A recent study by the University of California, Davis finds that newspapers will have to (drumroll, please) change if they wish to survive. More specifically, it says newsrooms must move away from the repetitive, mechanical patterns that have driven the industry over the last century and embrace innovation, online networking and new business models. While many people think of newspapers as flexible and technology-driven, the study says, newspapers are actually more like a factory assembly line — strict, deadline-driven and trapped by archaic systems and processes. And that makes it almost impossible to innovate.
As a 15-year veteran of newspapering who left the industry in 2008, I think that last part rings especially true. When it comes to innovation, newspapers have always been several steps behind. That’s because they didn’t need to, really; they often were able to remain the staid, unchanging monoliths in their community because there were really no other viable options for local advertisers and readers. Then that pesky Internet thing took over, and the rest is history.
As has been well-documented in the last 10 years, technology has pulled the rug out from under traditional newsrooms, and many a newspaper has been forced to confront this sobering reality: An inflexible, obsolete way of doing things contributes to a flawed business model, which means less revenue, which means fewer newsgathering resources, which means newspapers become less and less relevant in today’s digital information marketplace. It’s happening all over the country. When the Houston Chronicle lays off their space beat reporter – Houston! — it’s a sign that newspapers have begun to cede their role as the authoritative collective of knowledge in their communities.
I could go on about how sad that is, waxing nostalgic and lamenting how publishers’ divestment in newsgathering resources is not a sustainable long-term (or mid- or even short-term) strategy for the newspaper industry. I could even probably come up with my suggestions for newsrooms to work to change course. But that’s been done ad nauseum, and besides, it’s really not the point of this blog.
Instead, here’s my point: As professional communicators, it’s our job to do more than just bemoan the slow, tragic decline of the once-mighty dailies, and fret about where our next clip is going to come from if there aren’t any writers to produce the clips. It’s our job to maximize our organization’s exposure in today’s rapidly changing media environment, using whatever means necessary.
And, for better or for worse, here’s what the situation is right now: The changes the media is undergoing have clearly increased our capacity to be direct content providers — and by this, I mean using the media as a vessel, not a filter, to push out our message. We do this regularly, with increasing success and reach. You can, too.
Here are a few things to keep in mind as you go down this road:
Frame the story for the reporter, and take advantage of new entry points. Almost without exception in the last five years, newspaper staffs have gotten a good deal smaller. For those who have survived the cuts, life is much different than before. Reporters who once had to worry about writing just a few stories a week have now become full-time beast-feeders. They’re serving multiple audiences (print, online, mobile, social media, even broadcast) and therefore need a steady stream of content to fill their pages. Whether those pages are on newsprint, computer screens or smart phones doesn’t matter any more.
The continued expansion of multiple news platforms has changed the threshold for what constitutes news — and so you are more likely to get a kinder ear to your story ideas than you may have in the past. Can you put together a six- to seven-paragraph story in a news format on some research in your department? If so, that exact backgrounder could turn up in any number of national media outlets if you frame and pitch it correctly. Last week’s story about UNL’s research into childhood obesity found its way into the Post almost word-for-word as we sent it. The point is, reporters’ story radars are turned way up, because their current landscape requires it to be. Take advantage of that and pitch accordingly.
Maximize partnerships to get national play. From a national perspective, this is huge. We all took notice — and got a little bit worried — in late 2008 when CNN eliminated its entire science team. Similar cuts have occurred at US News and World Report and a few other places around the country. Smartly, the National Science Foundation snapped up many of the laid-off journalists and added them to a site called LiveScience. LiveScience feeds a number of partner sites, such as USNWR, Fox News and several name-brand others. The Kiewra cheating study is another great, recent example of us flexing these partnerships to get the most exposure we could for UNL research. Again, we basically became a direct-content provider, as the basic version of our story spilled onto dozens if not hundreds of online sites and onto broadcast channels.
A hit is a hit is a hit. To become a successful direct content provider, you’ve got to be platform agnostic. That is, you have to put equal weight on an online “hit” that mentions your school’s work as you would its counterpart that shows up in the ink-and-paper outlets. The days of the “print clip” as a relevant metric are ending; it’s an outdated, incomplete measurement that only shows a slice of your news placement strategies. If a national media member with thousands of followers on Twitter and Facebook or her blog writes about your story or photo or video there, that can be just as good as a print clip — and many times, even better.
Think, and act, like a journalist. This one probably goes without saying, but: If you’re pushing out your words practically verbatim through the media, be sure that you perform due diligence on your own work. Be sure it’s clearly written for general audiences, presented in Associated Press style for quick transfer onto media outlets’ pages, and — most important of all — factually accurate. It’s important to remember that journalists, though they are under constant pressure to update blogs and websites along with feeding their traditional print editions with new content, still are the final gatekeepers as to what goes onto their pages. If they trust your work, you’ll have little trouble. If they have to run a correction because you didn’t double-check a fact or two, they’ll be leery of your e-mail or news release or offered-up video the next time it graces their inbox.
It’s all lined up: The entry points are growing, along with the hunger for new content. For communicators, it’s a matter of providing timely, well-written/well-produced, relevant news that has an impact on people in profound ways. Working at a major research university, there are no shortage of such items, and so we’re well-positioned to take advantage of the current media landscape.
Maybe someday, media companies will be fully converged, will again be flush with money and will re-invest in their newsgathering resources. At that point, perhaps their appetite for new, relevant content might be abated. But in the meantime, the next time you see a story about UNL, look closely. There’s a good chance the words you read or the photos and video you see may very well have been produced in the Canfield Administration Building.