Traditional news journalism is in trouble. Some might take a more moderate view and believe it is changing or transforming through digitization and social media. Whatever your take, traditional news in the form of early edition newspapers and late night television broadcasts is nowhere near as influential as it used to be.
Social media’s real-time documentary of the world and global reach, combined with declining traditional print media advertising revenues are key drivers as to why traditional news has radically changed, as well as the way news is reported.
To make matters worse politicians’ claims of “fake news” and journalists’ own hubris have played a key role in further polarizing the agendas of traditional news media.
It can be argued that businesses – of all sizes and across industries – have also contributed to declining viewership and readership of traditional media by creating their own online newsrooms or through easily accessible Internet-based publishing tools (blogs, video, podcasts, etc.). Working closely with marketing and PR professionals, they are producing highly-immersive content designed to influence today’s digital-savvy audiences directly.
In doing so, businesses may overlook the value of news media at their peril.
As every PR practitioner knows, a journalist’s professional status and objective viewpoint give their words more influence than a thousand Facebook likes. When aligned with a client’s message they are worth their weight in gold.
The shocking decline in journalist numbers is a crying shame and cause for concern for us all.
Media Relations – Then
One of my first roles in PR was as Press Officer at one of the leading computer hardware companies.
A major part of the job was media relations. In those days the term had a much more literal meaning – you were expected to pick up the phone, call an important target journalist and invite them out to lunch to get to know them.
As the meal proceeded you would offer them exclusive or embargo-access to a range of stories. Invariably, one of these would be snapped up gratefully with the promise of a follow up meeting or call with a relevant company executive to go into more depth.
The results would later appear in print, often with quotes attributed. Happy days!
Media Relations – Now
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics the number of journalists in the newspaper business fell by more than 50% from 412,000 in 2001 to 174,000 in 2016.
Today’s newsrooms are so understaffed and the remaining reporters under so much pressure to meet around-the-clock deadlines that they rarely pause even to answer the phone.
Technology editors in particular are becoming increasingly difficult to reach. Voice mailboxes are invariably full and never checked. If you are lucky, a reporter may respond via email or Twitter.
Of course, there are still occasions when it is the journalist that initiates contact. But if the story has the faintest whiff of negativity then it’s the Press Office’s turn to go into lockdown. Various executives and legal personnel are consulted to explain the company’s position.
At the end of this process – which can sometimes take several hours – the reporter has to make do with a carefully worded statement and no chance for further questions.
It’s hardly surprising if this only serves to strain relations further.
Architects of Their Own Demise
When we see some of the lengths journalists will go to get a story it can be hard to have much sympathy for them.
The chief technology correspondent for a British daily newspaper once proudly told me, “We are in the entertainment business.” Such hubris can lead to outrageous behavior.
This was evident a few years ago when it emerged journalists from News International had for years routinely hacked into celebrity/crime victim voicemails in search of salacious gossip or a scoop.
Even the BBC is not immune. The enthusiasm with which they pursued the veteran pop star Sir Cliff Richard after police began investigating him for alleged sexual misconduct was strongly criticised by the British courts.
Journalists from the BBC newsroom also pop up regularly in TV drama programs to add an extra touch of authenticity to the action. For the recent Bodyguard series one went so far as to ad lib her lines to make her fictional news report as real as possible.
The integrity of news journalism is easily undermined.
When this happens it can leave the public struggling to tell the difference between truth, fiction and lies. Savvy politicians like Donald Trump are able to turn this to their advantage with talk of media conspiracy and fake news.
Shift to Online
PR programs today, especially those in the tech industry, are now almost exclusively aligned with a client’s digital and content marketing campaigns.
Their primary purpose is to develop highly immersive content capable of influencing modern Internet-savvy target audiences directly. True, some of this material is developed with column inches in mind but it takes second place to website traffic generation and keyword brand leadership.
Meanwhile busy chief executives are shielded from all but a select few trusted journalists.
Some PR professionals welcome the shift in focus. Media relations can seem like being caught between a rock and a hard place trying to satisfy the very different objectives of clients and journalists.
But online campaigns free them to fully flex their creative muscles and give them greater control over hitting target metrics.
In summary, newsroom numbers are in decline and traditional journalist values of balanced reporting, finding the truth, and verifying facts are under threat.
At the same time PR campaigns are more interested in managing the client’s image online than in traditional media.
Nevertheless PR campaigns still retain a press relations component. Falling press numbers must therefore be a major concern for everyone involved in the process.
The importance of journalists to our work is invaluable and the public’s perception of our clients would be all the poorer without them.