PR Training Pulse of the Profession

The Shrinking Newsroom: Frustration or Opportunity?

Like many in our profession, I remember my early days in public relations fondly. I was a wide-eyed, high school sophomore when I first started working with the sports information staff in the athletic department at the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss to anyone from the South). At home football games each fall, the press box at Hemingway Stadium was packed with sportswriters and columnists representing many of the major newspapers in the South — The (Memphis) Commercial Appeal, The Jackson Clarion-Ledger, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution to name a few. Those writers were rock stars in my eyes and handing play-by-play sheets and halftime statistics to such legends as Furman Bisher and Hubert Mizell was truly a thrill.

Fast forward 35 years to today, when the 2010 college football season unofficially begins with the convening of Southeastern Conference (SEC) Football Media Days outside Birmingham. Ala. There are still many newspapers represented at Media Days, but the cast of characters has definitely changed. More than 850 media outlets, ranging from local newspapers and radio stations to television networks and bloggers, attend this three-day feeding frenzy for interviews with coaches and players from the 12 member schools. My good friend, Charles Bloom (who currently serves as president of the PRSA Alabama Chapter), is associate commissioner for the Southeastern Conference, and he has the daunting responsibility of wrangling the media circus that follows “southern fried football” from Gainesville, Fla., to Fayetteville, Ark. Contrasted with those laid back teenage years in the Ole Miss press box, today’s media horde covers SEC football with fervor once reserved for political conventions or natural disasters.

Outside the sports arena, the changing media landscape is impacting public relations professionals from coast to coast. In November 2008, I moderated a panel discussion on “The Shrinking Newsroom” at The Public Relations and Marketing Seminar in Chapel Hill, N.C., which was organized by the PRSA North Carolina Chapter. One of the panelists was John Drescher, executive editor of The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C. I recently called John to get an update on how things have changed over the last 18 months, how he has adapted and, specifically, how the shrinking newsroom impacts public relations professionals. Here are excerpts from our conversation.

Do you have the latest numbers showing how your newsroom headcount has shrunk?
Every department except the investigative team has been cut, with some cuts deeper than others. State government and politics have been hit less, with six out of eight reporters remaining, and we’ve actually added an investigative reporter. In total, we have 115 people in Raleigh (in The News & Observer newsroom), not counting our community papers. However, there is some news sharing with the local publications. The community papers, in fact, are growing to the point that we’re moving weeklies to twice weeklies, such as The Cary News. It’s been a bright spot over the last 18 months and represents an expanding area of our business.

How has the consolidation of McClatchy newsroom resources in southern cities changed The News & Observer’s news-gathering priorities?
We have a closer relationship with our partners at The Charlotte Observer. We have merged staffs in Raleigh and Charlotte for sports, features and state government coverage. It’s a way to get coverage we didn’t have before. We pick up business and NASCAR coverage from The Charlotte Observer; they pick up The News & Observer coverage of state government and ACC football and basketball from Raleigh. It’s been good for both newspapers.

Which beats are no longer covered?
All beats are still covered, but reporters are doubling up. Fewer do more, with changes like paring back to one healthcare reporter, splitting healthcare business coverage among existing business staff, and relying on wire services and correspondents to cover fitness. Of course, we must make sure that correspondents are unencumbered by ties that would compromise their independence.

What are the implications of “the shrinking newsroom” for public relations professionals?
Now more than ever, we need good public relations people who give us timely, quality information. Everybody’s working harder, and so we must get good information quickly to do our jobs better. Fewer reporters means there are things we simply can no longer cover. My message to our reporters is to keep your ambition high, pick your spots and do those things really well.

What is the best way to approach your news staff when reporters we used to call leave?
I think the worst is behind us, and so I expect less rapid turnover in our newsroom staff. The key players in newsrooms — editors or department heads — are still making the daily decisions on which stories to cover. They control the time of the reporting staff and should be viewed as key people to which to pitch stories. Veteran reporters are still good contacts to cultivate, but I recommend more outreach to the editors in the metro, sports and features departments. Those department heads are high enough in the organization to have authority, and yet they’re in the trenches every day putting out the newspaper. I think that’s more effective than working with reporters, who are more likely to leave.

Would you accept bylined articles in sections other than the op-ed pages?
We’re not necessarily looking for bylined articles, but we are looking for ways to generate content quickly. I’m more interested in quick hit Q&As with CEOs or business leaders; or, we may run excerpts from newsworthy speeches. For example, we recently picked up a story from the Duke University alumni publication about graduates working on Wall Street. We ran the story with their permission. I suppose that’s a close cousin to bylined stories, but we regularly need more locally generated content.

Anything else?
Now more than ever, we need timely, quality information. The basics are still important, like getting people to return phone calls. I’ve always thought that if you do the fundamentals well — whether it’s reporting, football or public relations — you’ll be fine.

Obviously, John and I share an affinity for football analogies. Public relations professionals should heed his advice and focus on the “blocking and tackling” of our profession. By that I mean generating high quality information and delivering it in a timely manner to newspapers and the myriad other outlets evolving in our ever-changing media world.

Philip Tate, APR, is a member of the PRSA Board of Directors and senior vice president at Luquire, George and Andrews in Charlotte, N.C.

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