PR People Must Heed Digital Reality as Newspapers Fold

    by Mark Hannah
    March 23, 2009
    More newspaper printing presses may go silent as newspapers make the switch to online only. Photo by Eschipul via Flickr.

    Last Wednesday morning, as the sun rose over the West Coast, newspaper delivery people in Seattle dropped off the final edition of the Post Intelligencer, one of Seattle’s two daily newspapers. The struggling P-I was 145 years old and, by coincidence, 145 newsroom employees were left without jobs. Hearst, which owns the news organization, announced that it will retain 20 employees to keep the paper’s website, SeattlePI.com, operational while it hunts for a viable business model.

    The P-I isn’t the only newspaper to abandon print. More and more print newspapers are making the shift to web-only as Americans increasingly turn to the Internet for their news — but publishers still haven’t figured out how to get around readers’ reluctance to pay for information online and PR professionals still don’t exactly know how to sell this new media. Last week, the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism put out its sixth annual report on The State of the News Media and its findings related to newspapers were bleak:

    Nostalgia can be counterproductive...Perhaps now -- through a de-monopolization of news -- we might get some of those [voices] back."

    Newspaper ad revenues have fallen 23% in the last two years. Some papers are in bankruptcy, and others have lost three-quarters of their value. By our calculations, nearly one out of every five journalists working for newspapers in 2001 is now gone, and 2009 may be the worst year yet…The number of Americans who regularly go online for news, by one survey, jumped 19% in the last two years…Journalism, deluded by its profitability and fearful of technology, let others outside the industry steal chance after chance online.

    Looking Forward

    Let me admit my bias upfront: Although my area of professional expertise focuses on digital media, I’m a fan of so-called “dead tree” newspapers. I subscribe to the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and enjoy flipping and folding through articles on my couch or the subway. I regard the smudges of black ink left on my fingers as marks of informed citizenship (analogous, perhaps, to the iconic purple ink on the thumbs of Iraqi voters). So when I heard that the venerated Christian Science Monitor was going to online-only, I recalled photographs of President Kennedy pouring over CSM’s pages. And reports of The Rocky Mountains News’ demise and the precarious state of the San Francisco Chronicle (another Hearst paper) are also disappointing.


    But nostalgia can be counterproductive. The nature of news has continuously evolved and lest we forget, a hundred years ago, many cities had over fifty different newspapers. Through decades of monopolization, it’s possible that we’ve lost a diversity of journalistic voices. Perhaps now — through a de-monopolization of news — we might get some of those back.

    As a result, successful media relations folks will need to upgrade their practices to identify, analyze, track, respond to, and proactively pitch these new outlets. With the media universe expanding and fragmenting, it will be important that we’re carefully attuned to each of the voices that comprise this new cacophony. We won’t be able to simplistically characterize media as “new” or “old,” or “digital” or “mainstream” and act accordingly. A blog is simply a publishing platform, like a book. And just as you wouldn’t approach a comic book, a non-fiction best-seller and a hymnal the same way, we should be careful in how we begin to characterize emerging forms of media. As you’ll see later in this post, one newspaper executive is urging people not to think of his company as a newspaper company at all.

    There will be growing pains as some local news migrates from print to online, but some newspaper organizations that embrace the new media paradigm will flourish. To quote Charles Darwin, “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”


    Wanted: Successful Newspaper Business Model

    Heeding Darwin’s dictum, newspapers are striving to adapt to life online. The New York Times editor Bill Keller challenged the thinking, bandied about by digital media evangelists, that “information wants to be free” when he told Bloomberg, “Really good information, often extracted from reluctant sources, truth-tested, organized and explained — that stuff wants to be paid for.”

    Walter Isaacson, the former news exec who now heads the Aspen Institute, seemed to share this view in a recent Time magazine cover story, “How to Save Your Newspaper” (and a corresponding Daily Show appearance). Isaacson warned that, if people don’t pay for the content they consume, newspapers will become more beholden to advertisers — their sole revenue source — than their readers and the general public.

    In an article earlier this month, Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz seems to suggest that the major newspapers’ decision to publish free content online was misguided:

    Why a once-profitable industry suddenly seems as outmoded as America’s automakers is a tale that involves arrogance, mistakes, eroding trust and the rise of a digital world in which newspapers feel compelled to give away their content.

