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The American publisher William Randolph Hearst once said, “News is what someone, somewhere, doesn't want reported: all the rest is advertisement.”

How relevant are his words today, especially for the trade media sector that remains a core channel for so many of our clients? Financial organisations continue to care what the specialised media writes about, despite shrinking audiences and tiny editorial staffs. Trade press coverage is seen to give not only third-party editorial credibility, but also a sheen of journalistic flair, which companies, however much they invest in “owned media content”, can’t easily replicate.  Such credible coverage can be amplified to target audiences, and provides the essential ingredients of a good organic Google profile.  The “doesn’t want reported” element in editorial coverage is the grit in the oyster.

Many trade publications do however publish news that doesn’t quite live up to Hearst’s maxim.  Appointment releases come to mind – how can there possibly be detriment to someone else in that?

But in business, what is good news for you, as my competitor, is bad news for me.  That’s particularly true in tight markets with a handful of players.  Your coverage either says something negative about me (explicitly or implicitly), or simply takes up space and attention that I might have secured.

It’s a matter of degree. Some categories of news - CSR initiatives for example – do little direct harm.  New offices or client wins perhaps a bit more so.  Transformational new products or direct comparisons with customer endorsements – that’s much more detrimental to someone else.

The thing about trade media is that there is a finite amount of space, even online. Restrictions maintain standards and cachet.  (and those space limitations, in theory, should help drive advertising as an alternative.)

I see a spectrum in the trades, with some still content to mostly publishing positive stories about industry developments, while others thrive on conflict. This is rooted in changing business models.

A stubbornly persistent middleman

An economist looking at financial trades could easily ask two questions: Firstly, why don’t financial services firms improve their own content to communicate directly with audiences?  And secondly, if trade media publications have such appeal, why aren’t there more of them?

While the overall quality of owned content continues to improve, it’s hard – if not impossible – for it to pass the ‘smell test’ of independence. It is maddeningly difficult to replicate the last ounce of sparkle to feel like genuine trade press. To a small extent that’s about caution on legal and reputational risk, and to a larger extent about the innate conservatism of many B2B companies when they are writing copy. Industry executives love the racy copy of the trade press – but only when written by someone else under a banner they’re not responsible for. (Ask any journalist who’s taken the long march into corporate writing about this schizophrenia.)

But while most companies want coverage in trade media, fewer want to pay much for it, either in terms of bulk subscriptions, or major advertising spend. Native advertising and sponsorships haven’t been enough to reverse the trend of decline advertising spend.

Media business models thus remain under massive pressure, not least given the current plight of synergistic events most media groups had pursued.  Not surprisingly, the publicly held media groups in London – Euromoney Institutional Investor, Informa, Centaur – are stressing in their financial reporting the emergency measures to give their events divisions some prospect of recovery, while media subscriptions remain broadly stable. Whatever happens to events, the likely long-term shift to WFH will put yet more pressure on print, which still has some importance in advertising revenues.

Prostrate or castigate – there is no middle ground

Trade media publishers and editors are trying to get out in front on all this.  One editor said to Cognito he needed a big shift to investigative, in-depth stories to justify his subscription price, saying simply covering company press releases wasn’t a valid model.  Some outlets say they trying to be more rigorous in assessing the quality of experts they speak to – putting on blacklists those who mention buzz phrases like AI but can’t dive into the detail.

We see the stronger titles becoming more hard hitting, emphasising analysis and insider news that “someone, somewhere, doesn't want reported”.  Think of Euromoney, Sifted or Waters. Look for more coverage that borrows stylistically from consumer brands and politics, where experts are less reticent about slagging off the competition.

On the other side, companies that have struggled to have the resources or expertise to tell compelling “news” may increasingly partner with less dominant trade media, who are morphing into outsourced native advertising hubs, creating and curating content by outside parties. Expect greater customization options, full site takeovers and other innovations to suit the need of in-house marketing teams.

A symbiotic relationship

Trade titles suit financial firms in many ways, even if publishers always complain they keep them on a shoestring.  Dealing with trade media – whether through advertising, sponsorship and PR – is a variable cost with no commitment.  Doing that all yourself would be more expensive and less effective. (Just look at how editors and journalists earn less than in-house content staff.) Journalists like being journalists, and financial firms benefit from that. 

The structural under-provision of earned media content in B2B trade media, as a result of free content online, has in some areas certainly had the effect of making that content more valuable.  That is the opportunity for the bold titles.

It would be trite, but true, to suggest that Covid will accelerate change in the trade media.  Media titles will have to be clearer about who they seek to reach, and how their coverage adds value. Financial firms in response will need to think about two things: What they want trade media for and whether they are reasonably willing to pay for it.  And how they can sharpen what they say to such outlets to make the weather and secure a business edge.

Andrew Marshall is Cognito's vice chairman