Revolutionary Measures

Stop the presses?

Since the rise of the internet, there have been plenty of people predicting the steady decline of mainstream journalism. As people consume more content online they are unwilling to pay either to buy newspapers or to access firewalled content, except for specialist titles such as the Financial Times or The Economist. The result? A huge drop in the number of journalists employed in the newspaper industry – in the US numbers have dropped from over 55,000 in 1990 to under 40,000 today.

2007 United Kingdom floods

However, we are actually consuming as much, if not more, news than ever before. Much of this is in different forms, such as via social media or through news videos. The latest Pew Research Centre State of the News Media report found that a third of Americans now watch news videos online, rising to half in the 18-29 demographic. There’s also been an explosion in the number of digital news firms, creating 5,000 US jobs.

What’s interesting is that these companies are evolving fast. Rather than simply competing with traditional news sources by rehashing stories (or putting out controversial click bait headlines in the case of sites like BuzzFeed), they are investing in original content. Star journalists are being poached from top newspapers, lured by the opportunity to write longer articles without daily deadlines and with greater editorial freedom. Part of this growth is financial – launching a credible digital news site is relatively cheap, around $5m in the US for example.

And the Pew report finds that consumers are getting more involved in the news. 7% of Americans have posted their own news video to a social network or established media outlet and half of social media users share or comment on articles.

The difficulty for traditional publications is two fold – they are still running a print newspaper which has huge fixed costs, while consumers are much less loyal. They’ll click on a link on social media, irrespective of (or not even knowing) its source and then, once they’ve read it, leave the site without necessarily checking out other stories. In the UK the picture is skewed by the credibility and power of the BBC, which has successfully embraced the digital world, helped by its guaranteed funding through the licence fee.

So, what can newspapers do to evolve and change? From what I can see they have five options:

1              Put up a paywall
Given that people spend money on newspapers, why shouldn’t they pay for online content? Hence the rise in paywalls. However with a fickle readership, getting people to commit requires content that they truly can’t get anywhere else, which in turn necessitates investment in journalism, or extras such as Premiership goals in the case of The Sun. It works when the content is original enough or the subscription deal is compelling. On the downside paywalled content is a lot more difficult to share socially, so the overall reach of the title drops as well.

2              Make a go of advertising
Sounds easy – write good stories and advertising will flood in, both in print and online. In theory yes, but we’re back to the fickle readership and the increased competition for advertising pounds. Only those publications that really differentiate themselves (such as the Daily Mail and The Guardian) have grown their online audience enough to deliver a strong advertising revenue. In the print world, the Evening Standard has been able to transition from a paid for to free model, but it has been helped by having an owner with deep pockets.

3              Find a sugar daddy
With newspapers suddenly cheap, there’s been a rush of billionaires investing in them, either as a vanity project, something more sinister or simply because they can turn them around. Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, bought the Washington Post, the Boston Globe is now owned by Liverpool FC owner John Henry and Warren Buffett has purchased a whole stable of titles. Even the aforementioned Evening Standard is owned by billionaire Evgeny Lebedev.

4              Become a brand
If you can build a strong reputation for content, you may be able to transform yourself into a global brand. That’s the aim of The Guardian, which has made its name around the world by breaking stories such as Edward Snowden’s revelations. At a more local level it explains the rush of local newspaper groups into local TV, enabling them to share resources and cross-promote.

5              Get someone to write it for you – for nothing
Blog-based sites such as Mashable and the Huffington Post started out without much in the way of original content, but built themselves on contributed blogs. They’ve now expanded to create many more of their own stories, but the model – attracting interesting, informed bloggers looking for the oxygen of publicity – still works equally well on other sites. Both sides benefit, so provided the content is good it adds to a site’s appeal.

Most newspapers have looked at all five of these ideas (some all at the same time), but with varying degrees of success. However, as the Pew report shows, journalism can flourish in the digital age – it just may not be appearing in traditional media outlets.

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April 2, 2014 Posted by | Creative, Marketing | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The rise of citizen journalism

A poster wrote with "Evolving Citizen Jou...

Pretty much everyone now has the means to report what is going on in the world around them. Even the most basic phone has a camera, and it is simple to post images, video and text to social media sites at the click of a button. Consequently citizen journalists – ordinary people doing the job of trained reporters – are everywhere.

And there are significant benefits to our understanding of the world. Particularly in straitened times, journalists can’t be everywhere at once and often arrive after the news event has actually happened. In many cases, such as during the Arab Spring, journalists can be banned or censored by regimes and individuals that don’t want stories to be reported. So citizen journalists with camera phones can be our sole source of first hand information. Much of this then feeds into the traditional media, with TV news and national newspapers running stories based on reports filed by citizen journalists.

Nearer to home, the closure of many local newspapers has spurred community activists to launch alternative sites and blogs. Many of these aim to hold local councils and elected representatives to account, using the Freedom of Information Act to unearth key facts about how we are governed.

All great stuff and to be praised, but there are three key reasons that we should be wary about what citizen journalists write, publish and upload.