    Most newspaper companies recognize two challenges to this model: First, it’s not easy to charge for something that was once given away. Second, almost all newspapers would need to start charging or else people will simply get their news from other online news sources. So most newspaper execs are steering clear of the debate over whether to charge for web content, and are instead discussing monetizing content in other ways.

    Steven Swartz

    Steven Swartz, the president of Hearst Newspapers, spoke at a Columbia Journalism School panel discussion on “the future of newspapers,” which I attended several weeks ago. He appeared to have a sense of serenity about the situation (though, in the audience, journalists who’d lost their jobs did not), and suggested the possibility of a tiered subscription model whereby the majority of reportage was ad-supported and available for free online, while more premium content (including print publication and iPhone applications) would be fee-based.

    Norman Pearlstine, the chief content officer of Bloomberg L.P., who was also on the panel, testified to the validity of this split free/fee model by noting that “people had network television for years and now many, many of them pay for HBO.” He neglected to mention that almost nobody watches their network TV channels for free anymore. One of Swartz’s most memorable parting shots was that, no matter what model emerges, we need to stop thinking of “newspapers” and start thinking of “news products.” This medium/channel-agnostic outlook would make Marshall McLuhan scratch his head. It certainly made me scratch mine.

    The New News Product

    With traditional media organizations morphing themselves into predominantly online news sources — and a succession of digital media properties gaining mainstream stature (think Slate.com and Salon.com) — what’s a communications professional to do? How do we adapt our media relations tactics at the same pace as the news outlets adapt their reportage? How do we customize our communications to a radically decentralized and democratized media?

    First, we need to more clearly understand the impact of the changing news business models on the changing news distribution model. Last week, Arianna Huffington — proprietor of the Huffington Post — portrayed a shrewd and hopeful forecast for the interplay of new and old media:

    I’m constantly asked about working online versus working in print — as if new media and traditional media are engaged in a winner-take-all steel-cage-death-match fight-to-the-finish instead of each adjusting to new realities and navigating an uncertain path to the future. I firmly believe in a hybrid future where old media players embrace the ways of new media (transparency, interactivity, immediacy) and new media companies adopt the best practices of old media (fairness, accuracy).

    In this scenario, though, all media will eventually be transparent, interactive, immediate, fair and accurate. Now, while I buy Huffington’s assertion that digital media will have a salubrious effect on media generally, I do think that some of these traits are antagonistic with each other. Take, for example, accuracy and immediacy.

    I recently spoke with Bob Shrum, a colleague and political consultant whom Atlantic Monthly described as “the most sought-after consultant in the Democratic Party.” Shrum noted that with the race to publish articles promptly, there’s a risk that journalistic standards will be undermined. “Several major newspapers have had problems,” he noted, and pointed to a recent case where The New York Times misreported that Senator Kennedy called New York Governor Paterson to suggest his niece be nominated to Hillary Clinton’s vacated Senate seat.

    Shrum advises that “campaigns need to push back” in cases like this and that, more than ever, they’re “going to need to monitor all the time and… going to need to be able to respond at any time.” He continued, “There’s been talk of a 24 hour news cycle for years, but it’s largely been a metaphor. [With mainstream newspapers publishing online at all hours], the 24 hour news cycle will now be a reality.”

    These observations and advice apply to the corporate world as well as the political world. Rapid response isn’t new. We’ve know for a while that we need to squelch online rumors and respond to criticism before it can gain traction. What’s new is the need to keep an eye on the reporting by an increasingly overworked and under-edited mainstream press corps. To not just defend against online attack dogs, but to also watch the traditional media watchdogs.

    News organizations are still wrestling with the conflicting demands of immediacy and accuracy, of the interactivity that will modernize them and the quality journalism that has historically differentiated them. Ultimately, Shrum forewarns, “If serious newspapers migrate online and want to keep their audience and influence, they’re going to need to maintain standards.”

    Mark Hannah has spent the past several years conducting sensitive public affairs campaigns for well-known multinational corporations, major industry organizations and influential non-profits. He specializes in issues and reputation management online. Before joining the PR agency world (v-Fluence Interactive and Edelman), Mark worked for the Kerry-Edwards presidential campaign as a member of the national advance staff. He’s more recently conducted advance work for the Obama-Biden campaign. He is a member of the Public Relations Society of America and a fellow at the Society for New Communications Research, and he serves as an awards judge for both organizations. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, he’s currently pursuing a master’s in strategic communications at Columbia University. He is an independent communications consultant based in New York City and the public relations correspondent for MediaShift. You can reach him at markphannah[at]gmail[dot]com.

