not be easily squandered.”

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THING TWO: The Planned Giving Opportunity for Public Media

For more than a decade, fundraisers have discussed the greatest wealth transfer in history as baby boomers transfer $30 to $68 trillion in wealth to younger generations over the next many years. In addition to passing these treasures to heirs, there is the belief that this will include a considerable windfall for the nonprofit sector through the generosity of boomers through planned gifts to worthy nonprofits, large and small.

With the loyalty developed over the past fifty years with people born between 1944 and 1964, public media has a transformational opportunity to grow a revenue stream to meet the future needs of serving the next generation of listeners, viewers, and readers.

Earlier in the summer, Current reported on a program launched this summer by the Contributor Development Partnership (CDP) in partnership with FreeWill2. According to the Current piece, the results from the ten stations who signed on to participate in this effort were remarkable, according to Michal Heiplik, president of CPD.

“I did not originally believe that adults would go on the website of a nonprofit to start a will. This has done something — it has democratized planning giving for donors.”

The program has so far generated 537 bequests to the 10 stations, totaling nearly $7 million, Heiplik said. Of the 1,900 wills created with the FreeWill tool, more than 28% have committed a legacy gift to one of the stations.

To help public media organizations and other nonprofits, FreeWill is hosting a webinar on Tuesday, September 14, from 12- 1 pm (ET), looking at the State of Planned Giving in 2021.

Patrick Schmitt, the Co-CEO of FreeWill, will dive into key takeaways from the company’s Planned Giving Report with insights into industry trends analyzed from more than 150,000 wills. The webinar will also offer some ideas on strategies to get more legacy donors. Among the topics discussed are:

  • Estate planning insights by demographics

  • Legacy gift trends this year

  • Strategies to solicit planned gifts at scale

  • How to build relationships with supporters

  • Campaigns that drive urgency for planned gifts

If the results from the ten stations participating in the CPD program are any indication, public media has enormous potential in this space. In addition, the partnership through CDP provides specific materials for public media organizations, and the FreeWill website has a ton of valuable resources, from email templates and donor phone scripts to end-of-year giving guides.

The opportunity for public media to reach planned giving prospects through all of our marketing channels, particularly on-air, is enormous.

As the CDP | FreeWill website notes:

Too often, public media stations approach Planned Giving as an “afterthought” in their overall fundraising strategy. Whether it’s due to a lack of clear execution plan, confusion around how to communicate intimate topics (i.e. death) with donors, or lack of dedicated PG staff or station resources, there is simply too much PG revenue opportunity being left on the table.

With over 10,000 baby boomers turning 73 every day, the largest transfer of wealth in human history is taking place - over $68 trillion over the next 30 years. The time to act is now.

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THING THREE: Taking A Cue from the Next Generation of U.K. Media Brands

VIDA is a UK-based agency that focuses on supporting new digital media publishing brands and businesses in England. They’ve recently published a list of creator-led, content-powered businesses that they describe as “disrupting and redefining the UK's media and publishing business model.”

They further describe these companies in ways that should be aspirational to those of us working in public media in the U.S. For example:

NextGen Media founders are creating relevant, authentic content to build highly engaged communities, and leveraging this to grow ‘direct to community’ revenue streams; from subscriptions to commerce media and co-created products. Often serving underserved audiences or unmet needs, Next-Gen Media are growing their audience, business and brand in innovative ways, relying less and less on the mainstream platforms, and without the resources of Big Media

For the purpose of our conversation here, I want to share how Vida defines these businesses instead of detailing much about the companies themselves.

  • They are the beating heart of the passion economy3: Valued at over $38B globally, with more and more investors and funds focusing on the sector, niche media entrepreneurs are driving the growth of an exciting new asset class.

  • They are community-builders: Digital, mobile and social innovation made it easier to find your tribe. NextGen Media entrepreneurs are taking this to the next level, creating content, experiences, and products for, and with communities they belong to, create and nurture. 

  • They are revenue-diverse: Unencumbered by legacy media business models, NextGen Media startups are free to do things differently - often turning traditional operating and revenue models on their heads, focusing on Direct-to-Community revenues over advertising.

