At first glance you might think "The Business Times of Northwest Ottawa County" is a bold new journalistic venture. Not exactly.
The new publication is a partnership between the Chamber of Grand Haven, Spring Lake, and Ferrysburg and the Grand Haven Tribune. A Tribune article recently explained the new partnership.
There's no doubt such a partnership has mutual benefits. The Chamber is using the design and production capabilities of a local daily newspaper to upgrade the look of its former newsletter, the "Beacon." Distribution is also a positive from this partnership, with the chamber tucking its piece into the local paper and reaching 28,000 subscribers as opposed to maintaining their own list and mailing process.
Meanwhile, the Tribune gets content and revenue. There's no doubt the Chamber is paying an insertion fee for the privilege of distributing their branded material in the Tribune. The publication also takes advertising. Also, in this era of struggling media, it's a great way for the Tribune to deliver more business related news to its subscribers, provided by Chamber members and others not on the newspaper's payroll.
This is just another example of such media partnerships in this era of shrinking media budgets and staff. The Grand Rapids Press added a health section a year ago to provide more locally focused health coverage from both reporters and staff of area health institutions. The Press also partnered recently with citizen journalism outlet the Rapidian in a series of "hunger challenge" articles.
But in all the win-win for papers and partners, what about the public and public relations practitioners?
Sure, this is a great PR opportunity for hospitals and chambers and other organizations who can use these partnerships to guarantee coverage of their issues and news. But lost in seizing these opportunities may be the realization that this is a transition from "earned" to paid media, or uncontrolled to controlled media. Earned or uncontrolled media means a PR practitioner had to convince a hard-working and appropriately skeptical journalist of the news value of their content. Paid or controlled media means an organization gets to place content verbatim in the space it has purchased as advertising.
These partnerships may be a middle ground. The Press and Tribune both show some editorial involvement. But one has to wonder what the public thinks. The key advantage of earned media is not just that it is not paid for, but that it has third-party credibility. In other words, the public is less likely to believe and trust something they know has been paid for or controlled by whoever is presenting the information. They are more likely to believe something if they sense it has been verified by an objective outside person, also known as a journalist.
What this means for those engaging in media partnerships is caution is in order. It will be a mistake to think that achieving reach and "getting the word out" is enough. It will be how such ventures are carried out, with transparency, honesty, and credibility that will not only reach people but inform and influence them.