    Tagged: ariana huffington newspapers seattle post-intelligencer walter issacson
    • What the old media still doesnt get is that the public now understands that their newspaper/4th estate really wasnt much over the last few decades.

      The internet provided a choice. They are gone and are not coming back.

      Couple this with the no longer monopolistic distribution mechanism of the internet which cratered ad revenue and the old papers are dead. They may not know it yet, but they are dead.

      Whatever come up to replace it will be a breath of fresh air. I, for one, am hopeful that worthy alternatives will arrive and thrive.

    • Don

      I will be 50 this year and while I get a fair amount of my news online I too like newspapers. I can’t possibly read an entire paper online as web sites aren’t really designed to do that. With papers it’s a simple as flipping the page.

      If newspapers die I for one will probably be a little less informed.

    • Patrice Lee

      I wonder if there isn’t a way to strike a balance between the nostalgic flipping of the pages and scanning your computer screen for news. Web 3.0 I believe may begin to tackle this by why not set up newspaper online pages in the traditional booklet format with headlines and the first couple paragraphs then allow for scrolling features over each headline that maganify the entire article. True there would still be no ink on your finger as you flip pages, but that makes ad structures easier to incorporate.

    • Ken

      The potential loss of newspapers as a product is disconcerting, especially to their older-adult readers and to the journalists who produce them. Undoubtedly, new revenue streams that actually will support online news are vital, not necessarily to support an associated print product but rather to support the journalists who gather its content. After all, with the passing of many newspapers, where will online sites — especially aggregators — get the content they present (mostly) free to digital-age readers?

    • Mark – I have two comments.

      1. It is my understanding that the Seattle Times spent the better part of the past decade propping up the Seattle PI. In the wake of the mass media consolidation of the 90’s (how many newspapers does/did Hearst own?) the people at the Times thought it was important to keep Seattle a two newspaper city. Has there been any follow-up on that story?

      Is it the internet that has killed the newspaper business, or is it the fact that our media has become so centralized? What percentage of these dying papers are owned by Hearst? I’m just asking, I don’t know.

      If in fact that IS the case, I think perhaps we should seek reformation from the FCC.

      2. I think newspapers need to do what rockstars like to call “selling out.” Recently I saw a VISA commercial featuring a Smashing Pumpkins song about committing suicide. In the 90’s the fans would have had SP’s heads on the ends of sticks. Now, no one seems to lift an eyebrow.

      I am suggesting, that perhaps newspapers should use their intense connections and … sell out a bit. Charge ExxonMobil to write an op-ed about how light sweet crude oil cures cancer. Use the entertainment section editors to use their connections to artists, writers, musicians, and others to throw lavish parties with important people.

      Why not? It’s either that, or risk losing our watchdogs on the government. Not that they have been doing much of that lately anyways …

    • I will also miss newspapers and while I get most of my news online, etc. I enjoy flipping through my WSJ every morning. We will be influenced in some malignant way by the loss of newspapers, but I don’t think we will fully understand how until they are gone.

      What I don’t really understand is the almost rabid fever at which digital folks rally around the demise of newspapers. I don’t know what motivates them. I think they will have an “oh, shit!” moment when newspapers are gone.

      But, for now, they seem unstoppable and dead certain of their opinions. Time will tell whether they are right or wrong.

    • Perhaps a bit off topic, but your post got me thinking. When it comes to traditional media, I don’t make the distinction between paper or digital. It is still traditional in that it commits to a structured, formal, objective presentation of the news (as opposed to the unstructured, personal conversations of new media.) Good PR requires a blend of the new and the traditional.

      While I will increasingly miss the look and feel of a print version, the need for an online version of traditional media continues to grow.

    • The problem with all of you old farts and your iconic love for print newspapers is you complain that they are disappearing but aren’t willing to pay the price needed to keep them afloat.

      The simple fact is most newspapers are bloated mismanaged dinosaurs that don’t understand the modern world. They like to report on the modern world, but as a whole not even most of the reporters, especially their tech reporters, don’t get it. News if it is to have any value at all must be free in the modern world, or pretty well close to it.

      If a newspaper can’t convince the people who read it that they are worth the cost of publication or can’t sell enough advertising to keep them profitable, they deserve to die as a business.

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