Monday, January 30, 2012

MLive Goes Live, Getting Ready for Close Up

It's been interesting to watch the news executives at MLive Media Group doing public relations and blogger outreach in the gear-up to the bow of its new digital/print product and home in a 'hub' in downtown Grand Rapids later this week.

After blogging recently about MLive facing a new competitive environment with the increase of local news bureaus at the Rapidian, including some branded journalism efforts of local nonprofits, I was invited to take a tour of MLive's new downtown space with Grand Rapids Press Community News Director Julie Hoogland.

Ari Adler got a similar treatment from MLive Media Group President Danny Gaydou, as Adler recounts in his own blog.

Hoogland had taken issue with my indication that the Press was losing staff capacity. Of course my sense of that was largely informed by the numerous farewells of long-time Press staffers on Twitter, Facebook, and in person. Hoogland maintains that many were offered jobs but chose to take a buyout and move on to new ventures. What remains is a large number of veteran journalists, as well as some savvy young ones who have graduated from area college journalism programs. So she says quality journalism will remain. She also points out that capacity will not suffer as formerly independent Booth papers work more  collaboratively on statewide news, including coverage of Lansing, major league sports, entertainment and other subjects. Meanwhile, each of the local papers  will continue to stress local coverage.

In the new hub across from Rosa Parks Circle, Hoogland showed excitement at the possibilities. The ground floor will have a studio with a window on the sidewalk, similar to New York City morning network TV programs, for video interviews of newsmakers. Job titles include the word "producer," indicative of the new multi-media nature of news gathering and reporting by MLive and its various digital entities.

The public will also be welcome to walk-in and visit on the main floor. The second floor news room looks strikingly like a college computer classroom, with modern Steelcase chairs at long tables where journalists will work adjacent to each other when they're not out in the community.

"Previous changes were triage; this is embracing the future," Hoogland said.

She did change my view about the potential for both the quality and quantity of news coverage in the new model. I am excited  and hopeful that the "newspaper" we have known and loved will adapt and thrive, both locally and nationally.

But I still maintain that the MLive launch later this week puts it into a new media landscape. The Press will co-exist and/or compete with with citizen journalism, other print media, television, and news content directly  from companies, nonprofits and government entities--all of which will have a digital presence as well. Just as young people have lost the distinction between cable and network, in the online/mobile/social mix of 24/7 information, news consumers may lose at least some of the distinction between print and broadcast, as well as between third party news reports and direct sources of information.

I eagerly await their close-up.


Thursday, January 26, 2012

From the Journals: Search Ads, Mobile Politics, Online Sources

Search ad impact, mobile political discourse, and online news source credibility are some of the interesting subjects in current academic journals. Public relations and advertising practitioners don't have the time, and often the access, to academic journals, so I periodically give a brief summary of articles I find interesting. I provide source information for anyone who wants to access them via an academic library.

Incremental Clicks: The Impact of Search Advertising. Journal of Advertising Research, 51(4), 643-647.
A meta-analysis of several hundred studies revealed that 89% of visits to advertisers' web sites were the result of search ad campaigns. Obviously this shows the value of search advertising as part of an effective campaign in which an objective is to drive traffic to a product page or other site.

Political Involvement in "Mobilized" Society: The Interactive Relationships Among Mobile Communication, Network Characteristics, and Political Participation. Journal of Communication, 61(6), 1005-1024.
This study looked at how mobile-mediated discourse is related to political participation. Essentially, political participation increases in large networks of like-minded individuals, but decreases when mobile technology is used in smaller homogenous networks. This would indicate that a strategy to increase mobile networks would be effective in efforts to get out the vote.

