In 1997 technology journalist Daryl Willcox came across an online service that connected academics with one another, and it struck him that he could set up a very similar system to connect PR professionals and journalists. Later that year he launched SourceWire, a service that allowed technology journalists to request information or other assistance on articles or broadcast programmes. For their part, PROs tapped into a stream of enquiries that could lead to media coverage.
A year later he rolled it out to other sectors as Response Source, and an industry was born. Twelve years on it is an increasingly crowded industry. In June 2010 the latest online resource for journalists and PR professionals, mediawasp, launched, promising to 'connect journalists and PROs with each other more effectively than ever before'. It joins ResponseSource, Gorkana and News4Media, alongside wider online resources such as LinkedIn and Twitter, all of which promise to bring journalists and PROs together for the benefit of all.
With the recent news that Vocus has acquired Help a Reporter Out, an American-based service that is free to journalists and PROs, it looks likely this market will be shaken up still further in the next few months. The service runs a daily ad-funded e-newsletter that in the States boasts a 50 per cent open rate.
However the market changes, and whether services are paid for by advertisers or subscribers, these sites look set to become ever more important. As Matthew Fox, PR and marketing director at Pure Holiday Homes, says: 'I am from the old school of PR where it was all about building relationships with journalists. Now no individual PRO or agency can survive without signing up to these portals.'
So these sites have changed the skills required of PROs. It is essential for PR professionals to understand how each site operates, how the sites differ from each other, and how they can get the most out of them.
Watch comms professionals discuss the value of these online resources at prweek.com/uk
Users: 143,698, of which 75,000 in UK, 35,000 in rest of EU, 30,000 in US
Cost: £5,500 annually for one licence
Alex Northcott, who co-founded Gorkana with Michael Webster, says: 'We wanted to provide an online directory of journalists that gave PROs more detail than names, phone numbers and email addresses. We wanted them to be informed about what those journalists wrote about.'
Gorkana has built up its database by offering journalists the chance to sign up to a range of ten email alerts such as the Journalist Job alert, which has more than 52,000 subscribers. In return, Gorkana asks for information from them such as their career history, photo and interests.
The company has 1,200 PR clients, of which around 1,000 are in the UK. Northcott reports that of the recently released PRWeek Top 50 Consumer Consultancies, 47 subscribe to his service.
PROs speak highly of the service. Magda Klimkiewicz, senior account executive at CHA, says: 'Gorkana is particularly useful when we spot new journalists in the media and we want to find out more about them.'
However, the greatest praise is reserved for Gorkana's events. The most popular are breakfast briefings, at which audiences of around 250 PROs hear journalists describe what they want. Sam Espensen, founding partner of Red Dog, says: 'They are very good for junior members of staff to learn more from the horse's mouth about how to pitch.'
But she adds: 'Junior members of staff can get sucked into thinking a system like Gorkana is the only way to find information on journalists. I regularly have to remind them that if they can't find a certain piece of information on the system, it is likely to exist somewhere on the internet. Journalisted, for example, is free and often more up to date.'
Looking ahead, there will be big changes at Gorkana over the next couple of years. In March it was bought by Durrants for £25m, and Northcott explains the team is working on presenting a complete service, whereby PROs can research a journalist on Gorkana and then track coverage on Durrants.
Founded: June 2010
Users: Too early for figures
Cost: Currently offering 30-day free trial
The latest entrant to the increasingly busy market is mediawasp. The brainchild of former PR agency creative director Jasper Rosenau, this promises PROs and journalists all the functionality of existing sites, such as a detailed directory of journalists and PR contacts, a request service, a daily news feed of press releases, and an online library of images, photos and videos.
Rosenau believes both PROs and journalists will find the latter very useful, and claims the industry wastes a huge amount of time trying to get the right images in the right format to journalists who are on tight deadlines. All too often he has seen files that crash systems, take ages to arrive, and frustrate everyone involved.
