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

Twitter Moments joins a long lineup of attempts to curate the news

Twitter Moments screenshot 1


Twitter made its long-awaited move into the news business this week with the launch of Twitter Moments, a new tab in Twitter’s mobile apps that let you see semi-curated summaries of the biggest news stories, as represented by things people are tweeting.

It makes sense, given that Twitter contains — among the 500 million things people tweet every day — an enormous amount of “news,” however you define that. But finding the news you’re interested in has historically been very difficult. You need to spend a lot of time creating lists or following people who actually have newsworthy things to say, and even then, their smartest tweets are often mixed up with a whole lot of stuff that may be interesting, and even funny, but which hardly qualifies as useful information.

Twitter, however, is a latecomer to the social news curation game. Lots of people have attempted to extract useful signals about the news from the huge mess of social data, with varying results. Let’s put Twitter Moments in context:

Techmeme: One of the earliest attempts to bring order to the news, Techmeme focuses on tech news. Tech journalists have a love-hate relationship with it, and can become obsessed with “getting on Techmeme” to the detriment of actually producing useful, well-written news. But by aggregating stories from a variety of sources and giving prominent links to the most useful and/or most-referenced stories, Techmeme actually is a handy way to scan the day’s top tech news.

Google News: Less focused on social signals than textual ones, Google News uses its analytic tools to group together related stories and highlight the biggest ones. Unlike Techmeme, it’s entirely driven by algorithms, and that means it often makes weird choices. I’ve heard that Google uses social sharing signals from Google+ to help determine which stories appear on Google News, but have never heard definitive confirmation of that — and now that Google+ is all but dead, it’s mostly moot. I find Google News an unsatisfying home page, but it is a good place to search for news once you’ve found it.

Flipboard: The closest thing to a magazine experience on mobile, Flipboard arguably presents the most readable, news-centric view of your social stream by letting you view stories that people in your Twitter or Facebook networks have shared. Unfortunately, it doesn’t do a lot of filtering or weighting of those stories (to make the most-shared ones more prominent, for instance).

Pulse: LinkedIn has been putting a lot of effort into curating news, and Pulse shows some of the fruits of that effort. Its most useful feature is the ability to notify you whenever one of your LinkedIn contacts is mentioned in the news. It also presents a list of stories based on what people in your network are sharing, which can be handy — but that feed is often dominated by the kind of self-promotional stuff that many people on LinkedIn can’t stop posting. More relevant are the daily news roundups from LinkedIn’s editors.

Nuzzel: This app has been getting a lot of press lately, first because Twitter investor Chris Sacca suggested that Twitter ought to buy it. It’s not a bad idea: Nuzzel actually makes Twitter useful for news by looking at the URLs that the people you follow are tweeting. If enough of them tweet the same URL, it puts that story in your news feed on Nuzzel; if even more people tweet it, Nuzzel will send a notification to your device. That’s handy if you have interesting people in your Twitter feed who tweet about news you’re interested in, but Nuzzel also offers some curated lists that can augment that, and may be expanding its curated feeds soon. I like the Nuzzel experience a lot, even if its algorithm is relatively basic — showing that you don’t necessarily need high-order artificial intelligence to extract the news from Twitter.

Twitter Moments: If you want a TV-like experience showing you some cool pictures and videos from the top news, sports, and entertainment topics, this is the place to go. I’ve been using it for less than a day, since it was first released, but my initial impression is that this is a good way for Twitter to highlight interesting things without asking me to do a lot of work to find those things. The big drawback is that it’s entirely self-contained: None of the tweets link out to stories on the Web, so if I want to see more than just headlines and pictures, I have to go somewhere else.

Upvoted: One more site worth mentioning just launched: Upvoted, a homepage that Reddit has put together out of the stories posted on that social network. One key feature of Upvoted: It’s just the stories, no comments or votes allowed. In other words, if you love Reddit’s obsession with nerd culture, kitten GIFs, space exploration, and geek love stories, but you hate its toxic mix of racism, sexism, and juvenile stupidity, Upvoted is the place for you.

What conclusions can you draw from this admittedly biased and ad-hoc survey of the landscape? First of all, Twitter Moments is way behind the rest of the pack in terms of social curation capabilities. It is hardly the “bold change” Twitter execs want you to believe it is: It’s kinda neat, but ultimately underwhelming.

Second, nobody is really using algorithms of any sophistication, with the possible exception of Google News: All of these sites and apps rely on the most basic stats, such as how many times a URL is shared, and most of them — including Twitter — add a significant layer of human curation. You’d think it would be pretty easy for Twitter — or someone else — to come up with a more effective solution than that.

Third, news consumers still have to put a fair amount of work in before they can get the news they want, consistently and readably. There is still a big opportunity for a company that can figure out how to curate a set of news, tailored to each reader’s interest, with speed and reliability.

Whether there’s a business model in doing that remains to be seen, however: The news has not exactly been a good place to find high rates of return on investment in the past few decades, and it’s getting even worse as online advertising approaches the end of the line. But that’s a topic for another day.

originally published on VentureBeat

Twitter Moments joins a long lineup of attempts to curate the news

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