Source Cues in Online News: Is the Proximate Source More Powerful Than Distal Sources? Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 88(4), 719-736.
Readers have lots of sources of news online--a media site, an aggregator, a bookmarking page, shared links via Twitter or Facebook, and so on. This study showed that highly involved (i.e. deeply interested in subject, more seriously considering content) will consider both proximate and distal sources, or those that are close and identifiable as well as distant or second-hand sources. Meanwhile, readers of low-involvement are primarily influenced by a proximate source. This has interesting implications for messaging as well as a social media delivery strategy to reach and resonate with intended publics.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Nonprofit Shows Glimpse of Media Future

An recent item in the citizen journalism outlet The Rapidian offers a glimpse of the local media future. The article notes the debut this month of a news bureau dedicated to environmental news. It shows the further growth of alternative niche media outlets that are a significant presence in the local media landscape.

This is interesting on several levels. For one, it shows that even as adapts and morphs from a collection of local newspapers on actual paper to a digital hub, it faces competition. The same is true for local television stations highlighting hyper-local areas on their web sites  and apps, such as WZZM TV13's "My Town" effort. There was a time when the Grand Rapids Press and Muskegon Chronicle had reporters dedicated to the environment beat. Now they still cover  environmental issues--there is even an 'environment' category on the mobile app--but they don't cover  it as often.

The reason mainstream media don't cover things like the environment with regularity is for economic reasons. Conventional media are market-driven. They are caught in a cycle of losing readers and viewers, which leads to lost ad revenue, which lead to less staff to cover everything. They are trying to recapture that by getting more local, but this puts them in a new competitive ballpark.

Citizen journalism projects are content-driven. They operate with grants, underwriters and donations. Support may come in the form of ads eventually. But for now they are not averse to content that yields smaller audience. In fact, that is their purpose, as evidenced by the series of news bureaus launching focused at the neighborhood or topical level. Readers can subscribe via RSS feed to the specific neighborhood or topic of interest to them in the community.

Another interesting aspect of all of this is the source of the news. The Rapidian seeks "journalists and aspiring journalists" for these bureaus. Some of them will be journalism students in internships. Others may be laid off journalists doing freelance work. But nonprofit organizations will also be providing news for these bureaus. As an example, the Creston Neighborhood Association  will be a primary source of neighborhood news for that bureau. The West Michigan Environmental Action Council (WMEAC) appears to be running the environment news bureau.

Some people might wonder about the credibility and quality of news being provided by young or even untrained journalists. But keep in mind several things. First, is downsizing and rehiring a leaner, younger staff too. Who is to say The Rapidian site won't be equally credible? In fact, in the case of the environmental news bureau, WMEAC's  Executive Director Rachel Hood has a background in public relations, and their Communications Director Dan Schoonmaker is a former journalist and public relations professional (see their staff directory bios).

Secondly, the news has always been largely supplied indirectly from businesses, nonprofits, government spokespeople and other sources. It's been called "information subsidy." The way The Rapidian is doing it is more transparent. That relates to the final point, that the public will have to be thoughtful and critical of all information they consume, even as they are now with local and national "mainstream" news. I would also hope that WMEAC will be magnanimous and offer news from other environmentally focused nonprofit organizations, and that they are fair and even-handed vs. activist if there is an environmental story with multiple points of view.

It's also important to note that what The Rapidian is doing will supplement mainstream news such as and other local print and broadcast outlets. The advantage of The Rapidian for PR professionals is a greater chance of getting news publicized than in the busy conventional media outlets. It's also possible to reach a smaller niche audience of people most interested in your subject. However, smart PR pros will also keep in mind the need to reach people who are not currently interested or engaged, and the best way to reach them is through a greater mass distribution that conventional mainstream media will offer.

In short, there will be more outlets for public relations professionals to consider, and more news for the public to consume.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Assets Laid-Off Journalists Can Leverage for PR Jobs

It’s a common expression in business to talk about “leveraging assets.” That’s just the way people in pinstripes talk about taking advantage of skills and resources to achieve your objective.

I’ve been talking to a number of laid-off, outsourced, terminated, bought-out journalists over the past few months who are looking to transition to a new job. Many of them are understandably upset, because they have spent 20-30 years acquiring skills that don’t seem valued in an industry that is collapsing under their feet.

