Friday, April 15

Filling Voids: A Company Content Takeover?

Shel Holtz, ABC, principal of Holtz Communication + Technology, wrote a post that touches on a topic area that I wanted to see more companies embrace several years ago. The Internet makes it possible to become your own media company — providing honest, credible, and valuable feature content around your products.

His post, Business-produced content could fill the sharable-content gap created by paywalls takes a slightly different spin that he sees it as a solution to the growing trend among news publishers to put up pay walls. I agree with the concept in part, but then there is the other side of the coin. Companies are not enough to supplant true news coverage.

The Future Media Crisis Will Be A Mile Deep.

Last week, my Writing For Public Relations class was treated to an hour with Bruce Spotleson, group publisher for Greenspun Media. Spotleson has been kind enough to grace the class ever since I started teaching it. He even remarked that he could use it to mark the passage of time.

And this year, he shed some light on the state of news media. Specifically, what news media is shedding cannot be easily replaced. We're losing dedicated investigative reporters and senior writers who tackle the most complex issues, those who aren't so easily replaced by special interest citizen journalists and snack-sized entertainment features. (Investigative reporting is the most expensive proposition for any newspaper or news magazine, paying senior writers to spend weeks on one story.)

Looking at some of the reporting on the more complex issues in recent years, I'd go one step further and say we've all but lost most of them. And even the few who remain tend to do little more than report on two polarized talking heads or slant stories toward whatever politicized position their audience has embraced. The truth doesn't bubble up to the surface so much.

Even the most recent economic crisis is just now being understood. CNBC recently reported the findings of a two-year bipartisan probe that concluded conflicts of interest, excessive risk-taking, and failures of government oversight triggered the financial crisis (hat tip: Lewis Green). Both Republicans and Democrats agreed, citing problems that existed well before 2003.

The Story That The Media Largely Missed.

In fact, in 2003, the Bush administration tried to take some steps to correct such problems as they pertained to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. But any progress being made to stop the problems was stalled then by Chris Dodd, chairman of the Senate banking committee. Dodd had allegedly been one of several dozen politicians who received special loans. He wasn't alone either. If you read Fact Check, everyone was to blame.

But this post isn't meant to explore the political wrangling that led to the financial crisis. It's an example of how times were already changing. The news media, by in large, was already out to lunch and asleep at the wheel. Instead of critical and objective reporting, the shrinking percentage of people reading newspapers were spoon-fed sensationalism — things that attract eyeballs.

In 2003, for example, the invasion of Iraq captured headlines. So did the shuttle disaster. So did the Laci Peterson story. So did SARS. So did a lot of stories with all of them important but with the emphasis on immediacy. What wasn't covered were our long-term simmering stories — the economy, housing market, or education. All of which would have required objective interests poring over research for weeks and months.

If they weren't being covered almost ten years ago, it seems highly unlikely they will be covered in the future. Or, for a more local example, Spotleson mentioned how local newspapers used to be the watchdogs over all sectors within the community like police departments and other government bodies. And when no one covers them, bad things usually happen.

Businesses Are Good At Reporting Wants; News Media At Reporting Needs.

Holtz is right that businesses can step up their own media outreach efforts and become publishers around their special interest areas, especially if they are sensitive to what consumers want and are reasonably objective in their presentation without filling the Internet with big brochures that get updated daily. Consumer-centric content is more valuable. Instead of talking about how great the company is, better content tells people how to get more greatness out of a product.

At the same time, communicators might want to remain steadfast in convincing news media outlets that there is a void that needs to be filled. Investigative information is too valuable to find behind a pay wall (because we generally don't want to hear it).

To take care of this niche, what we really need is for news media outlets to elevate their advertising rates to pay for objective reporting. And if the reporting is not objective, then at least they can ask the tough questions. All they need to do to recapture some of their old ad rates is deliver content that draws an audience because it is valuable (and not cheap entertainment). In contrast, putting up pay walls for content that doesn't measure up (The Daily doesn't measure up) only drives the audience away.
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