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As media landscape changes, so must marketing

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.

Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Wayne Lorentz on 01/19/2009 - 11:52 am.

    You think that one-person news crews is a trend that will go nationwide? Where have you been for the last 20 years. One-man-bands (that’s what they’re called in the industry) have been the norm in most small to medium markets since the demise of uMatic tape. There are hundreds of stations already doing it. The trend isn’t that it’s going to spread nationwide, but that it’s going to infiltrate the larger markets where the unions have worked hard to keep them out for years. They’re already in use on the 24-hour news channel in Chicago (CLTV). New York (NY1) probably has them, too.

    I share your concern about the implosion of newspapers, though. Without newspapers where will bloggers get their information? Who will tell them what’s going on around the world?

    For all the internet hype about “new media” versus “old media” certain facts remain — without strong traditional media organizations at both the national and local level, the civil rights of the individual are at risk.

    How many newspaper and TV reporters have gone to jail or worse to preserve the freedoms enjoyed by average citizens? Hundreds. Maybe thousands.

    How many bloggers have done the same? Zero.

    Without the large media groups and their lawyers who will take on local and national governments doing wrong, there will be no freedom of the press for bloggers or anyone else.

    Already local governments around the country make it difficult or impossible for people to get access to information they have every right to know. With the demise of local media these governments are becoming more and more arrogant because there are fewer and fewer watchdogs.

    And what are the bloggers doing about it? Sitting around their mother’s basements Twittering each other about how great it is that another newspaper went bankrupt.

    Thanks for nothing, guys.

  2. Submitted by John Reinan on 01/19/2009 - 12:04 pm.

    Thanks for the info on the one-man bands, Wayne. And I share your concern about the demise of newspapers. Newspapers are the carcass that every other entity in the online world feeds upon.

  3. Submitted by john johnson on 01/19/2009 - 01:52 pm.

    Truer words were never spoken!!!!

    Mass media = 20th century concept

  4. Submitted by Bridgette Bornstein on 01/19/2009 - 04:57 pm.

    Here are some local implications to note too. Some reporters at KARE (also owned by Gannett) just became one-man-bands. There are others locally too, including some who have been going solo for a decade or more. No question–the job is harder as a one-man-band. That person probably has far less time to do everything, including answering the phone and setting up stories. And, it’s a new challenge of coordination for everyone in a newsroom—not just the reporter. Most of the stations have also increased the duties of the photojournalists, and that makes tough jobs even more difficult.

    I am not so sure that “if it bleeds it leads” would be a result of more one-man-band reporting, especially here. Minneapolis/St. Paul viewers do not want constant crime coverage, and local news managers know that and won’t settle for easy stories over substance (although I would argue that crime stories are not necessarily easier than others). TV news, while dealing with budget cuts, is working even harder to keep viewers. This audience wants to see people stories, well-researched pieces on local issues and businesses, consumer/new product information and meaningful reporting. That won’t change. But the budget cuts do make the jobs for the street crews and assignment desks much more difficult, as if they weren’t tough enough already. PR pitches that are concise and targeted can still get noticed–but, even more than ever, they have to take into account journalists’ limited time.

    This market just lost a weekend morning news show, so, yes, that is one less place for PR agencies to pitch ideas. But, for what it’s worth, this market went through this after 9/11 as well, as some local morning news shows got slashed, only to return a few years later. News production costs less than syndicated shows (producing a local news show costs less than reruns of Frasier, for example). Another development in some cities is the single anchor show, especially in the AM and on weekends. So, there are fewer people to sift through PR pitches.

  5. Submitted by Ken Kadet on 01/21/2009 - 03:03 pm.

    Re: “we all must become social media experts.”

    It’s not so much that we must become social media experts…it’s that we must become experts at finding markets and audiences — in all the media they choose.

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