Where did all the reporters go?

Demographics, convergence and the Internet are all conspiring to change the face of the media in Canada and make life harder for PR professionals, according to the author of a book about the industry.

Bill Carney, author of In the News: The Practice of Media Relations in Canada, recently

spoke to a group of about 75 public relations and communications professionals at an International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) seminar in Toronto.

Carney’s background includes working for a national public affairs television show in Toronto and editing urban and rural newspapers in Alberta. He has more than 20 years experience in communications and currently serves as a communications counsellor in the Saskatchewan premier’s office. Published in 2002, Carney’s book is the only university-approved textbook on media relations in Canada.

In his wide-ranging talk, Carney outlined how the audiences for mainstream media are shrinking, the youth audience is all but vanishing and while there are more and more media outlets and platforms, there are fewer and fewer reporters. The media is increasingly being bypassed altogether as consumers go directly to the source of information via the Internet.

In Toronto, Carney pointed out, readership of daily newspapers is down three per cent, eight of the top 10 English Canadian magazines experienced a drop in circulation and the hours Canadians spend watching specialty TV has increased from 16 per cent in 1998 to 25 per cent at the end of last year.

“”Regina, with 180,000 inhabitants, currently receives 200 channels, courtesy of Cable Regina,”” said Carney.

Coupled with the decline in mainstream media and the proliferation of specialty, “”niche”” media, is the impact of convergence and media management’s focus on the bottom line.

“”Reporters are not only writing more stories, they’re covering multiple beats and writing stories for multiple mediums,”” said Carney. “”A prominent media owner said in a speech recently that he could envision a time when reporters would file a story for a newspaper, another for the Web and a third for TV, all in one day. That time is now. And while I think the jury is still out on convergence, one thing is for sure: there are fewer reporters in the newsroom and the job those reporters should be doing is not being supported by management.””

All this poses a number of problems for media relations practitioners, who are charged with getting their organization’s message out to stakeholders. The first, says Carey, is that breaking through and getting the attention of a reporter, or cultivating a relationship with one, is becoming increasingly difficult. Second, the universal media release may have to give way to releases targeted at individual media. Third, and of much more concern, is that the media — over-worked and suffering from burnout — will simply become distributors of press releases.

“”The danger with that is, for PR types, we lose the third-party validation for our organization’s message,”” Carney said.

Carney went on to discuss the threats and opportunities posed by the Web. Reporters, particularly in the U.S., are increasingly engaged in computer-assisted reporting (CAR). This is a new trend in which reporters are availing themselves of the innumerable Internet databases on every conceivable topic, both legitimate and otherwise, to research the subjects and organizations they write about.

It’s incumbent on the PR practitioner, said Carney, to know what and where those databases are and what they’re saying about the practitioner’s clients or cause.

Carney pointed to the recent Toronto Star series on race and crime as an example of computer-assisted reporting.

“”CAR is more than a Google search,”” he said. “”Reporters are getting much more sophisticated at using computers for research and analysis. Some of them have even learned spreadsheet analysis. You have to know where your data is and where the risks are that need to be managed. What are your opposition’s databases saying about you? What are the Blogs saying?””

Carney questioned whether in the future the media would continue to be a mainstay of the PR practitioner’s audience. Consumers are increasingly using the Internet to bypass the media to get to government and corporate versions of issues, he said. With the media no longer playing its filtering role, it might be enough to post information on company Web sites and forgo media releases entirely, suggested Carney.

If that’s the case, the importance of the Web site “”news”” page becomes even more important, and Carney had a number of suggestions about how media pages should be improved, including:

  1. Ensure the PR contact information is posted (name, telephone, e-mail), instead of forms
  2. Have a dedicated newsroom (including high resolution images), visible on the home page
  3. Regularly update information
  4. Improve navigation tools
  5. Speed up sites by doing away with promotion and Flash
  6. Organize information better and include Canadian content and pricing

“”Audiences have not disappeared, they’re just harder to find,”” he said. “”You have to know them and their preferences. You also have to know the media you’re dealing with, no matter how difficult that might be.””

Comment: pipeline@itbusiness.ca

Kevin Spikes is the Marketing Communications Manager for Q9 Networks in Toronto and a member of the IABC.

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