Firstly, bias. As someone that studied history, I know that bias is evident in anything we say, write or do – whether we know it or not. Professional journalists are trained to understand both sides of a story and (as much as possible) divorce bias from what they are writing. It is why the majority of stories have quotes for and against a subject in them, even if the overall tone is slanted to left or right. Citizen journalists don’t have this training and may well have an axe to grind – potentially making their reports unreliable, whether consciously or not.

Second, the law. The laws of libel apply equally to the internet, as many people found out with the Lord McAlpine case. Again, journalists are trained to understand libel law and what can and can’t be said. Reddit’s coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing demonstrated what can happen when citizen journalists are given an unpoliced platform. The site’s Find Boston Bombers thread wrongly accused several people of being involved in the atrocity, leading to harassment of their families and potentially slowing down the police investigation. In today’s instant news cycle, where an unsubstantiated tweet can be front page news in seconds, there’s a real issue with potentially malicious or unthinking reports quickly making it into the mainstream news.

Finally, there’s the area of copyright. Lots of news sites now actively encourage you to upload your pictures, video and text to give added perspective on news and features. The latest, the Guardian’s Witness site, provides the chance to contribute to live news and other content through a smartphone app. Content is vetted before going onto the site, with stories and videos made available to journalists for potentially developing into bigger pieces. All great, except that as soon as you post your prized video, The Guardian gets an unconditional, perpetual and worldwide licence to use it as it sees fit. You may still retain the copyright, but the paper can commercially exploit the content however it wants.

Controlling how news is reported and disseminated is inextricably linked to power. Hence why dictatorships have always censored or removed the free press and run state TV stations with a rod of iron. While much of the western world has moved on from that, media is often controlled by a certain group, making citizen journalism a vital part of the opening up of reporting to everyone. But if it is to truly make a lasting impact for good, citizen journalists need to understand their own responsibilities when it comes to bias, the law and copyright and act accordingly.

May 1, 2013 Posted by | Creative, PR | , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Turning Facebook fans into fivers

Daily Mail

Image via Wikipedia

We’ve seen a major drop in newspaper print audiences as readers move online. Along with this people have been predicting the end of professional journalism, to be replaced by social media content. But the key point is that actually the appetite for professionally written news is increasing – we’re consuming more of it, just not necessarily paying for it in paper form.

That’s why some recent research by Will Sturgeon on The Media Blog provides an interesting slant on the debate. It adds together print and online readers with Facebook fans and followers of named publication Twitter feeds to provide overall readership figures for national newspapers.

Headline figures aren’t that surprising – the Daily Mail leads in terms of popularity with The Independent bringing up the rear. But it is the make-up of the totals that is interesting – The Guardian bolsters its small print circulation with an army of web and social media readers while The Sun is still predominantly print based.

However while these figures are a great guide to overall readership (and hence something that PR people should take into account when targeting campaigns), they obviously ignore the monetary side of the equation. There are a whole range of business models on show – from pure numbers to drive advertising revenue in the case of the Mail, to paywalls for The Times. However the issue is the same – how will media companies make money in a world where paid print is no longer king? That is still the challenge that the industry has to address – essentially how do you turn tweets into tenners?

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May 12, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The leading, innovative, best blog

Press pack
Image by *spo0ky* via Flickr

While all professions are guilty of jargon, there’s a definite tendency in PR to reuse and recycle the same tired old phrases when it comes to press releases. Leading, innovative, solutions, unique – as in “company X, the leading provider of innovative and unique solutions, today announced……”

At best they don’t mean anything and at worst hide a potentially good story as any self-respecting journalist has nodded off at the end of the first paragraph.

Often we’re told we can’t change them by clients as they are part of house style and that they set the company apart in its messaging. A useful piece of research by Adam Sherk, quoted in the Johnson blog in The Economist, explodes this myth. By analysing words and phrases in press releases on PR Web, he found that leader and leading, for example, were used over 200,000 times. That’s a lot of leaders – are there no also-rans?

This isn’t the first research that there’s been in this area, and all PR people have had sarky comments back from journalists on this subject, but it should act as a wake up call for press release writing. Start with messaging that is clear and differentiated. Then explain things simply, without hyperbole but with a range of language – as Adam’s research shows it might actually make you stand out from the crowd.

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August 17, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Afghan Wikileaks – why it needs old media

Logo used by Wikileaks
Image via Wikipedia

On a first look, the publication of 90,000 US military records on Wikileaks shows the power of citizen journalism and social media. It is extremely unlikely that any mainstream news organisation would have been able to get legal clearance to publish the leaked Afghan War records – you can see the lawyers going apoplectic at the very thought of it.

But how did Wikileaks get the crucial second source and endorsement for the documents? Not through its own resources or credibility but by sharing them with the New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel. Only when they had cross-checked the information (and the media organisations had their exclusives) were they released.

It shows the essentially symbiotic relationship between ‘old’ media and new channels. Both sides need each other if they are to break big stories – and I can’t see this changing in the near future.

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July 26, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

   

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