“The main, and most uncomfortable truth, is that this [journalism] industry is the principal architect of its greatest difficulty today. We are allowing our journalism—billions of dollars worth of it every year—to leak onto the Internet. It is time to pause and recognize this—Free Costs Too Much.”
David Estok Keynote, Envisioning 2020: The Canadian Public Relations Leadership Summit
This post comprises a mashup of ideas resulting from a summit presentation and readings of the following: two Globe and Mail newspaper articles (print and online), a recent James Grunig research paper and a blog post by Chris Lynch. Although primarily focused on changes to newspaper readership and engagement models, an underlying quest is answers to the challenges impacting public relations practitioners regarding audiences who are only prepared to read (and opine about) newspaper content found online and at no charge. How important is this non-paying public to the strategic management of public relations in regards to media relations, research and reputation monitoring?
Free may cost too much, but here’s another journalism irony, also courtesy of the prescient Estok: “Newspapers like The Hamilton Spectator have more readers than ever in its history. There is not a crisis of audience; there is a crisis of revenue.” (David Estok was the editor of The Hamilton Spectator for several years, but he recently left to accept the role of vice president, communications, SickKids Foundation.)
The Envisioning 2020 summit was an invite-only event for a cross-section of 70-plus Canadian public relations and communication management leaders, from a variety of industry associations and special interest groups. It was held on March 5, 2010. The summit was the brainchild of Terry Flynn, APR, FCPRS, and it was hosted by the Canadian Public Relations Society.
Online hits versus newspaper circulation
Less than two weeks after the Envisioning 2020 summit and Estok’s presentation, an OpEd article by Roy MacGregor appeared in the Globe and Mail, “When journalism is about hits, the craft goes amiss.” There were a flurry of links to this article, which was mainly passed around by email and Twitter, etc., not to mention a wealth of opinions expressed. Although MacGregor’s core concern was about resulting “lazy journalism” from the “hits” concept, his article echoed several of the things Estok had expressed about newspaper readership. For example [bolding mine], MacGregor wrote,
“In the ubiquitous cyberworld of blogs and tweets and anonymous comment, what has come to matter more than anything else is the number of hits a certain story receives. The more hits means, in most cases, the larger the audience, and while reaching more readers and viewers is a good thing on one level, it is also a concern for those who believe journalism is about content and information more than reaction.”
When newspapers start confusing ‘hits” with ‘circulation,’ there is an undeniable danger to journalism.
If, as increasingly appears to be the case in the uncertain world of Web publishing, traffic is what matters most—and may one day be the basis for figuring out how finally to make money out of Web content—then it only stand to reason that those working in the [journalism] business will chase traffic harder than stories.”
What I would (really) like to know about this article
1. What percentage of the audience who read MacGregor’s article only accessed it online and for free?
2. If one is no longer paying to read content (i.e., newspaper print or online premium subscriber or a single-copy purchaser), do you remain a stakeholder in that media outlet? And, if you are not a stakeholder, will (or should) the opinions expressed about content and/or the journalist(s) have as much impact on a media outlet’s management decisions? For that matter, are you even a member of the newspaper’s defined publics…or simply a “reading” audience that might opine?
3. Finally, whether you are an in-house public relations practitioner or on the agency side, does organizational coverage received in an online format—and the resulting opinions expressed by the online audience—hold the same degree of importance, impact and resonance as a (print or online) publication that boasts a strong and varied stakeholder base? (A base that is presumably taken into account by the media outlet’s management in terms of what content—e.g., business or government profiles, investigative articles or editorials—is commissioned, what focus articles will have and by whom they will be written?)
Paradigms of global public relations in an age of digitalisation
In terms of defining the differences between stakeholders, publics and audiences, particularly in today’s “digitalised” world, I found a recent paper by James Grunig quite helpful, “Paradigms of global public relations in an age of digitalization.” (It was commissioned by Praxis, a digital PR resource centre based in New Zealand; however, I found out about its existence via the blog post of an Australian agency, Bluegrass Consulting.)
