One of the challenges for public relations agencies and their clients is how to adjust to the news business that finds itself under attack in several different ways.
To understand some of the challenges for public relations, we need to address what's going on in the business of news.
- The business model for news organizations is broken. Americans are used to accessing news without paying for it. Unfortunately, it takes a lot of time and money to produce quality journalism so news media need to develop a sustainable business model. Some organizations have been doing well by establishing a paywall through which non-subscribers can access a handful of articles per month while subscribers can access all they want. The problem is that not every news organization is able to get readers to pay for its content. The New York Times, Wall St. Journal and Washington Post have seen the number of online subscribers increase but the Guardian, a UK news site that had been providing free access to raise awareness in the US has been asking readers to donate to the site -- and we bet they're not seeing much money from that. Meanwhile, online subscriptions are often priced lower than print subscriptions and online ads absolutely generate less money that print ads even though online ads provide much more useable data. Right now, the Washington Post, LA Times and Time magazine are all owned by billionaires who are able to afford to preserve prestige media properties. Unfortunately, there are not enough civic-minded billionaires. Worse, that doesn't solve the underlying business problem.
- The incredible shrinking newsroom. A decade ago, most newsrooms used to employ more reporters to cover the news, and the amount of pages that newspapers and magazines had to fill was larger. Today, news reporters have to cover more news with fewer resources and less space. Locally, at the Boston Business Journal, a terrific weekly, staff reporters typically file four or so stories a day, may have a weekly newsletter they produce and then must write a longer article for the weekly printed edition. Radio reporters now also have to write up a print story for the website in addition to producing their stories for the radio. All of this is to say that there are fewer reporters and they have to produce much more. This makes it challenging for them to take meetings, cultivate sources, uncover stories that need to be told. According to the UNC School of Media and Journalism's Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media, the result of all this is that "Many newspapers have become ghosts of their former selves, both in terms of the quality and quantity of their editorial content and the reach of their readership." (See credibility issues, below.)
- The growing number of "news deserts." We're going to see that term a lot more in 2019. According to UNC, a news desert is "a community, either rural or urban, with limited access to the sort of credible and comprehensive news and information that feeds democracy at the grassroots level." When the concept of news desert came to light, it was often thought to affect rural areas only that couldn't sustain local news media. With layoffs and the shuttering of online sites and weekly papers in New York City (like the demise of the Gothamist and the Village Voice), it's clear that news deserts can afflict big cities, too. Either way, this is making it harder to tell local stories.
- The credibility of news media is under attack. There is at least one area of commonality between liberals and conservatives: each group has key media it favors (due to confirmation bias, i.e., their echo chamber) and those outlets whose reports they disagree with and don't believe. Americans increasingly hate either Fox or CNN; the New York Times or Wall St. Journal, for example. With Trump and others calling articles they don't like "Fake News" or "the enemy of the people," and people on the other side pointing to Hannity (who had said he wouldn't campaign for Trump but then came out on stage at Trump's last rally before the midterms), etc., the problem is that the credibility of journalist and media outlets across the spectrum is now being questioned. That's a real problem for PR functions and agencies who work with reporters, editors and producers to tell their clients' stories. If there are those who disbelieve the New York Times or Wall St. Journal, will they believe your organization's news in those or other outlets? Seems doubtful.
On the bright side, there are new outlets that provide quality journalism -- like Vice, Vox, Axios, Quartz -- but they may not have the name recognition, and their staffs may be harder to reach. Many reporters don't list their phone numbers. For that matter, some of these outlets don't list phone numbers so the only way to reach a reporter is by email and there's no good way to follow up. (No one really likes following up but it has proven to generate coverage. Being unable because there's no phone number means it's harder to report back to clients about where things stand. And you can only email so many times without a response before it turns into a credibility problem for the publicist.)
Additionally, these new outlets may have an edgy persona so good media professionals need to continue to find quality media and vet those outlets to help clients – whether internal or external – understand the value of targeting media they may not have heard of but who may be influential and worth pursuing. That additional layer of vetting requires additional time.
More than a decade ago, my rule of thumb was that it would take a half hour per reporter on your media list. So if you had a list with 20 reporters, it might take 10 hours between calling all reporters, scheduling and coordinating an interview, providing background on the reporter for the client, etc. Now it takes longer because you also have to check reporters' tone and the stuff they post on Twitter. That's a big difference. (You don't want to pitch an A.I. client to a reporter who is consistently posting that A.I. is a danger to society.)
Yet we feel that traditional media relations won’t fade away. Instead, media relations will continue to be an important means for organizations to communicate their stories, and good media pros will need to expand the definition of the media to include YouTubers, Twitter, Instagrammers – just as they’ve been doing that with bloggers.