Shattered news industry means scattered media relationships

Here’s a commentary I wrote for

Published: 4/16/2010

Shattered news industry means scattered media relationships
By Ari B. Adler

How are you adjusting to this rocky professional landscape?

I’ve often taught people that the strength of your media relations work is based upon the strength of relationships. Having a solid relationship with a reporter is invaluable. If you know they’ll read the e-mail you’ve sent them or answer the phone when they see your number on caller ID, that is going to help you, your employer or your client tremendously.

Media relations is getting tougher every day, though, as a shattered news industry scatters media relationships near and far. As the news industry changes, the public relations practitioners who deal with it regularly are going to have to adapt. In the long run, however, this could be an opportunity for those of us in the industry to thrive.

Many of us have prided ourselves on the connections we’ve made with various reporters at different news outlets. Often, we were able to rely on those connections for many years—either at that outlet or at an even bigger and better one as the careers of our journalism friends grew.

But a Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism research study released recently indicates those days are over. Newsrooms are being downsized, reporters are being laid off, and the public’s demand for information is catered to by amateurs or organizations with a financial or political cause at their center.

Newspapers have seen a 41 percent decline in ad revenue over the past three years, Pew reports. Local television ad revenue fell 24 percent in 2009—three times as much as it did in 2008. Magazine ad revenue dropped 19 percent in 2009. As much as the former journalist in me likes to believe people will pay for solid reporting and protection by professional journalists doing their jobs, I also am a realist. The ads pay the bills, including the reporters’ paychecks. Without ad revenue, a news outlet cannot survive.

According to the Pew report, 79 percent of online news consumers say they rarely if ever clicked on an online ad, so don’t think some new Web-based business model is the solution for the aging newsrooms of the world. Thirty-five percent of Americans say they have a “favorite” destination online for news, but only 19 percent of them would be willing to pay for access to that site.

Newspaper staffs often are cited as the biggest victims of the economic crash affecting newsrooms, and for good reason. In 2009, approximately 5,900 newspaper jobs were lost, and that’s on top of the same amount lost in 2008. According to Pew, approximately one-third of the newsroom jobs in American newspapers in 2001 are now gone.

The economic decline that has decimated newsrooms lately is not the only problem—some of it is the result of changing habits by news consumers.

As the Pew report points out: “Consumers are not seeking out news organizations for their full news agenda. They are hunting the news by topic and by event and grazing across multiple outlets.”

The economic turmoil and changing consumer habits are not likely to revert to the days of yesteryear anytime soon, so it’s incumbent upon public relations professionals to figure out the best way to manage all of this.

As a PR person who has always had media relations as one of my core competencies to offer a client or employer, I actually see this as an opportune time for folks in my field. Never before has it been so important to have someone dedicated primarily to keeping up with “the media.” I say, “the media,” because we can’t simply see media relations as dealing with reporters and editors at mainstream news outlets anymore.

We have to deal with bloggers and “citizen journalists” and with special-interest groups posing as unbiased information sources. We have to keep up with the initial reports as well as the incomplete or skewed interpretations broadcast via social media. We have to be on our toes 24 hours a day, seven days a week and able to respond at a pace more rapid than we ever imagined just a few years ago.

As the news industry has segmented and news consumers are dividing into more niches, perhaps the media relations niche of public relations will see a surge in importance as well. If PR practitioners haven’t started sounding the alarm bells for clients about this yet, they need to get started. Our world is spinning faster; try not to get dizzy and fall off.