Wednesday, February 16, 2022

The Revolving Door at Top-Tier Media

For a publicly held telco client last March, we developed a focused media list of reporters at top-tier newspapers and magazines that we thought would be interested in a specific story based on their recent news coverage.

We pitched these reporters in the spring and continued to develop and pitch different reporters for the client. By October, we had another story that we thought might appeal to the initial set of reporters, all at name-brand traditional media like the New York Times, Fortune, and others at that level.

What we found interesting was that of a list of fewer than 20 reporters, about 40% had left their perches to move to writing newsletters or for online sites that are not as well known and don't have the same clout or prestege.

Since we were tasked with working only with top-tier media, that raised several issues:

  1. We needed to educate the client that some reporters who write online newsletters -- whether for themselves via Substack or for newspapers (like former longtime Businessweek reporter Peter Coy, who writes a newsletter for the New York Times) -- are still very influential and must be considered. This is important because as the media shifts, we need to re-evaluate the media we follow.
  2. We had to evaluate reporters' new outlets to determine if those outlets met the client's criteria. Honestly, we were hoping they might land at cool new publications we should be considering as top-tier. Yet, although we expected reporters to move from one top-tier media to another -- for example, leave MarketWatch or AP for WSJ (a sister publication) or Bloomberg -- many did not. They didn't even join top-tier online publications like TechCrunch, which would still have worked for our purposes.  One reporter left Fortune for a gaming publication so that involved a change in what she wrote about. Was that move predicated by a love of gaming? By budget cutbacks? We always look for trends or for an understanding of what's driving change but we couldn't find a consistent or reasonable explanation. 
  3.  We had to look for replacements at those publications that might be interested in the client and its story. Interestingly, many of those positions remained unstaffed. And we're not talking about an obscure industry beat. We were looking for reporters who cover internet (but not social media) and telecommunications, which are mainstays of business sections. In some cases, other reporters picked up some of the coverage but in other cases. But we were shocked that beats did not appear to be fully covered. That would have once been unthinkable.
So we're seeing a lot of reporters leaving top-tier media -- something, again, that would have once been unthinkable. And we're seeing beats not necessarily getting the same kind of coverage. We know that the Times has been devoting more coverage to the media world itself, including social media (an area that is not appropriate or relevant for the client). 

One conclusion is that the focus of top-tier media is on FAANG companies (do we really need to identify Facebook -- now Meta -- Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google -- now Alphabet?) and on social media as one of the more controversial and important business topics. This certainly has implications for clients that don't touch on social media. In other words, you may have an interesting client with a good story to tell, and it might be ever more difficult to find reporters who might be interested in the client.

A second conclusion is that reporters are not immune to the Great Resignation, and have left to find new opportunities in journalism. And that means we have to identify new reporters and understand what they write about and what elements they look for when they write about an industry or a topic. This is something we've always done so that's not an issue. What does make it challenging is that it hasn't always involved as many as 40% of reporters on a relatively focused list.

Clearly we don't have all the answers but we do think it's important to ask the right questions, which include:
  1. How should we define top-tier media in 2022? Who should be included now? Are there outlets that may no longer be as important?
  2. Why are reporters leaving? Is it part of the Great Resignation? Is it due to budget cutbacks? What can we learn from this?
  3. Are top-tier media changing the focus of what they're covering? If so, what are the implications for clients that do not fit into new coverage areas? 
As always, we will continue to look at the changing media world and raise questions to help get to answers that help our clients succeed with media relations. 

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