But those skills aren’t entirely irrelevant. There’s no doubt that journalism is adapting radically to respond to the confluence of changes in technology, culture, and economics (see Steve Rubel’s “Clip Report” for a nice overview of the emerging news media landscape. But that doesn’t mean “old-school” journalism skills are irrelevant. It just means they’ll be applied in different ways, across different platforms, and for different organizations, even those outside of journalism.

Public relations has been a refuge for former journalists for centuries. In fact, in 1926 Editor & Publisher decried the number of journalism school graduates going directly into “this new field called public relations.” Many have debated whether journalists can make the transition to PR. Some joke that they have to “sell their soul” to go to “the dark side.” But this merely shows a misunderstanding of what PR really is, and that there are different types of PR jobs out there, based on different models of PR practice.

Journalists can make the easiest transition to the type of PR known as “public information”. Public Information Officers (PIOs) often work for a government agency or state university, and the job involves disseminating objective information, primarily one-way. That’s not too dissimilar from what a journalist does. A recent example would be Ed Golder, former editorial page editor of the Grand Rapids Press, who is now the PIO at the Michigan Department of Natural Resources

Journalists may struggle a bit more to work in PR roles known as “two-way symmetrical” or “two-way asymmetrical.” The former involves listening and engaging with publics in dialogue and advising management to adapt to public concerns. The latter is still two-way but more driven to be persuasive in ensuring the organizational goals are met. This can be more of a challenging transition for journalists used to writing objective information and distributing it one-way (although editorial writers have an edge here). An advanced degree in PR or organizational communication, or at least attending local chapter meetings of the Public Relations Society of America, could be helpful to make the transition.

But there are base skills that good journalists have that they can leverage for PR jobs, especially since the landscape for PR in corporate, nonprofit and government institutions is changing for the same reasons, social media and otherwise, that journalism is changing. Those skills include:

  •    Writing. This sounds fundamental, and it is. But a common complaint I hear from employers is the lack of writing skills among the work force. Even the most brilliant strategy or communication plan can fail if it’s not well articulated.
  • Storytelling versus catalog copy. Consumers and other publics these days need to be “engaged,” not just informed. Journalists who are experienced in writing more than meeting reports but getting to the essence of a story and stressing its relevance can be an asset in PR. Those reporters who have been active on Twitter and Facebook and other social platforms, building their own brand as well as their media outlet's, are a step ahead here as well.
  • Reporting. Reporting is more than asking questions. It’s knowing what to ask, who to ask, processing the information quickly and re-presenting it in a way that is accurate, clear, understandable and compelling. A reporter transitioning into PR can be a “quick study” in learning the organization quickly and well enough to represent it to the public. They just have to remember they are no longer a reporter but actually have to keep organizational objectives in mind.
  • Multi-media. Print reporters who also did page layout, photography, or video for a newspapers web site—not to mention former broadcast reporters—bring an increasingly valuable tactical skill to organizations. “Every organization must be a media organization” is a common mantra as corporations, nonprofits and government offices have their own blogs, YouTube channels and other online and social platforms requiring more than simple text.

Former journalists have other options besides working in public relations for an organization. One is to continue to be a journalist. The radical changes in news media are demonstrating that it is not necessary to work only for a traditional newspaper or TV station. Citizen media like the Rapidian and online media like RapidGrowth continue to grow. As mainstream media are diminished, the opportunities for these alternative, online-only media outlets may grow.

Another likely option is to be a journalistic entrepreneur. This is more than the old notion of being a freelancer. Journalists could be self-employed and provide content for a variety of news media and other organizations. While newspapers are diminishing, the online media environment has a burgeoning number of outlets. Add to that the nonprofits and companies and government departments that need to feed the content beast, and a good journalist could stay comfortably busy. This will be even more true as the demand for quality versus quantity of information naturally rises as the public is overwhelmed and seeks credible, timely and relevant information.

Who knows—a group of former journalists could even start their own agency, not unlike Editors at Large, formed by former Grand Rapids Magazine editor John Brosky years ago, or the Wordsmiths whose staff has changed over the years but the agency continues today. They could even start a new news media outlet--either broad based or niche focused by audience or subject--to compete with the one that laid them off.