Sometimes I wish for the old days, when press agents would buy a few lunches, send a case of scotch to the newsroom at Christmas and ensure coverage of their clients in the only medium that really mattered: the daily newspaper.
The job of helping businesses transmit their messages to the public is getting more complicated by the day. The news last week of the Star Tribune’s bankruptcy filing highlights the rapid changes in the media landscape.
The traditional media – newspapers, magazines, TV and radio – are failing. With their struggle comes a fragmentation of the one thing they reliably delivered for decades: a mass audience.
As media relations director for a marketing agency, my job depends on keeping up with these rapid changes. In recent months, it has often seemed as if the ground is shifting daily. The changes in the media world are affecting every advertising, public relations and marketing agency.
In addition to the well-chronicled staff cutbacks at newspapers, the medium is adopting a more centralized delivery model for non-local, non-breaking news. Individual newspapers are deploying their thinning staffs on local news, the one area where they still have hope of maintaining a competitive advantage.
In Texas, Florida, Ohio and elsewhere, newspapers under different corporate ownership are banding together to provide regional coverage in their areas. Elsewhere, business and lifestyle news, national trend stories – even sports coverage of major events – are increasingly generated by a relative handful of national reporters at wire services, syndicates or major news organizations. Gannett, the nation’s largest newspaper chain, is toying with the idea of using its flagship USA Today as a sort of wire service for Gannett’s 80-plus papers, feeding them non-local stories.
For someone like me, that means I may no longer have the option of getting a reporter in, say, Phoenix interested in a story about a client’s new product or service – a story that once could have gotten picked up by the wires and run nationwide. The reporter in Phoenix will be covering news that originates in Phoenix, and nowhere else. Instead, I’ll be pitching to an increasingly small number of overworked and overpitched national reporters in New York or Washington, D.C. There will be fewer sets of ears to listen to an interesting idea.
Infomercials replace news show
Speaking of D.C.: WUSA, the Gannett-owned TV station there, recently announced that it was canceling its weekend morning news programs and replacing them with infomercials. Weekend news programs have traditionally been the PR person’s friend; they have a lot of time to fill and not a lot of breaking news, so they often are receptive to feature stories and other offbeat pieces that wouldn’t work on an evening newscast.
WUSA also is cutting staff and creating one-person news crews: a single news staffer will shoot video, report and edit stories. Other stations in D.C. have indicated they’ll follow suit, and I expect the salary-saving trend to spread nationwide. Again, this means that stressed news staffers will have less time and inclination to report on any but the most immediate stories. Expect “if it bleeds, it leads” to be taken to a whole new level. In-depth looks at issues such as energy efficiency, health care and personal finance are likely to get shorter shrift than they already do.
Lifestyle magazines are closing by the dozen, and radio – well, it was already far ahead of the other media in centralized, standardized programming. Even so, cuts are now thinning the ranks of the few local personalities and news reporters who remain.
What does this mean for the marketing world? At the risk of sounding like a broken record: social media. Much of the news and discussion that once centered on the traditional media is moving to blogs and Web sites. As my agency president, Jörg Pierach, told us recently, “We’ve all got to be social media experts.”
I’m not saying that traditional media relations will die out entirely. There’s still a place for someone who knows how to shape a story to gain the interest of a print or broadcast journalist.
But it may be a skill that becomes more and more specialized, like the watchmaker who fixes the expensive timepieces of that fraction of the population who don’t wear cheap digital watches.