Understanding the Current Media Ecosystem – A Q&A With MediaPost’s Sarah Mahoney
If 2020 were The Little Engine That Could, it actually may have given up by now, having tried to climb that hill for eight long months. Chug after chug, the hits just keep coming. But “2020” isn’t a cheeky little story book character. As a noun of its own, 2020 has become a living, breathing reality impacting billions across the globe. And the elements of the year thus far have become so interwoven into the very fabric of our lives we may never see a true return to “normal” when this pandemic is officially deemed over.
This is especially true for the media industry, whose existence relies on a hefty combination of revenue from both advertisers (businesses) and subscribers. As media organizations lose advertisers and businesses lose customers due to COVID, the trickle-down effect becomes self-evident.
According to Challenger, Gray & Christmas U.S. media job losses topped 28,600 as of late October 2020, with layoffs, furloughs and changes in service affecting both the smallest and the largest media outlets across the country, including The Newport News, who had to shut its doors, the Los Angeles Times, Meredith Corp., ViacomCBS, NBCUniversal and Vox Media. All this, combined with the fact that newsrooms were already operating less than ideally even before the arrival of the coronavirus, means journalists and editors really have their work cut out for them.
Let’s also not forget that the pandemic wasn’t the only headline in 2020; we were also dealing with a U.S. election. In a normal year, an election is enough to fill print and online news outlets’ budgets each day – but combined with an unprecedented pandemic? SMH.
So how do client-facing PR professionals get through to the media when we are dealing with four-hour news cycles that include the same storylines (TikTok, Amazon, Facebook, White House, COVID-19… repeat), as if we were living like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day? I’ve learned relationships alone are not and cannot be our saving grace in 2020. To better understand the current media ecosystem, I went straight to the source.
Sarah Mahoney is a well-respected, knowledgeable and trusted news source in a variety of business verticals, including marketing and advertising, business, family, women’s issues, generational trends and health, and I’m fortunate to have met her way back in the late 2000s through her work with MediaPost. If you represent or work for a brand that has advertising/marketing news to share, one of your first stops, if it isn’t already, should be Sarah. And let’s just say if you don’t follow media industry trends now, you will after reading this:
- What is your official title/name of publication (for clarity on spelling, grammar, etc.)
MediaPost owns many newsletters and online publications. I write every day for Marketing Daily, and weekly columns for a direct-to-consumer newsletter called D2C FYI, and one focused on quick-serve restaurants called QSR Land.
- Clearly 2020 has affected us all, but I suspect it has affected journalists and those in the media industry in ways that most cannot even begin to understand. First, can you tell us what a typical day is like for you and if it differs at all from even what it may have been like in January, for example?
I have been a work-from-home journalist since 2002, when I left magazines and New York CIty to move with my young family to Maine. So in many ways, I have NOT been affected — I love working remotely. But it has been crushing to an industry that is already in a terrible place. Advertisers cut their budgets. Events, a big source of revenue for many companies, have been changed radically. So even though we live in a world where people want more journalism and more content all the time, many dear friends and colleagues are out of work or underemployed.
I’m grateful every day that I have paying clients.
A typical day: I get up very early (usually before 6), have coffee, walk the dog, then spend an hour or so reading dozens of sites, looking for stories for MediaPost. Once I have a sense of what I may be writing that day on deadline, I start to go through my email and set up interviews. I am usually working for several clients at a time, as well as MediaPost, so I am juggling those as well. I take lots of breaks during the day–a walk in the woods, some time in the garden, I’ll take out my paddleboard. (We live on a river quite near some of the prettiest ocean beaches in Maine.) I’m never afraid to go out and play on a light day–because so many nights, I wind up writing until well into the evening.
- What type of news gets your attention these days, and is it different from what may have peaked your interest in years prior?
I pay the most attention to news from the biggest companies and advertisers. On the business side, I follow retail, beauty, fashion, consumer research and healthcare very closely. On the consumer side, I mostly concentrate on healthcare and lifestyle stories. My favorite stories are those featuring executives who are excited about what they’re doing. Chief marketing officers are almost always interesting people. I often use them in Q&As.
But sometimes smaller brands and companies are doing something interesting, and those are always good stories, too. The world needs more stories about mavericks, and those are usually from smaller companies.
- Do you have any advice for brands and the PR people they work with in regard to trying to secure a story in MediaPost?
Yes. Read the publication you’re pitching. I’d estimate I get upwards of 100 pitches most days, almost all of them are offbase. When I started writing for MediaPost years ago, I used to answer people and say I wasn’t interested and perhaps why. At some point, I gave up. I hope it doesn’t sound rude, but I decided if PR people aren’t willing to put in the effort of reading the site they’re pitching, I shouldn’t put in the effort of telling them why it’s offbase.
A few of my pet peeves (God, I hope I don’t sound cranky!)
–Obvious stories, with bad data. For example, I get so many pitches telling me people are shopping more online because of COVID-19, and then offering me lousy data from small surveys. That is an important trend, to be sure. But to support it I will always choose large data sets from reputable research efforts, not “We crashed this flimsy survey together hoping some outlet will use it.”
–Off-base sources. I get many pitches like, “Name of person I never heard of” from “name of company I never heard of” is available to comment on GREAT BIG STORY. If there’s a reason you think your client is qualified as a source, tell me why — is he a former employee? Part of an industry group? Has he worked on a similar problem before?
–Pitching me, then asking me to provide questions. Let’s say someone pitches me a story about ABC, offering an interview with John Doe. I’m excited! I pounce! Yes, I want to write this story. Then they come back and ask for questions to give John Doe before the interview. There are good reasons journalists don’t like to do this. (And in a pinch, many of us do interviews like this via email.) But more importantly, it makes me think you’ve just offered me a source who isn’t qualified to speak on ABC, which is why you have to prep him/her. And for Pete’s sake, what do you THINK I will ask? About the national debt? Designated hitters in the National League? Of COURSE, I am going to ask about ABC.
(Too late. I guess I really am cranky.)
- Do you think 2021 will be any different from 2020 in terms of work loads and news cycles?
Yes. I think many more local papers will fold, as will weaker publications and news sites. It will be a tough year for all media companies, until advertising budgets recover. But even if I sound very gloomy, I am quite optimistic. The election cycle and the COVID-19 has shown me that America is paying a great price for the decline of journalism. Tens of millions of people in the U.S. are ill-informed, and have given up on facts in favor of misinformation and commentary that masquerades as news. We’re too smart a country to be this stupid. Every day, I read about young people entering the field who will save us.
- Thank you for your time and insights, Sarah! Last question – what do you like to do when you aren’t working? We’d love to learn a little more about you!
I spend a lot of time in the woods near me, hiking–usually with the dog. I’m married, and our kids are in their 20s now, so we have plenty of free time. I’m about halfway through my second murder mystery–I was never able to sell the first one, and hope I have better luck with this one.