The Dog Eat Dog Days of PR in the Internet Age: Part One

May 3, 2017

Who watches the watchdogs? It’s a phrase that conjures the creation of police commissions or intelligence oversight committees. But if you’re a believer in the sanctity of the Fourth Estate (and God knows we need them now more than ever), then the watchdogs who need watching are journalists. And no one watches or analyzes, or critiques journalists in greater depth and with sharper insight than the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University.

The purpose of the Nieman Lab is to figure out how journalism can adapt to the Internet Age while remaining relevant and profitable. Recently, in “Newsonomics: The 2016 Media Year by the Numbers and a look toward 2017,” the Nieman Lab’s Ken Doctor turned up some fascinating trends that will both bedevil and delight those of us in PR and business who strive daily, with more or less success, to earn the media’s adoration and praise.

Have Your Fake and Eat it Too

The bedeviling side of Nieman Lab’s look back at 2016 is the messy shift from print to digital, a transformation long underway that is weighing ever more heavily on the news media. The industry-rocking trend of 2016, of course, was the rise of “fake news” or rather the rise in awareness of fake news, thanks to the Presidential Election. Doctor takes some easy swipes at Mark Zuckerberg for his much-publicized claim that 99% of Facebook’s content isn’t fake. “Ever heard a publisher proudly proclaim, “We get it right 99 times out of a hundred?” he asks.

But the fake news phenomenon isn’t going to have much impact on the field of technology PR. More significant for the business of Media Relations is the sharp increase in the number of PR “targets” as the Internet continues to make it easier for small, independent content producers to compete with the mainstream media. This democratization of publishing and broadcasting offers both more opportunities and more diluted opportunities for getting the word out about a company, a product, or a thought leader.

The Young and the Restless

Here’s Nieman Lab’s take on one of the biggest online outposts, a not-so-new media that has finally come into its own after a decade of unrealized promise and that is quickly disrupting its Old Media birthplace, radio:

“Podcasting now reshuffles the deck, mixing and matching talent on scheduled airtime and on demand, with unpredictable consequences. The movement of younger talentwithin the emerging podcast economy poses both a great opportunity and threat for public radio as we know it, and is a boon for newer entrants like Gimlet Media, Panoply, This American Life/Serial, and Midroll Media.”

A related trend that accelerated in 2016 and into 2017 is the flight of ad revenue from mainstream publishing as advertisers spread their dollars online in search of eyeballs (and now ears, too).

“The Wall Street Journal lost more than a fifth of its overall advertising revenue in the third quarter of 2016,” Doctor writes. Other blue ribbon outlets suffered similar losses: The New York Times saw print ad revenue decline by 18 percent; McClatchy reported a 17 percent loss; Gannet lost 15 percent; and Tronc (the former Tribune Company) lost 11 percent.

To compensate for those huge loses, publishers are seeking revenue directly from readers in the form of digital subscriptions and add-ons. That requires high-quality content and attractive digital platforms something that “only the national/global dailies have been able to achieve,” according to Doctor. How will the rest of the nation’s dailies fare amid this historic transformation? Judging by the number of journalists losing their jobs, not so well. Nielsen Lab counted just 27,300 journalists working for U.S. dailies in 2016, 4,000 of whom work for the four national titles. The size of the local press has declined by half, according to Doctor.

Heads Up to PR customers

What does that mean for PR? The math is pretty simple. With an ever smaller number of traditional publications managing to keep the lights on, the competition for coverage among the dailies is becoming downright cutthroat. The days of guaranteeing that a successful company in a hot market will be covered by The New York Times or Wall Street Journal are over.

So what’s the answer? How can companies in search of media coverage adjust to this fast-evolving environment?

You can read the answer in Part Two of this post. In the meantime, a few hints: Traditional PR is dead. The press release as many people think of it is a goner. Thought leadership will be a key PR budget priority. Content is (roll your eyes if you must) king.

But in the end, it’s still all about relationships.

Todd Stein

Todd Stein is an award-winning communicator with more than 20 years' experience driving business growth, brand awareness and investor confidence for technology startups, mid-sized companies and Fortune 500 corporations. Prior to joining Amendola, Todd led public relations for Allscripts, helping catapult the healthcare IT company from a niche electronic health record provider to a global healthcare powerhouse in the span of six years. Todd also worked for 15 years as a freelance journalist for numerous West Coast and national publications. He has been honored by the League of American Communications Professionals; by the California Society of Professional Journalists; and by PRSourceCode's 'Top Tech Communicators' survey.