Talk loudly and carry a big schtick

No matter how you slice it, the media is in trouble.

Fake news. Guest “experts” who don’t tell the truth. Clickbait headlines. A President who calls the media the “enemy of the American people.” No wonder public trust in the media is at an all-time low.

Meanwhile, news organizations are continuing to lay people off, even after decades of cuts. Ad revenues continue to drop, and few publications are able to make up the difference through subscription revenues.

Reporters are required to cover larger beats, produce more stories, and generate more pageviews than ever before. And everyone hates them.

It’s a stressful job, as I can tell you: I worked in daily online news from 2007 to 2015, and each year the demands on me and my team ratcheted up while the overall media business looked worse and worse.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 54,400 working journalists in the U.S., and the total is declining. If you look at just full-time daily journalists, the count is down to just 33,000, about half of what it was in 2000.

Meanwhile, BLS counts 306,500 public relations specialists and PR managers. That means the people who are paid to get corporate messages across outnumber daily news journalists by nearly 10 to 1.

That’s not even a fair fight.

This imbalance explains why reporters’ inboxes are overflowing with email pitches, and it also explains why it’s so hard to get a reporter to reply to a pitch, even to say “No thanks.”

Understanding that, how should companies and the PR pros who represent them respond? As I see it, there are two main options.


Note: I’ll be discussing this topic onstage at the PR Summit in Austin, Texas on March 8, together with PR entrepreneurs Josh Jones-Dilworth and Conrad Egusa. I’d love to see you there. And if you want discount codes on tickets, let me know!


Option One: Be Like Donald

Ignore the press. Forge your own, direct connections with your target audiences. Create a strong social media presence on Facebook (which will cost you, because Facebook doesn’t promote brands without getting paid) and on Twitter (where anything goes and you can easily reach a targeted, polarized audience at low cost). Your independence from the dying media is directly proportional to the size of the audience you have built. Accordingly, focus on building that audience.

Own your own media. Build a rich website full of interesting things to watch and read, because you don’t want to be totally dependent on Facebook, and you need a way to deliver your message to all comers. Or create a YouTube channel, or a Snapchat channel.

You will need an authentic voice and you’ll need to have something interesting to say on a regular basis: weekly or daily. If you’ve got an outrageous personality, so much the better. People on social media love to be entertained.

If your brand is not outrageous, all hope is not lost. You can still carve out a niche by being dependable, interesting, informative, or useful. Decide what your advantage is and deliver that constantly.

Focus on the metrics. Unless the polls go against you–then forget the metrics and say something that will get people talking.

This isn’t rocket science: It’s storytelling and showmanship. Talk loudly and carry a big schtick.

Option Two: Be More Useful

Double down on the idea that PR and press have a symbiotic, mutually beneficial relationship. Too often communications pros give lip service to this idea but don’t actually deliver. Instead, take the role as a facilitator seriously, and figure out how you can help the journalists you talk to, not just your clients.

Prioritize quality engagements and understand how your client fits into bigger-picture stories, rather than just touting the latest big fundraise or the newest product features.

Become a bridge to the business community and be more useful to individual journalists by bringing them context and information they actually want.

Help promote stories that journalists write. You’ve got the ability to help amplify stories. Use it. More page views and more RTs are always welcome.

Develop more thoughtful op-eds and bylines, because most publications are starved for informed perspectives that aren’t horribly written and self promotional. Your goal should be to get your executives recognized as smart, interesting people worth paying attention to, not to promote their brands. This isn’t direct response marketing, it’s indirect response PR.

Support institutions that defend freedom of the press, like the ACLU and the Society of Professional Journalists.

Subscribe to a newspaper. Or three. Seriously, spend money to support quality journalism.

And if you’re wealthy enough, buy the whole paper. Just don’t expect to make a lot of money out of it–owning a publication is more like philanthropy than it is like capitalism.

Remember, if the press goes away, PR people don’t have a job any more either. It’s time for public relations to step up and take responsibility for helping support the fourth estate.

Note: This post first appeared as an op-ed on PRWeek, with the headline “What responsibility does PR have to the dying media?

Top photo: Old news, by David Bleasdale/Flickr

Talk loudly and carry a big schtick

Journalism in the Age of Online Collaboration

Painting of Basho meeting two travelers, from the Library of Congress. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2008660384/

Savvy journalists have adapted (or have been forced to adapt) to a new, more collaborative publishing model online. Here are my notes from a keynote presentation I delivered on this topic at the OCLC Collaboration Forum, held at the Smithsonian, on September 21.

Matsuo Kinsaku was born around 1644 in Japan. As a young man, he became a master of a form of collaborative poetry.

It was a kind of party game: A poetry master would kick things off with a pithy short verse, and then other people in the group would collaborate (and compete) to come up with subsequent verses, each one subtly or cleverly linked to the one before.

He was very successful and popular, but around 1682 Matsuo became dissatisfied and started traveling around Japan.

As he went, he wrote compressed travelogues interspersed with very short poems. They were kind of like those kick-off verses, except they stood on their own.

Over time, his new approach gained popularity, power and subtlety. He took on the poetic name of Basho, and his artform is known today as haiku.

Since the 17th century it’s been primarily an individual activity, like other poetry.