“I use the term stakeholder to define a broad group of people with similar stakes in the organisation, such as employees, customers, or community members. Stakeholders can be defined as anyone who has a similar risk resulting from a relationship with an organisation (Post, Preston, & Sachs, 2002). Not every member of a stakeholder group is a member of the same public, however; and, as Figure 2 illustrates, several different kinds of publics can be found within each stakeholder category. These publics can range from activist to active, passive, and non-publics.”
Grunig further details,
“As Phillips and Young (2009) have noted, it is important to segment stakeholders and publics to understand their differing relationships with an organisation and to be able to communicate with them about their problems and interests using the new media. I segment stakeholders by identifying the impact of consequences or potential consequences of management decisions on groups such as employees, customers, or shareholders. I then further segment publics from these stakeholder groups using my situational theory of publics (e.g., Grunig, 1997; Kim & Grunig, in press). This theory segments publics using the concepts of problem recognition, constraint recognition, and involvement recognition.”
“Audiences” (versus stakeholders or publics) are a little trickier to isolate, but (for the purposes of this blog post) I found this Grunig paragraph significant:
“I believe that publicity about management decisions can create such a reputational relationships between an organization and the audience exposed to the messages, but only to a limited extent and in certain situations. Therefore, I have labelled the dotted line no consequences because I believe that organizations have reputational relationships only with people for whom the organization has no consequences. Such people can be defined as audiences because they are not truly publics. These audiences have little importance to an organization. As soon as an organization or public has consequences on the other, it begins to develop an involving behavioural relationship, rather than a low-involvement reputational relationship. It is at that point that a group of people become an active and strategic public rather than a passive audience.”
OK, fairly heavy-duty theoretical stuff, but useful in understanding the differences between stakeholders, publics and audiences, including their importance (or not), in our journalism 2.0 world. Who we want to be reading the newspaper may not be the same stakeholders and publics that media outlets are cultivating via the direction and focus of their newspaper content.
The Wente case study: online ruckus explodes around a print-based columnist
Margaret Wente is a long-time columnist at the Globe and Mail. Currently, she writes three columns per week for the venerable Canadian newspaper. Wente doesn’t shy away from opining about a variety of controversial topics, but I suspect even she was taken aback by the (primarily online) storm that erupted from her March 17th column, “Why are bloggers male?” Her short answer: male answer syndrome. “Opinionizing in public is a form of mental jousting, whether the aim is to out-reason, out-argue or out-yell your opponent. Women are just as good at this as men and, in some ways, better. Women are simply not as interested in doing it.”
Although the majority in the online court of public opinion (whether female or male) took Wente’s column and argument to be superfluous, unsubstantiated and decidedly opinionated attack on gender differences (male = negative, female = positive), plus were quite critical that the Globe’s editorial staff let it run without “fact-checking and proof,” my reading (or take) takeappeared quite different from the norm.
I took this particular Wente OpEd column (as well as her later participation and comments in the resulting online “conversation,” which was co-moderated by two Mommy Bloggers) as a clear statement that Margaret Wente had no plans to “enlarge” her journalism commitment to the Globe and Mail and its online readership by incorporating social media elements; in this case, to take up blogging. (It was more than a year ago that she wrote about her dislike of Twitter, for which the online reading and tweeting public also took her to task.) Furthermore, I maintain this means that Wente is confident in both her worth as a newspaper journalist/columnist, as well as in her faith in how she is valued by the Globe and Mail and its stakeholder readership. (Note: by my eyeballing, Wente’s columns provoke more letters to the editor in the print edition than any other regular columnist, especially now that former Globe columnist, Rex Murphy, has moved to the National Post.) I’m also speculating whether it is indicative that the Globe and Mail is also decreasing resources (journalists and digital staff) spent on the online version of its publication.
To test my theory about the real reason(s) behind Wente’s reticence to blog, I asked a journalist I respect from another major media outlet (with whom I have an online “relationship”) two questions:
1. Does your employer pressure its journalists into being active in social media (i.e., blogging and tweeting)?
2. Do you get any additional pay for your efforts?
The answers I received:
1. Yes, a bit.
2. No extra pay.
And the journalist also volunteered, “I like doing it, but frankly, it makes it hard to take in events properly, like the one I’m at now.”
