The Plight of the ...


This year’s State of the Media from Pew Research showed newsrooms at their lowest level since 1978.

State of the Media - Pew Research

Yet, most people still turn to the daily newspaper in one form or another, which explains why this media type remains a primary target for PR.

Brian Cafferty has spoken with 100+ newspapers over the past three years, all part of his due diligence in launching a startup with a different take on the news distribution service. We wanted to hear Brian’s perspectives from these talks, and he was happy to share his findings. You can find more information on his startup at the GistCloud website.

Q. How did you find the “mood” at most newspapers? If you found optimism, what was the basis for the optimism?

A. The mood at dailies depends on the type, e.g., big city metro, regional, daily, county daily, local daily.  It’s ironic that the big city dailies, the category most in distress, have enormous readership combining their print and online audiences. The gap, of course, is that the online reach hasn’t commanded the advertising dollars to make up for what had been spent for print in the past. But the trend for spend on the Local Digital Advertising is improving. I’ll give you one quick data point. According to a Burrell Associates report, advertising in local dailies was up 22% to $19.9 billion in 2012. That’s why the distress level is different depending on the property type and the size of the organization.

Q. Where do you think AOL went wrong with Patch? Was hyperlocal news just a bad idea and simply too narrow?

A. I think the reason Patch has not succeeded is more a function of execution.

Patch Logo

First, since the concept was built around a single journalist, many of them began to burn out as they tried to produce sufficient content to draw the interest of the community. And by having to churn out quantity, they began to suffer on the quality front.

It became apparent that they underestimated the value of an “editor” to local journalism. Having another set of critical eyeballs to ensure quality is essential and the hallmark to success of any true news organization. Readership suffers greatly as quality suffers, especially where competition exists.

Finally, their rapid expansion after the AOL acquisition combined with their lack of a solid plan for ad sales at that local level has left them in serious trouble.

Q. Let’s move to what PR people care about, the actual content from newspapers. How do you see newspapers reshaping their stories today and moving forward?

A. Simply put, with a smaller staff, the dependence on outside contributors for content goes up in order to maintain sufficient quantity. So clearly that is an opportunity for PR. Informative articles that help position a client as an expert or a company as one source to solve a problem have a higher chance for pickup in this environment, especially at the local papers, as long as they are not truly promotional in nature.

The second movement is around paid “advertorials.” There is growing recognition by many newspapers that blending journalism and advertising may be more “acceptable” in this new world as long as it is identified, but the extent of such identification is a subject of debate. This allows a PR firm to help craft a story that is informative to the newspapers’ communities and highly beneficial to its client and more self-promoting than when you are seeking earned media.

Q. When you say advertorials, do you mean the traditional advertorial or the concept of native advertising?

A. Both. Native advertising is finding its way into daily newspapers if you define it as journalistic-like content that a company pays to appear in the paper.

Note: This blurring of the lines between paid and earned media was last covered in the post, “The Catch 22 of Native Advertising.”

Q. Is it fair to say that most journalists at newspapers have pressure to deliver clicks?

A. I can’t say that I have heard those words, but it makes sense that this trend will follow, especially at those papers that have truly embraced a “digital-first“ strategy.  And unlike traditional print, it provides an obvious metric as to how many people truly follow a journalist.

Q. PR people are grappling with how to bring the news release into the 21st century. They see the potential of a news release helping journalists be more efficient, obviously a good thing. Plus, the news release has evolved into a direct marketing tool going directly to the target audience, so some in PR strive for a journalist-like quality. But the more the release tilts in this direction, the less likely a journalist at a major paper will be interested in the story. Your thoughts?

A. Your assessment of the dilemma matches what we see as well. Without a doubt, journalists at a major paper that are pursuing a story have the inherent desire to infuse their own individual style in every story they produce.  Combine that need with the eventual trend to which your previous question alludes regarding clicks, and that requirement will likely grow.

At the local level, a polished piece becomes more content with less effort, so it can be a benefit there for sure.

One very important note is that the inclusion of multimedia assets, especially video, is also a tool the PR professional can use to help entice pickup.  Unlike other video sites, videos on news sites get watched to completion at a much higher rate, in the neighborhood of 80%. Providing an informative video may well be the deciding factor on getting the story picked up.

Q. Obviously, no journalist wants to feel “handled.” With this in mind, we’ve been experimenting with this concept of “atomizing content” in a news release. In other words, rather than being a smooth narrative, the news release delivers tidbits of information that the journalist can pull from and still be in control of the story. Back in June, I wrote about how Men’s Wearhouse used this concept to land stories in a number of papers including The New York Times. Do you think this is the way to go with newspapers? I suppose the downside is for those newspapers that prioritize efficiency, it takes more work to turn this content into a story.

A. So addressing each audience differently may be appropriate, depending on the quality of the story. The major papers still need content. If it is not a story warranting a journalist’s full attention, but is informational and of interest to the newspaper’s community, then the polished piece may work as well. The PR professional will need to decide which path to take depending on the storyline and the media outlets being approached.

Q. One final question: Warren Buffett has acquired 28 local newspapers for $344 million over the past couple of years. Anything from your talks with newspapers that reveals what Warren knows what the rest of the world seems to be missing?

Warren Buffett

A. I spoke with two of the papers he acquired, the Omaha World-Herald and the Press of Atlantic City, one post-acquisition and one pre-acquisition. Both properties shared very similar qualities – a mid-tier city with a dominant daily newspaper brand whose online presence is also the market leader. They have both established themselves as having strong journalism staffs aimed at reporting on the local scene.

Such enterprises remain positioned to be the dominant news source in print and online serving those communities and their businesses for years to come. Value pricing of these properties equals a good investment, plus Buffett’s acquiring dominant news and advertising brands already made lean by prior owners. With the previous trend in local ad spend that I mentioned, I believe he is betting that the trend continues and his properties garner the lion’s share of that spend in their respective communities.

Q. Like Buffett, you’re bullish on the daily newspaper?

A. Absolutely.

This dialogue with Brian has me rethinking how we approach dailies.

Once you get past the dailies with major reach or strong syndication qualities – like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, LA Times, San Jose Mercury News, etc. – it’s not cost-effective to handcraft outreach to the smaller dailies.

But if a distribution service like GistCloud can fill this void, that’s an interesting proposition worthy of experimentation.

Leave a Reply