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Public Relations Stares Down the Shrinking News Hole

The Rocky Mountain News published its last issue today.

The venerable daily is a victim of the terrible economy and the current upheaval in the newspaper industry. Its closing is not good news for Denver, and it’s certainly not good news for the publication’s staffers, some of whom were said to cry at the news.

I can identify with the pain they’re feeling. Newspaper closings and newsroom layoffs always fill me with a sense of loss. My father, prior to starting his own public relations firm, worked for the Newark Star-Ledger. I spent many early mornings as a child delivering that paper and, all these years later, my mornings still begin with the rustle of newsprint and ink stains on my hands. 

Of course, the shuttering of The Rocky Mountain News is just latest in a string of bad news for traditional media outlets and, in all likelihood, a sign of more such changes to come. It’s also challenging news for the public relations profession.

With newsroom after newsroom struggling and other dramatic shifts in the media landscape taking place, what follows is a look at just some of the new realities to which public relations professionals must adapt.

According to the Project for Excellence in Journalism and its “State of the News Media 2008” report:

  • News is no longer a product, but a service. This definition broadens the role of journalists, who must now help consumers find the information they are looking for, make sense of it, react to it, and use it.
  • News organizations and news Web sites are no longer final destinations. They are gateways to helping people find what they want on the rest of the site or the Web. 
  • The agenda of the American news media is narrowing. Two overriding stories—the war in Iraq and the 2008 campaign—filled more than 25 percent of the news hole in 2007. At the same time, a number of domestic issues, such as education, race, and religion, filled less than a single percent.
  • The media is moving on from stories more quickly. Breaking news events motivate the media to “flood the zone,” before rushing to drop the underlying story lines.

The Project for Excellence in Journalism also found that, despite a plethora of new sources, citizen media is showing limitations. Its research suggests that blogs and public affairs Web sites are attracting smaller audiences than once was expected. 

In addition, consumers who are bombarded with more media choices will take away less shared experiences. As The Atlantic notes, the fewer people who consume any given media product, the fewer there are to tell you how awesome HBO’s animated comedy ‘The Life & Times of Tim’ is.”

Finally, Editor & Publisher reports that, as demand for Web content increases, print deadlines accelerate, and cost limitations force cutbacks, newspapers are asking journalists to do more work remotely. “Mojos,” or mobile journalists, are now being equipped with backpack kits that include a laptop computer, cell phone, video camera, and audio recorder, and are spending most—if not all—of their time outside the newsroom. 

Historically speaking, public relations flourishes at moments of monumental change like this. Which is why, despite the bearish changes taking place in traditional media, I’m still bullish on the future of public relations.

Michael Cherenson, APR, is Chair and CEO of PRSA.

11 Comments

  • Hitting your stride nicely here, Michael. This timely, link-rich post with personal reflections and professional impact is a good example of how to distinguish this new blog.

    We learn about your roots, we gain a clickable overview of print journalism Q1 09 and we hear a welcome reminder that “public relations flourishes at moments of monumental change.”

    Context, encouragement and a childhood vignette in 14 paragraphs on the morning of a breaking news peg — well-done, indeed!

  • Staffers shedding tears at the closure of the Rocky Mountain News? I have to confess to shedding a few myself. I have read the News my entire life and feel like I am losing a family member. For it to close down brings home to me the fact that people have lost sight of the value of the daily newspaper. It is a sad day to be sure!

  • Michael,
    I enjoyed your column, and as a former reporter myself, feel the same sadness over the demise of these newspapers and the shrinking of others thoughout the country.

    While I’m trying to maintain my optimism, and have been through recessions before, I’ve never had to face one where the existing medium I’m pitching to is evaporating as well. With the shrinking editorial space, there are less and less opportunities to get good (read that interesting) news stories placed. Certainly, on t.v. you can (if you have good visuals), but local radio in my market in northeast Florida offers no hope, and it is getting harder to get anything but a mention placed in print. While my small consulting firm now focuses more on internet-based p.r. and e-blasts, I’m finding it extremely difficult to prove to clients the worthiness of those projects when they’ve become so used to seeing tear sheets or video taped segments by real reporters. – RW

  • Echoes a white paper I presented to my team last month on what’s happening in our market (WA,OR,ID,UT). Staring down a hole is right: give me a sinking feeling as a reader, former reporter and now PR practitioner.

    In your next post, I look forward to a few examples of PR’s flourishing in previous times of shift. I’m lacking that history, since I spent most of my career on the reporter’s side of the notepad.

    • This development begs the question “What should PR pros do differently as the newshole shrinks?” Coincidentally, longtime PRSA member Don Bates just sent me, hot off the electronic presses, the results of a study he initiated late last year and conducted with Cision, which surveyed journalists and editors.

      The findings included recommendations that public relations practitioners target their pitches more precisely (“being more relevant to their (editors/journalists) beat,” send e-mail pitches as text only, and be “less promotional.” Other suggestions included that pitches have stronger story ideas, be better written, and cover the 5ws in leads.

      Although it might seem obvious, the bottom line seems to be that public relations practitioners should think more like journalists, which follows: as the newsroom shrinks, those pitches that more immediately contain a news hook appropriate for the audience stand a better chance of getting published – in part because they require less work in the form of rewriting, editing, or packaging – and while some (or all) of these recommendations might not be new, perhaps the headline would be “now more than ever.” In short, if there are fewer folks in the newsrooms to get the work done, the work needs to be done upstream. There are some interesting findings in the report about social media as a news source, as well.

      You can find the full story on the research here:
      http://www.gwu.edu/~newsctr/newscenter/research/Cision/index.cfm .
      Finally, in terms of disclosure, while Cision is a corporate sponsor of PRSA and Don is a member of PRSA, we did not participate in this project in any way, nor do we have any other interest in the project.

      Bill Murray
      PRSA President and COO

  • As a journalism graduate with most of my career spent on the public relations marketing side of the desk, I can see some benefits to the shrinking hole. I currently also edit a luxury publication and see things from that side of the desk also.

    Here’s what I see. As pitching space shrinks in print it is growing online both in quantity and in importance. In fact, a print publication may go totally digital and not lose much in the way of readership, because their readers are already there. They have to bring advertisers along and perhaps they come at a lower dollar, but space is less expensive. Therefore, space becomes less of an issue than actual personnel to populate news in the new space.

    Perhaps the publication has to rely more on news feeds and less on original staff written stories. As a result, I think we’ll see more freelance writers and contributors. In fact, some reporters who have lost their jobs in print will find their own niches as sought after freelance writers and contributors.

    As an editor I appreciate someone in PR who provides great tips, always has excellent photos and can provide valid comments to an article or bring something truly newsworthy or interesting to my attention. As someone who also pitches I realize that being this type of resource can work in my favor.

    Print publications may become smaller in page count or page size. Some areas, may not have enough advertisers to support two entities that appeal to the same readership. Therefore, the shrinking hole for print news and features brings those on both sides of spin and slant a little closer to each other.

    If the medium is still the message, the message is that more of our news and entertainment is online, because we can access it faster. And, while that means less print space to populate, it also means a world of new opportunities online that work very well for clients.

  • I have been very concerned about the future of one of our newspapers here in the Twin Cities – the Pioneer Press. I’ve been curious about whether or not our two papers will merge, or if the Press will just phase out to an online-only publication; like what happened to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
    I also agree with what alexkoritz said; maybe it’s merely just a shift – to a new medium.

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