David Estok’s experiment
When still editor at The Hamilton Spectator, David Estok decided to try an experiment. He took the newspaper’s core and respected columnists (many of them award-winning)…offline. Estok emphasized that the columnists weren’t placed behind a paywall (an experiment that he claims has proven “disastrous” in Canada)…their columns simply were no longer available to be read on The Hamilton Spectator’s website. If you wanted to read them, you had to subscribe to the newspaper or purchase that day’s copy.
Did any of the online reading publics or audiences complain? No. The only people who complained were…those same columnists who were taken off the grid. (I’m wondering if Margaret Wente would care if her columns no longer appeared on the Globe and Mail’s website…?)
In summarizing his presentation, Estok asserted that most newspapers in Canada remain profitable. But the freebie readership economy (for anything other than straight news) won’t work in the long run.
(Although he didn’t phrase it quite this way), Estok next asked how the newspaper business could turn free, online audiences into paying stakeholders. His suggestions included that media outlets could charge:
• the pipeline?
• the aggregators?
• the consumer with a micro payment?
• with a platform shift?
• increase the amount of [online] advertising revenue?
Ultimately, Estok believes that the print and online versions of a paper increasingly will become two separate products: What appears in the newspaper, more and more, will not appear on the website for free. Just like his experiment with The Hamilton Spectator’s columnists.
He predicted more sophisticated development, which will takes advantage of the “technology” of both products:
• For the Internet, things such as increased use of video, slide shows, interactivity, blogs, opinions, etc.
• For the print newspaper, higher-quality analysis, longer narrative, better writing, and more interesting presentation.
Estok’s other predictions for newspapers of the future:
• physically smaller (less paper and ink)
• more expensive [to buy or subscribe to]
• of higher quality [in terms of content]
• targeted to a smaller audience
• “rewarding the reading experience”
• more focused (e.g., more local coverage)
• smaller staffs
• outsourcing of non-journalist activity (e.g., Pagemasters, ad production)
• more partnering with citizen journalists
The result will be a more informed [stakeholders/publics] audience on deciding “what is worth reading.”
I would encourage you to read the blog post, “What The Reader Elite Means for Journalism Schools” by Chris Lynch on his Lynch Blog, where some of these same topics are explored. The comments section is particularly rich with informed opinions and suggestions on the current state of journalism, as well as what it could and should be. Like this one from “Babydiscarted”:
As for “decades-old methods” that are being taught in journalism schools—do you mean storytelling, investigative reporting, researching, ethics and the law, copyediting and proofreading, visualizing layouts and graphic design, entrepreneurial thinking…? You’re right, those are useless! The market may be crap right now for traditional journalists, but these skills are still invaluable in many areas of media and communications. And if the future crop of journalists don’t have them, the content we consume will be far worse for it.”
What does it mean for PR professionals?
David Estok concluded his Envisioning 2020 summit presentation with the following challenges to the audience:
1. [Do changes in media models and journalism focus] make our messages harder to get out?
2. Does it change the role of traditional media relations?
3. Can we reach “right past” the media?
4. Do we need to get better at our own journalism?
To which I would add a few queries of my own:
1. Does this mean that marketing PR messages re: a company’s products and services will increasingly be eliminated from the majority of reputable newspaper outlets, if the papers are getting smaller and more focused on profiles, investigative reporting and editorials? (Might they get pushed to the online version only, as “filler” copy?)
2. What would this mean to the numerous “online monitoring” companies that have sprung up like mushrooms in the past few years? Will PR departments and agencies still be interested in a service that only monitors content that is available online, if traditional media outlets are taken out of the equation? (See my earlier question #3.)
3. How much value will public relations practitioners place on a stakeholder versus a public versus an [online-only] audience?
4. How valid do you think are David Estok’s predictions regarding future newspaper models and their impact on the public relations function?
Thank you for making it all the way to the end of this long and wide-ranging blog post.
Links related to this blog post
– When journalism is about hits, the craft goes amiss, Roy MacGregor
– Paradigms of global public relations in an age of digitalisation, James Grunig
– Why are bloggers male?, Margaret Wente
– What The Reader Elite Means for Journalism Schools, Chris Lynch