Financial crisis, Brexit, a pandemic and struggling public services, followed by cost-of-living chaos, constitutional turmoil, climate risk and a looming recession.
You could forgive people in the UK these days for feeling that things can only get worse.
These are significant stories which news organisations have a responsibility to bring to anxious audiences. Publishers are doing the important work of painting an unvarnished picture of the world, and advertisers are rightly leveraging that value.
But news organisations also have a responsibility to help stop their audiences' outlook sliding into the abyss.
While our readers, listeners and viewers are motivated to know the world as it is, I am noticing that they also have a desire to move beyond what can feel like a continuous pessimistic narrative, to stories of hope and positivity.
Toward the light
The curated newspaper has long been edited to have light and shade between the front and back covers. In the maelstrom of the last few years, maintaining the light has been a tall order. And yet, audiences are being drawn toward it.
Even during the early days of COVID-19 lockdowns, research from News UK's reader panel found that the initial thirst for virus-related content had plateaued - creating an opportunity for an added, positive approach to storytelling, from journalists and marketers alike.
In Q4 2022, as economic turmoil swirled, further reader panel research showed audiences asking for three kinds of content - everyday advice, everyday escape and everyday cause for celebration.
It is, therefore, incumbent on quality, trusted news providers to provide some lighter content despite the gravity of circumstance.
The Times' subscriber base swelled during lockdown on a desire for coronavirus information. To retain subscribers, however, news brands must cater to customers' continuing passion points.
Those points can be found not only in audiences' direct interest in the news but also in their leisure activities - sport for health, sport to compete, travel, interior design, fashion, entertainment, beauty and more.
Now, more than ever, the audience wants to be consumed with things that it can relate to and enjoy. You can see it in the data:
- 19% of The Sunday Times audience spends up to three hours with the printed newspaper.
- 80% of The Times audience either writes or responds to a comment on our digital articles.
Empathy via philosophy
This is a time for displays of empathy and integrity but, perhaps most pertinent of all, it is a time for publishers and brands to demonstrate an appropriate philosophy.
For instance, The Sun's reciprocal reader relationship is perhaps best exemplified in its enduring £9.50 holiday deals - simultaneously, an understanding of its audience's pain points and a mission to help.
Brands can become synonymous with their messaging, the quality of their proposition; but, most importantly, they can become synonymous with how they make people feel.
In the publishing phenomenon, "The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse", Charles Mackesy conveys a philosophical approach to the subject of how we make others feel.
His picture story tackles life's most important lessons through the charming titular characters, who all share a profound empathy.
In these extraordinarily difficult times, this is a concept to which we all can attune. Media shops and owners have all been submerged in the science; facts, statistics, numbers and analysis, driven by a desire to understand what is important for brands, now and tomorrow.
Perhaps what matters tomorrow is how we can make people feel better.
News for optimists
This is becoming a thing. People and brands are making a concerted effort to seek out positivity, fuelling a collective momentum working towards a future built on optimism:
- During the early pandemic, Google searches for "good news" reached a five-year high.
- There are now multiple upstart newspapers and magazines - like Positive News and The Happy News - aiming to deliver exactly that.
- The growth in filmed "random acts of kindness" in social media suggest a movement to counteract the darkness that sometimes seems to pervade society.
How can the resurgence of the art of media planning contribute to this movement?
Communication planning principles such as share-of-voice, agility and creativity have to be informed by behavioural science and infused with optimism.
The science tells us that brands who build a positive moral sentiment are only successful if that purported authenticity is genuine.
Being genuine and positive surely isn't too much to ask of any brand's media strategy.
News brands can help with contextualising that message more effectively than most.
After all, journalism of all kinds remains an imperative. Audiences may be in search of lightness, but they acknowledge the important function of seeing things as they are.
Editors and journalists are audiences' sherpas through both the bad times and the shared pursuit of the good. Advertisers can provide that same guiding function, in that same space.
After all, we are all in this together. As Mackesy writes in "The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse": "'Is your glass half empty or half full?' asked the mole. 'I think I am grateful to have a glass', said the boy."