With the latest crisis, media needs to back up words with actions

Needless to say, my planned column on publisher promotional tactics to drive subscription volume didn’t seem like the right way to go. This was a week that called to mind the Yeats poem “The Second Coming,” written at a similar time of pandemic and strife in 1919: 

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

The easiest route would be to fall into a position of apathy while “the worst” have the passion to take action. What we’re seeing in the streets of major cities across the nation is conviction, a determination to not let this latest round of senseless injustices go for naught, not again. For the media industry, this was a week of introspection — and a time of decision. For all the progressive ideals espoused by publishers, marketers and agencies, most fall well short when it comes to turning words into action. On Monday, I got an email from Greg March, CEO of Noble People, telling me he simply couldn’t go through with his planned Digiday+ Talk about the future of the office space. I’ve known Greg for some time, and his reasoning was pure in that the anguish his colleagues feel would not be helped by him talking about something like a return to a physical office space. That can wait.

So instead, he spoke about leading through this crisis with action, not words.

What Greg said in our talk resonated in that he was spending much time interrogating himself. The media industry is good with talk. We saw this in the aftermath of the protests and disturbances following the death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. The seeming same messages of solidarity with the black community; vows to support systemic change. This was the expected response. And this time, it simply was not enough. As Fernando Machado, brand chief at Burger King, advised: “Action, not ads.”

Most companies and people need to spend a lot more time listening, less time talking. Listening is the key to learning, and as you go through life, you find that a lot of people are more comfortable talking than listening. Posting an Instagram photo with a hashtag is so popular because it is so easy and free. Web Smith, who runs the must-read 2pm, put it best with his advice for those in positions of influence in businesses: Hire or wire. This isn’t the time for empty words or manifestos that frankly sound mostly alike in a way that’s reminiscent of the initial wave of “salute to heroes” coronavirus ads. 

Systemic racism is hard for a lot of white people to get their arms around because the immediate knee-jerk reaction is to proclaim that you are not yourself racist. That is not the point. We have a system in this country that has for hundreds of years deprived black Americans of the same opportunities as their white counterparts, with disparities in everything from treatment by police to incarceration rates to access to health and education to employment opportunities. Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier summed this up nicely on CNBC this week. He grew up in North Philadelphia, about 15 miles from where I did but a million miles in terms of opportunities. He was given an opportunity thanks to a busing program and rose to become the CEO of one of the world’s largest companies. “That opportunity gap is still there,” he said. “We need to acknowledge there are huge opportunity gaps that still exist in this country.”

Personally, I have been focused on what steps we can take within Digiday to make our own dent in this problem. Here’s some actions we plan to take within our editorial group:

  • We need to do a far better job of hiring from underrepresented groups. We haven’t done a good job on this front, even though we have talked about it. Greg took away a cop-out when he talked about how people often say they “don’t even see candidates of color” for open positions. That’s not good enough. We simply need to improve in this regard in order to be the strongest group we can. This isn’t about lowering standards; this is about expanding opportunity.
  • We have to do a better job of increasing a diversity of representation in our coverage and events. Again, this is an issue we have spoken about repeatedly, yet we haven’t delivered consistently at all. 
  • We have to tell the stories of the marginalized and underrepresented in media more consistently. Kristina Monllos did a good job of using our Confessions series to do this with a black media buyer this week. The industry loves to make a show of diversity initiatives. There’s a reason Cannes is non-stop talk about diversity and inclusion, yet you look around and most people sure do look white.
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This was a bit of an unusual column, and I’ll return next week to whether publishers can make all these $1 intro offers work in the long run or if they’re devaluing their products. Of course, it is important. Subscriptions are the underpinning to a sustainable model for news publications, enabling them to report the truth of what is happening in a society seemingly being torn apart at the seams.

In the meantime, I would like to hear ideas you have for how Digiday, and our sister brands in Glossy and Modern Retail, can do a better job of accelerating change. At Digiday Media, we have a company mission statement that is centered on fostering change. We need to do just that — in actions.

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