News media: buyouts and reporting

Got back from my morning run a few hours ago. And figured that with nothing more productive to do I might as well catch up on some reading. Glad I did as I found two articles that are particularly revealing about the state of the news media today — and tomorrow.

First is the Media Notes column by Howard Kurtz in The Washington Post this morning, “Post Buyouts Come with an Emotional Cost.

The Washington Post like many (most?) newspapers are cutting staff these days — and shifting resources from print to online editions. Without question, tough for the people involved, although at The Washington Post softened by voluntary buyouts. Probably not as good for thousands of journalists and related staff at other newspapers.

But here’s the point. We’re seeing a major shift in the newspaper industry. The question is whether in the long run it is going to be positive from the standpoint of those who believe, like me, that a strong, vigorous press still matters in this country. Kurtz writes:

“I know, I know. The future is digital. The Web is a cornucopia of fast-moving video and blogs and bulletins and gossip, while newspapers are old, slow and less than hip. That’s why The Post (and every other paper on the planet) is beefing up its online presence and why I write a daily blog for the Web site.

“But — and stop me if you’ve heard this one — newspapers matter. There isn’t a Web site around that can produce the probing work, such as the exposé of shoddy conditions at the Army’s Walter Reed Medical Center, that won The Post six Pulitzer Prizes this year. The economics of the Web, for now, won’t support a staff that can hold public officials accountable across the region and still cover every Nationals game. So I cling to an old-fashioned, almost mystical belief in the power of ink on paper.”

As I mentioned in this blog many times, young people no longer read newspapers. From my experience with them in the classroom, they are informed and interested in events. But they get their news from other sources. In the column, Kurtz writes:

“In one sense, the Web is a blessing. Daily circulation for the newsprint Post, now 673,000, may be down from 813,000 in 2000, but we are drawing an eye-opening 9.4 million unique visitors online each month, 85 percent of them from outside the D.C. circulation area. Those readers don’t bring in the cash that print subscribers do — given the gotta-be-free mentality of the Web — but they do expand our reach.”

But with the Web comes a different style of reporting — and the ability for even obscure stories to gain major significance and readers. That’s the point in the second article — in Politico, “Media Hype: How small stories become big news,” by John F. Harris. Wish I would have had the opportunity to use this one in my ethics class.

Anyway, it focuses on the current flap involving Hillary Clinton and the remark in an interview that she made about Robert F. Kennedy. Harris writes:

“This weekend’s uproar over Hillary Rodham Clinton invoking the assassination of Robert Kennedy as rationale for continuing her presidential campaign is an especially vivid example of modern journalism as hyperkinetic child — overstimulated by speed and hunger for a head-turning angle that will draw an audience.

“The truth about what Clinton said — and any fair-minded appraisal of what she meant — was entirely beside the point.

“Her comment was news by any standard. But it was only big news when wrested from context and set aflame by a news media more concerned with being interesting and provocative than with being relevant or serious. Thus, the story made the front page of The New York Times, was the lead story of The Washington Post and got prominent treatment on the evening news on ABC, CBS and NBC.”

Ouch. But accurate. And I’m not making an excuse for Clinton or her remarks. The same thing happened to Obama a few weeks ago when a blogger posted his comments about the “bitter” middle class. Were/are either — or both? — campaign-defining statements at this point?

Yet from Harris, here’s the point:

“Once, the elite papers and network news set the agenda, and others followed suit, following up on what these establishment pillars deemed important.

“Now it’s just the opposite. The conservative old voices increasingly take their cues from the newer, more daring ones.”

Maybe in the long run that will be better. More voices. More openness. But something tells me that Kurtz has a point. You don’t lose a 100 staffers at a newspaper like The Washington Post without it making a difference.

Oh by the way. This shift in news coverage has some major implications for those of us in public relations. Think about it. The era of the “one-day” story is over. And today even a so-called minor story about your organization can lead to major coverage and discussion. Are we ready to deal with a Clinton/Obama-type story? Oh, my.

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