Wednesday, April 17

Writing Content: What Happens When PR Inherits The News?

When newspapers first began to appear in America, there wasn't much to them. Even in Philadelphia before 1730, there were only two news sheets being published there. One of them mostly published definitions from the dictionaries and nothing else.

When Benjamin Franklin took it over, he did away with all of it. He envisioned something else, and almost none of it had to do with news. Franklin made his newspaper a vehicle for instruction on moral virtues that often masqueraded as satire and mischief. General news was not on anybody's mind.

In fact, American newspapers wouldn't even pay much attention to general news until after 1750. And its use to spur and spurn politics would occur a few decades later, right in time for the American Revolution. And with politics, a tradition for including local items of interest took hold, one that isn't much more than 200 years old.

Where is all the news going and need we be concerned? 

When Bruce Spotleson, group publisher for Greenspun Media and an editor-at-large for the Las Vegas Sun, spoke as a guest in Writing For Public Relations at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, he raised several powerful and poignant points. Much like I wrote last week, he doesn't see print going away.

Niche publications are particularly strong. Special interest content can still find subscribers. But what he does see slipping is the notion that newspapers are important to a community. And this makes me wonder, what then?

After all, they alone publish local items of interest and record. They alone publish in-depth news stories that act as a community spotlight. They alone have the opportunity to make a last stand in favor of objective journalism, at least those that haven't already rolled over into the ranks of affirmation media.

Bruce SpotlesonAnd along with that, as Spotleson pointed out, the public has grown increasingly unaware of local news and community interest. Some of them don't know whether their police department is good or bad, beyond any personal experience or biased opinion. Many of them are too busy too keep up on government accountability beyond their front yards. Most, if pressed, wouldn't even be able to hazard a guess what the leading local headline might be today.

Spotleson knows. He's asked. Even people who are applying for a job, he said, tend to have the same answer. They haven't gotten to it yet. And in all likelihood, they never will get to it. They're too busy.

Unless it's a national headline, breaking news, or entertainment, people tend to skip the middle ground. They know what is happening from their front door to the sidewalk or their self-selected tribe, which means the group of people they pick on social networks.

The rest of it, unless it touches them directly, tends to be a question mark. The issue is compounded in transient communities too. In such communities, people are much more interested in their hometowns than towns where they own a home. And if these trends tend to hold, news will eventually be gone.

Television news won't fare much better. Unless they find a niche, it's all just more noise on the Web.

Public relations isn't free anymore. It's all about paid content. 

In the wake of unsupported community news, all that will be left is a steady stream of public relations perspectives. Take a recent NV Energy story as an example. Although only a few people are aware of the story, the lack of any reporting arm would only leave several dozen biased voices in its wake.

On one side, there is the utility. On the other, the gaming industry. There are dozens more, including government, consumer advocates, and the public (despite their apparent absence). Without a newspaper to organize the issue, the public would either be largely left in the dark or perhaps exploited by public relations, not with malice but with each representative's own preconceptions as the story shows.

And who would win in such a world? My guess would be the one with the better and heavily budgeted communication plan, especially if they have properly leveraged social media. Except that win isn't free.

While public relations as an industry has been clamoring to take over content marketing and social media, it will come with another cost. As outlets for free exposure continue to diminish, companies and special interests will have no choice but to ramp up direct-to-public communication programs so each interest can publish the "news" as it sees fit. Right. They will publish all the news fit paid to print.

While some might guess the result will be similar to the ever-increasing price to enter politics (with state senate races starting as six and seven digits), I'm not even asking whether it will be this good, bad or indifferent. I'm asking something else. Are public relations professionals even ready to get what they wished for and are we, as the public, ready for it too?
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