Some companies have set up their own online media libraries, but he wants to offer a site where PROs can store everything journalists need as well as having all the other interactions offered by the established players in this market.
But not everyone is convinced the industry needs another company in this space. James Cooper, MD at Ascendant Communications, says: 'Having too many providers could undermine the quality of the information on offer and the number of people who bother to provide information to each service. I'd rather see the two or three services we have doing a better job, than more of a similar type being offered.'
Tim Gibbon, director at agency Elemental, believes mediawasp has more fundamental flaws. He says: 'Mediawasp sounds impressive, but once again a firm is pushing services to PROs that they should be doing themselves. How many PROs really send attachments that are so large they crash systems? Don't most good agencies now host image libraries for clients?'
He concludes: 'Although mediawasp does have a point of difference from the more established players I don't think it is one they'd struggle to replicate, and in any case I'm not convinced it's an especially useful point of difference.'
Users: 245,000 PROs; 55,000 journalists
Cost: £800-£5,000 annually depending on categories signed up to
Henry Hemming owns the UK licence to run News4Media, a concept that was developed as Trav4Media in Australia, and originally launched in the UK in 2003. He says: 'Many journalists get up to 400 press releases a day. They struggle to find what is most relevant. We allow them to sign up to a range of 12 daily press release digests.'
Hemming explains the high number of users of the site by saying many are one PRO or journalist signing up to several categories. He estimates that he has around 50,000 people signed up in total.
Users can distribute as many press releases as they want. Hemming says: 'If they have a strong story and write it well it will be read by 20 to 40 journalists and very often this will result in a couple of good articles.'
His clients also get access to the 4Media journalist alerts. Through these, journalists request information or expert comment for a specific article they are researching. Hemming says that there are now more than 1,000 of these going through his system every month.
George Shaw, MD at agency Avocado Media, says: 'I use News4Media, and it's useful, particularly for contacting freelancers. Pushing against an open door does allow for the targeted pitching of potential stories. The service is subject to abuse though. There are too many bloggers who try to blag free products, and lazy journalists who send out urgent alerts trying to find out who does the PR for a certain brand.'
News4Media plans to launch four new categories this year, and is investigating launching into France and Germany. Hemming concludes: 'There are more companies entering this sector, but it's really only the established players that have the scale to be credible. With our sector-specific focus and user-friendly design we will continue to offer a great service to thousands of journalists.'
Founded: 1997 (as SourceWire)
Users: Approx 10,000 last year
Cost: Free to journalists; £125 to £280 plus VAT annually for each of 21 categories for PR professionals
In the 12 months to 4 June 2010 there were 20,698 ResponseSource enquires from just under 4,000 individual journalists. Approximately 6,000 PR professionals receive the enquiries, but founder Daryl Willcox points out the real figure could be higher as many PR agencies receive enquiries to a single email address and then forward internally.
While it is hard to find a PRO who does not use ResponseSource, and almost all describe it as an extremely useful tool, many agree with Katie Olver, MD at Momentous, who says: 'ResponseSource is incredibly overpriced. Charging for access to different categories of enquiry is outrageous, but somehow they have managed to make you feel like you are missing out on media opportunities if you're not a subscriber.'
She believes that the future lies with free services such as Help a Reporter Out. For his part, Willcox continues to innovative. 'ResponseSource was the first of its kind in Europe and we intend to lead the way with the most sophisticated and popular service,' he says. 'We've already introduced things like "reply by Twitter", which allows journalists to write requests of any length but restrict responses to 140 characters; PR to PR requests; product placement requests, and integration with other Daryl Willcox Publishing services like the Freelance Journalist Directory and the FeaturesExec Media Database.'
He is quite relaxed about the number of competitors that have entered his market. 'It's a good thing,' he concludes. 'In the beginning we had to sell the concept, but now every PR professional is aware of the concept, and so we just need to show them how we're better. Clients are drawn to us by our experience, the sheer volume of requests we get and our constant innovation.'