But in my work over the past decade publishing an online journal of haiku, tinywords, I’ve seen haiku come full circle. On tinywords.com, haiku are published as poems, like on any other literary journal. But like many websites, we also allow readers to post comments, or as I like to call them, “responses.”

In some cases, those responses are simply comments like “great work” or “beautiful imagery.” But sometimes, people post their own haiku in response. On occasion, that’s sparked a whole chain of linked verses, each one responding to the one that came before.

Sound familiar?

A similar thing, I think, is happening in journalism.

Continue reading “Journalism in the Age of Online Collaboration”

Journalism in the Age of Online Collaboration

Ledes for the ages.

From 1925:

The pens and tongues of contumely were arrested. Mocking mouths were shut. Even righteous protestation hushed its clamor, as when, having striven manfully in single combat, a high-helmed champion is stricken by Jove’s bolt and the two snarling armies stand at sudden gaze, astonished and bereft a moment of their rancor.

That was Time, reporting on the start of the Scopes monkey trial.

The New Yorker, where I found this, goes on to add:

This is also a good example of what’s called a “blind lead,” a sort of swooping down from above, and out of nowhere. It could have been about anything. Time‘s obituaries often began, “Death, as it must to all men, came last week to …” They could have been about anyone.

The story, about the rivalry between Henry Luce and Harold Ross, is a great read.

Ledes for the ages.

Big Money in Journalism

I’ll admit it: I got into journalism for the money.

Columbia Journalism School dean Nicholas Lemann has said: “I’ve never met a single person in 35 years who went into journalism out of pure economic reason.”

He never met me. While my motivation wasn’t purely financial, I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t the primary reason I chose journalism instead of, say, trying to make my way as, say, a poet or a professor of religious studies.

I had just graduated from college with an interesting but totally impractical major in what amounted to postmodern philosophy. I needed a paycheck, and the ice cream shop that hired me for twelve hours a week wasn’t cutting it. I liked writing and had enjoyed working on some college publications, so journalism seemed like a good way to earn some money and have fun while I was doing it. And who knows? Maybe I would grow up to be a famous writer.

But to be honest, my literary aspirations were secondary to the need to make my monthly rent and my lack of obvious qualifications. So when, after a long, hot, nearly-jobless Boston summer, Chris Shipley offered me a job as an editorial assistant at PC Computing, I jumped.

I was lucky. I got into tech magazine publishing by accident (there was a recession on, and neither Mother Jones nor the local newspapers were interested in hiring), but it turned out to be a really good time to be covering technology. Over the next decade and a half I worked for InfoWorld, Business 2.0, Wired, a mobile tech startup called Mobile PC, and a bunch of others. I got to witness — and help cover — the second half of the PC revolution, the rise of client-server computing, the earliest days of online services, the dawn of the commercial internet, and the onset of the mobile era. Those booms fueled a lot of advertising, too. Through the 1990s and the early 2000s, tech publications were awash in cash, so we enjoyed plenty of perks, like offices with killer views, lavish Christmas parties and generous travel budgets. Okay, so I wasn’t making a lot of money, but I was doing fine. My wife and I bought a house. We built an addition to the house. We started a family.

So yes, Dean Lemann, I’m willing to stand up and be counted as someone who went into journalism for the money. The bet even paid off.

Along the way, I learned that I love the work: I love the tech and the science stories I cover, I love talking to people to learn how they do what they do, I love telling stories and watching as people read and respond to them in real time.

I’m lucky in a different way, too, which is that I get to be a journalist at a time when the profession is being reinvented and turned inside out.

If going into journalism for the money seems ridiculous now it’s a sign of how attenuated the opportunities are becoming for traditional journalists. Needless to say, the perks dried up long ago. The four years I spent as a freelancer, from 1999 to 2003, were a steady downward arc of income, corresponding to the beginning of the end for the news business. There’s a good chance that I’m making as much money now as I will ever make — without changing careers — and that’s a sobering thought. Every morning when I go to work I think about how lucky I am to be working at all — let alone working in one of the most progressive and open-minded newsrooms in the world. I’m grateful for the opportunity for as long as it lasts.

What’s happening right now is the aggressive reinvention of journalism. Many of the most innovative journalists working today didn’t go to J-school, and some don’t even consider themselves journalists at all. They’re bloggers and writers first of all, and don’t necessarily pledge allegiance to the same motivations or values that inspire traditional journalists. The skills that make them stand out can be learned on the job, or through networks of like-minded writers, not through expensive graduate programs.

But the job remains the same: to tell true stories that inform and entertain.

I’m not convinced that journalism as a profession will even survive the next ten years. The economic conditions that enabled newspapers to support huge numbers of reporters have dried up, and I don’t see any credible way for internet advertising or subscriptions or micropayments to make up the difference. Somebody may invent a really lucrative business model that works, and I hope they do. But I’m not holding my breath.

The writers who are successful at telling true stories will still be around, and may still choose to call themselves journalists. Or they may adopt some newer moniker, or none at all.

In the meantime, though, I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing for as long as I can. I’m excited about the new tools that we have for telling stories, and I’m glad to be in a place where my job is to figure out how to use tech to find and deliver the news better. I still get excited about the possibilities of technology, and I like writing about it. So I’m not going anywhere just yet.

I may have come to journalism for the money, but I’m staying for the stories.

Big Money in Journalism