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When Will This Media Bubble Burst?

March 27, 2008

(Rich Polt is president of Louder Than Words, a Boston-based PR firm serving foundations, nonprofits, and related businesses. His previous posts for PhilanTopic can be found here and here.)

I burst bubbles.

In September of 2000 I moved from Baltimore to Boston to take a job with a technology PR firm. The large "BANG" that I heard as I was driving north on Interstate 95 was the sound of the tech bubble exploding. In August of 2005, I purchased my first home just at the crest of the seller’s market. The week after our closing, the Boston Globe ran this story about the possibility of an inflated housing market. Whoops.

These days, I live and work in an ever-expanding bubble that is the love affair between big media and big philanthropy. This is not the self-congratulatory, photographers-snapping-photos-at-galas kind of media coverage. I'm talking about that rarer kind of coverage that says, let's drill down into the nuanced issues and see what we can learn. In the last few months alone, we have seen a spate of in-depth philanthropy "round-ups" from big-name media outlets such as the New York Times Magazine, Forbes, Slate.com, the Financial Times, and PBS. The media's hunger to cover philanthropy is voracious and there are seemingly endless numbers of foundations, nonprofits, wealth-management consultants, and advocacy groups ready to step up and speak out on the subject. It's an exciting time to be in communications and philanthropy.

So -- not to be a pessimist or anything -- but when is this bubble going to burst? When is the media finally going to lose interest in the goings-on of the philanthropic set and get more serious about that which sells news: athletes a-doping, politicians a-stumping, and Britney Spears a-parenting?

Good news, folks! Philanthropy will remain a permanent fixture of the media universe. Here are three important reasons why (each a topic worthy of further discussion):

  1. Sex sells, and apparently so does philanthropy. Yes, it's true. The images we see and the stories we read are a direct reflection of what society demands. And in this day and age, people are all about giving. Whether driven by global disasters, technology's ability to make giving a one-to-one experience, or the financial windfalls of the '90s, everyone is interested in how they can do their part to give back. It's funny, but I never hear anyone talking about "charity" anymore. Even a gift of $25 dollars to support a friend doing a walk for cancer is now thought of as personal philanthropy. There has been a major culture shift and the media is simultaneously covering it and selling advertising against that demand. Check out Sean Stannard-Stockton's recent column in the Financial Times about "social capital markets" in the year 2033. It provides another interesting viewpoint on how philanthropy is becoming more entrenched in the fabric of our society.
  2. Philanthropists are rock stars...and rock stars are philanthropists. This cover image from Time magazine says it all. As philanthropy increasingly becomes a pastime and passion for athletes, politicians, and celebrities, the paparazzi and "personality media" will continue to infuse their reporting with coverage and images of how their subjects are giving back. Conversely, since business success coupled with giving back have become such great fodder for media coverage, we will only see more in-depth interviews and personality pieces on those who are passionate about philanthropy.
  3. Foundations are open to being open. Over the last few decades, donors and foundations have become increasingly comfortable using external communications to complement and even strengthen their giving activities. Much has been written about this already (read Joel Fleishman's recent book, The Foundation, check out this article by Bruce Trachtenberg and Grant Oliphant, or this piece that I wrote). In the old days, a newspaper would assign a private foundation story to its investigative reporter -- a reflection of how easy it was to obtain information. Today, those same stories are handled by business reporters, financial reporters, lifestyle reporters, and even (you guessed it) philanthropy reporters.

We will always be able to rely on journals like the Chronicle of Philanthropy and the Nonprofit Times to cover this sector, but don't be surprised to find more stories about philanthropy in sports magazines, celebrity rags, and the financial pages. Philanthropy and the media are here to stay. Do I think my streak of bubble bursting is over? Well...not really. But the media's coverage of philanthropy is not a bubble. It's real.

--Rich Polt

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