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How ‘the press’ talks about higher education

Here’s a very interesting paper by Kalev Leetaru, at the Cline Center for Democracy at the University of Illinois. According to the paper:

“More than 18 million documents comprising the entire run of the New York Times from 1945 to 2005 were examined for all references to United States research universities … to examine how coverage has changed over this period and the characteristics most commonly associated with the elevated national press visibility. One of the most surprising findings is the transition of the research university from a newsmaker to a news commentator.

In 1946, 53 percent of articles mentioning a research university were about that university, focusing on its research and activities. Today, just 15 percent of articles mentioning a university are about that university: the remaining 85 percent simply city high-stature faculty for soundbite commentary on current events.”

This is not surprising, actually. Easily, half of the job of the National News Editor in UNL’s office of University Communications is to place university faculty experts into the news of the day at a national level, whether that means the Gulf Oil Spill, droughts in Texas, the economy, bullying in Massachusetts, the tone of political discourse during midterm elections, back to school topics, or the latest zeitgeist-grabbing motion picture release. These are, in many ways, the drip-drip-drip that keeps UNL in the national discussion. Using a baseball metaphor, they’re like hitting singles to drive in runs one by one and accumulate a fat score on the scoreboard. And believe me, there’s nothing wrong with hitting for average. It’s how guys like Paul Molitor hung around the game for so long. Also, the increased emphasis on source placement helps explain why services like ProfNet and Help A Reporter Out have become must-sees among higher-ed communicators.

In the university PR biz, we’re hoping for a few home runs, too. In the last few years, we’ve had our share of those. But while we work hard to get such singular featuresthose kinds of stories require a great deal of uniqueness and novelty to be considered for national consideration. Pitches that result in a splash and a story about the university or one of its programs are increasingly worthy of high-fives and celebratory donuts on the conference-room table.

The study had a few other interesting findings, including:

– Since 1945, the NYT has shrunk in half, but the number of news articles referencing research universities has stayed constant, meaning as a percentage of the stories in the paper, they’ve jumped from 13 percent of all articles and 21 percent of all front page articles today.

Private universities have 63 percent greater total news mentions and 57 percent greater front page appearances than public institutions. But when limiting the analysis to just news about institutions — and leaving out soundbites — about 24 percent of public institution coverage and 29 percent of private institution coverage is about the university itself.

– Distance from New York City or other major metro areas doesn’t matter a whole lot. This is good news for us here in the Great Plains, representing a state with a population roughly the size of greater Columbus, Ohio.

– Strong graduate enrollments help. The study found a strong correlation between graduate enrollment and news volume.

– Surprise, surprise: Schools with bigger research budgets attract greater media coverage. However, the proportion of a university’s budget devoted to research doesn’t have a measurable impact on news volume.

– Most schools do a bad job of aggregating news release content from across their institution into a single place. This has been a concerted effort here at UNL, but we still have a few exceptions.

– Most discussion around research universities today happens not in the print news media, but online. Predictably, schools with large enrollments, big budgets and lots of grants and research output tend to be more visible online.

The study’s recommendations include:

– Universities must recognize that faculty also have a “media brand” that should be developed and promoted. At UNL, folks like Tim Gay, Julia McQuillan, Marvin Ammori, Mike Wagner and Wheeler Winston Dixon come to mind. These are all faculty who have snapped into current events at a moment’s notice, many times in the past at our urging.

– Instead of pouring out a constant stream of news releases on a preset schedule, universities should look for tie-ins with current events and more strongly promote these stories. Here’s one on wartime greenhouse gases and ethanol that hits on that theme.

– Universities should prepare media guides that list faculty in each topic area, available on short notice to respond to media requests. Good suggestion. UNL’s experts database is a good start. So is N The Know, which is designed for a number of different media platforms.

Lots of data, lots of food for thought. In general, I think we do a consistently solid job of following most of the best practices outlined in the study, though as with anything we do in the communications business, there is plenty of room for improvement.

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