Friday, May 02, 2008

May Media Month--Newspapers' Future

I'll kick off May Media Month by talking about the state of the newspaper. By coincidence, there's an interesting series on the subject begun this week by Advertising Age, opening with an article (subscription required) headlined "Newspaper Death Watch." Not entirely a rosy outlook.

Meanwhile in the West Michigan area, you may have noticed the Grand Rapids Press editorial this past Sunday, "Newspapers tomorrow" (Headline is "Newspapers remain key to informed democracy" in online version). The Press is more cheerful about the future of newspapers, to the point of being a cheerleader. Part of the problem of the rapid decline of newspapers is this wishful thinking on the part of journalists. As BuzzMachine blogger Jeff Jarvis put it recently: the decline of newspapers is not news; "it'll be news if they figure out what to do about it."

Nevertheless, the Press holds forth in its editorial saying that newspapers are vital to democracy both in print and online. Let me offer a few comments based on the editorial.

1. I share the hope of the Press editorial board. I'm a former journalist, pretty fond of democracy, and enjoy reading newspapers and still read several a day for enjoyment as well as a work responsibility. I also think, as a PR practitioner, that the survival of newspapers is good for us as one (note I say one, not the only--more on that later) credible source of information to reach our varied publics.

2. It is a bit humorous to me that the occasion for this editorial is the opening of the refurbished Newseum in Washington D.C. I was at the Newseum when it first opened years ago and found it a fascinating overview of how news is made. But the part that makes me snicker a bit is the fact that the Press tries to rally hopes about the future of newspapers by pointing to a museum of news. Museums, you know, are places where they keep old stuff, dead things, to preserve them for our memory because you can't see them in the real world anymore.
(By the way, the PR industry has an online museum as well. Not because we're dead, but to remind practitioners and publics alike of our roots. Check out the PRMuseum.com.)

3. The editorial mentions that "Citizens, too, face a struggle to stay informed from reliable sources in an effort to remain active participants in their democratic government." Coupla thoughts here. I wonder how often you'd hear the word "citizen" if you sat in on the news meetings at the Press, or any other newspaper for that matter.
In some of my own research, editors are more likely to conceive of readers not as citizens but as a market. They speak of citizens in philosophical ways in editorials and at cocktail parties. At work, it's all business. I think for their survival, newspapers need to do more, well, PR. They need to convince people of the importance of being informed of political and social issues, and not only respond to reader surveys that demand entertainment. It's not sexy, but the real niche newspapers will have in the future is deep reporting on LOCAL school boards, city commissions, education, environmental issues. They can't compete with the plethora of online, real-time sources of international, national, sports, and entertainment news. The editorial mentions depth and tenacious reporting; that's true. That's what they should sell. Sell democracy. Don't just boast of having the info, stress why people should want it and what they should do with it. Make it practical, not philosophical.

We in PR, by the way, are often no better. The PRSA Code of Ethics frequently uses the phrase "informed decision making in a democratic society." But the same research I alluded to above shows that far too often PR pros don't conceive of their work as providing a free flow of information to enable informed decisions. Rather, we often offer the company line, highlighting and withholding in a way that benefits us. Properly understood PR (i.e. the two-way symmetrical model) can achieve both--helping those we represent and contributing to democracy.

(If you are interested in my paper "Public Relations Properly Understood: The Role of PR in Deliberative Democracy," let me know and I'll email you a PDF).

4. The editorial says "the press" is enshrined in the First Amendment. Well, good thing they put quotes around press. The First Amendment does NOT enshrine journalism. We often talk as if it does. But it is quite literally the printing press that was at issue in the late 1700s. Printers often became publishers of newspapers because it was a natural extension of their printing business, but they printed many other works. John Milton's speech "Areopagitica" to the Star Chamber court in England protests the licensing of books, not journalists. John Stuart Mill in his "On Liberty" exhorts the freedom of all expression, not just journalists. The Federalist Papers were a series of pamphlets written by patriot politicians--John Jay, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton--not journalists. They were in essence position papers, encouraging the people of New York to ratify the new American constitution. The "press" produced PUBLIC RELATIONS tactics, not only journalism.

Today, production and distribution of writing does not require a press and paper. We have the Internet. Thus, newspapers no longer have such a near monopoly on information. In an online world, newspapers compete with other journalists and bloggers as well as all manner of PR information. In an online environment the reader does not distinguish between newspapers, TV, radio, or corporate Web sites. Third-party credibility is nice, and we still should seek it. But there are other forms of credibility. Trust in media is not always high. Some consumers see media reported information as second-hand, with something lost in translation. Original information straight from the source (i.e. PR) is considered more credible, if that source has a reputation for honesty. We can subscribe to receive news releases and 8K statements directly from companies we invest in. We can get news via the AP, in a Google or Yahoo aggregator, via RSS feeds. And we can tailor that info to our interests. Also, as I'm looking at in some other research, credibility isn't the only attribute of information people seek. Sometimes they want depth, sometimes immediacy, sometimes inside information; it depends. Sometimes newspapers are the best source; increasingly there are other options--including directly from us PR pros.

To conclude, some people give newspapers another 20 years before they die. I'm not that pessimistic. I think newspapers are in a period of morphing to a "bricks and clicks" model that many retailers are still working out. The ratio of print to online, the ad support mechanism, narrowing the market, and adapting the revenue streams all have to be worked out. I'm pretty confident they will be. More on that in future posts.

No comments: