Having survived five major corporate mergers in my career—which is about six more than anyone should have to face—I have more than a little sympathy for the merger-like fallout that’s going on in journalism today. Newsroom staffs have been decimated, newspapers trimmed to the size of bookmarks, and the reporters who survive are working long hours across multiple beats and multiple platforms in a world where there is no longer a news cycle, there is only “right now.” And then there are those who didn’t have a chair to sit in when the music stopped, and they’re looking around wondering what’s next.
In short, it’s tough out there. But as the discussion at the March 9 panel pointed out, all is far from gloom and doom. Some of the key points:
-- Print is not dead. Though the daily newspaper may eventually fade away, niche publications are doing well. Encore Magazine, a long-time staple in the Kalamazoo area, continues to produce a slick, well-read publication focusing on arts, culture and community personalities. The challenge is to keep a close watch on that niche and the changing interests of their audiences.
-- Niche web sites have a place, too. Second Wave Media, which covers local news in a variety of communities, chooses to focus on “good” news—human interest, culture and economic angles that traditional media may not cover. It can be a refreshing change from the hard news that consumers get by other means.
-- Changing to a multi-platform approach takes time and adaptability. When the Booth newspaper chain in Michigan consolidated under MLive Media Group and the member papers took more of an online approach, including reducing daily newspaper delivery, public reaction spanned the spectrum. It’s understandable; readers feel a certain ownership of their local newspaper and are quick to voice their opinions about change. Acceptance is said to be coming along, albeit grudgingly. Internally, the “open office” approach, in which news and advertising departments interact more than in the past—traditionally, the two have been kept on different planets, lest one unduly influence the other—is evolving, and it appears that the line between them is still relatively firm.
-- Data gathering is greatly enhancing targeted advertising. As we all know, Internet users’ data is easily obtained, and that is being used aggressively by news providers like MLive so that online ads are targeted to those users’ interests. Some people see it as creepy and stalker-ish, others as useful in making their browsing time more productive. But concerns about privacy on the Web are rising, and it’s hard to imagine this won’t spark even tougher discussions among policymakers and the public in the years ahead.
-- Relationships are more important than ever. This was a point I made early in the discussion. Media relations professionals have to know the reporters they work with—their interests, their needs, their constraints. Reporters have no time to waste on pitches that don’t fit those parameters, or spokespersons who are unresponsive and ill-informed. The media relations contact must be a trusted source of information and ideas. The rise of online news, social media and the like haven’t changed the critical need to build professional and mutually beneficial relationships.
I’m not sure if the “refugees” in the audience found solace or discouragement in the discussion. But all would agree that the landscape has changed forever, and will continue to change. Knowing and accepting that will be the key to a vibrant Fourth Estate for the future, hopefully opening up new opportunities for journalists and success in public relations professionals sharing its clients’ stories.