  • They are multi-platform: Many start as single-channel side hustles, but true NextGen Media businesses scale by leveraging the fast-growing creator tech stack to distribute content, optimize community experience, and develop commercial opportunities across multiple platforms.

  • They serve underserved audiences and meet unmet needs: Empirical proof of the 1,000 true fans theory4,  successful NGM’s don’t need massive reach or market dominance to thrive and grow. Instead, they can focus on building audiences and serving communities that mainstream media don’t - making them attractive M&A targets when the market catches up.

By taking the framework that VIDA has defined, what approach should public media take as it seeks to build loyalty, expand audiences, grow revenue, and maintain our public service mission in this moment of media transformation?

Talent is the driver of the passion economy, meaning that public media may want to consider how individual personalities might help it build its NextGen Media brands.

It’s Been a Minute with Sam Sanders might be the best example that I can think of as fitting into this space for public radio at present.

The show (both the podcast and radio versions) is driven by personality. Historically, other than perhaps Car Talk and A Prairie Home Companion, this has not been the case for public radio. Sam has built a community that follows him wherever he goes with the program and on social media. And he’s reaching new audiences, many who are first-time listeners to public radio, while also keeping traditional listeners tuned in. This was also the case with Car Talk and PHC.

So this may be an example existing on the national level. What about new opportunities that can be adapted for station-based public media organizations?

I’ll share one example from VIDA’s list that’s worth exploring:

Thred Media is a multi-award-winning media, publishing, consulting, and production company aimed at Generation Z. "Shaped by youth culture, powered by social change."

VIDA describes Thred as perhaps the most NextGen of all on its list. Thred's mission is to "create a place where young people can share trending topics while engaging in dialogue about the issues that are relevant to their generation."

The commercial arm of Thred Media aims to connect brands with "the most genuine, credible and cutting-edge Gen Z talents globally to help develop their brand and become an active part of youth culture today... (by producing) content that reflects the interests and true-life experiences of young people and drives the conversation among them".

The company reaches audiences with its website, newsletter, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Discord, and Snapchat5.

I love what Thred is doing because they know EXACTLY who their audience is. They speak directly to them. Recent content initiatives in public media rarely focus their efforts so clearly and unapologetically on a demographic (a recent exception to this is Rocky Mountain Public Media’s R&B and Hip-Hop music service The Drop).

For example, as you look to create your next podcast, ask yourself if it is: 1) Disruptive, 2) Multi-Platform, 3) May be able to develop diverse revenues, 4) Serve underserved audiences and meet unmet needs, and 5) Grow audience via community and connections. Perhaps you should also think about a newsletter to accompany the podcast to make it multi-platform? What’s your revenue strategy? And who is your audience and are you filling a need that isn’t being met elsewhere? Finally, what’s your audience development plan?

One of the other company’s that VIDA showcases is PepTalk, described as a motivation platform that creates motivational moments powered by real-world experts. This website features over 400 real-world experts with the goal of motivating, educating, and inspiring individuals & teams.

Perhaps we could use a little pep talk to inspire us in our work to think differently about how we reach and serve audiences in the future.

Learn More About the Public Impact Group

1

Building the News Network of the future, building effective digital distribution services, and raising big money collaboratively.

2

FreeWill offers an online tool to compose a will. I wrote about their work in helping market National Make-A-Will month in a June edition of Three Things.

3

Adam Davidson, the co-founder of NPR’s Planet Money, has written about the passion economy. The Passion Economy, according to Davidson, delineates the ground rules of the new economy, and armed with these, we begin to see how we can succeed in it according to its own terms—intimacy, insight, attention, automation, and, of course, passion. An indispensable road map and a refreshingly optimistic take on our economic future.

4

The “1,000 True Fans Theory” was proposed by Wired magazine's “senior maverick” Kevin Kelly back in 2008 and stated that all an artist needs is 1,000 true fans to maintain a fruitful, if unspectacular, career, thereby relieving the artist of the need for some of the nastier things in life as a regular job.

5

I’m shocked they are not on TikTok.