With newspapers wavering, PR ponders the possibilities

Reeling from job cuts and sales declines, the newspaper industry faces an uncertain future - and PR pros must adjust their plans accordingly.

Reeling from job cuts and sales declines, the newspaper industry faces an uncertain future - and PR pros must adjust their plans accordingly.

To say the newspaper industry is in a state of turmoil would be a serious understatement. Rising costs and declining circulation have put newspapers into a tailspin, and very often executives have tried to remedy this situation by downsizing. So far this year, more than 2,000 newspaper jobs have been cut across all units of operation.

But while PR pros have embraced tactics beyond media relations, such as viral, interactive, and word-of-mouth marketing, industry veterans still cite the hard-copy, print paper as a mainstay of their profession.

The New York Times made headlines just a few months ago when it announced plans to cut dozens of newsroom positions. And in the past three months alone, the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News eliminated 75 and 25 newsroom positions, respectively; the LA Times eliminated 85 newsroom jobs; the Chicago Tribune cut 28 editorial posts; and The Morning Call, a daily newspaper in Lehigh Valley, PA, announced it would end publication of its chain of weekly community papers by the end of the year. And there may be more changes to come.

Since early November, there's been talk that Knight Ridder, the second-largest newspaper publisher in the nation, is considering a sale. The company, whose papers include The Philadelphia Inquirer and San Jose Mercury News, appears to be bowing to pressure from its two largest stockholders to boost the value of the company, whose stock was down 6% this year.

"[The newspaper industry] certainly is undergoing a lot of change and pressure to change right now," says Colby Atwood, VP of the media research firm Borrell Associates. "The traditional print product is losing readership and has been for a long time."

Indeed, a report released earlier this year from Prudential Equity Group showed that the decrease in full paid home delivery and full paid copy sales (newsstand sales) of newspapers was 2.5% and 6.8%, respectively, from 2003 to 2004.

Faced with such statistics, it is not surprising that the first step many major newspaper companies are taking is layoffs. But such a move impacts not only the newspapers themselves, but also all those who interact with such outlets on a daily basis, including PR pros.

Bob Brody, SVP and media specialist at Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide, notes that the newspaper industry's declines in circulation and staffers seem to have accelerated over the past six months.

Atwood similarly cites the recent wave of layoffs and suggests that journalists will need to quickly transition to doing more work with fewer people.

"I think those waves are going to keep coming and coming as newspapers try to catch up," he says. "It's going to be very difficult to get ahead of the curve because they're going to be reacting quite a bit."

The news for PR pros

Mark Hass, CEO of MS&L and a former journalist at The Washington Post and Miami Herald, says the current state of the newspaper industry is bound to impact PR pros, given the relationship between the two industries. "[PR and newspapers] are linked in a very fundamental way," he says. "Newspaper journalists are the heart and soul of what we do as an industry. These kinds of cuts...make it more difficult for journalists to focus on anything."

What it is more troubling, says Hass, is that trends such as newsroom cuts could have a negative impact on the institution of newspapers. "All of these cuts just damage the ability of newspapers to continue to be credible news sources," he says. "And of course we rely on them to be credible news sources."

Specifically, downsized newsrooms that don't have the resources to do investigative news articles could compromise their credibility, he adds.

"If your daily paper becomes like the 11pm news broadcast - if it bleeds, it leads - then you lose credibility," Hass says. "We rely on the credibility of news organizations for this earned media exchange. If that's not going on, then our profession is weakened."

Faced with dwindling staffs at newspapers, PR pros will be forced to work harder at one of the basic tenets of the practice: forming relationships with reporters. While it sounds simple, keeping up-to-date media lists will be the key to successful pitching at a newspaper where new reporters may come and go, or where reporters are taking on unfamiliar beats to compensate for the workforce reduction.

But Brody suggests that working with new reporters - whether they are new to the newspaper itself or new to a specific beat - could be beneficial to the client in the long run.

"Any time someone new steps into a reporting positions, I think we have a terrific opportunity to put our clients in the forefront and provide people with an education," he says. "That's a great time to set up a background briefing and get the reporter up to speed.... Provided the briefing goes well, the reporter will be appreciative of that client."

Dave Schemelia, VP and media director of HealthStar Public Relations, agrees that the changes in the newspaper industry will change how PR pros interact with the media. Many of the changes will involve the type of relationships formed with reporters. Because reporters at papers that have undergone cuts will be pressed for time, Schemelia says relationships will be less about "schmoozing" and more about providing value to the reporter.

"There's a lot of emphasis on relationships with reporters, but in some cases, people have lost touch with what it is we're supposed to do, which is manage content," he says. "How we do our jobs will have to change."

Matt Friedman, a partner at Marx Layne & Co., located in the Detroit area, says the city's media environment has seen some serious changes within the past few months, including the sale of the Detroit Free Press to Gannett. One change that he's noticed is the increasing importance of developing relationships not only with reporters, but with editors as well.

"If there are fewer people to have relationships with, then you need to home in on those who are the real decision makers based on your company or client's coverage," Friedman says. "Editors want to hear from us when there's news or an announcement. They don't want to miss a story because they don't have a reporter on a particular beat at a particular time."

If the Knight Ridder sale comes to pass, Friedman adds, there are likely to be additional changes to the chain's papers. "I've never seen a situation where there's an ownership change and the product didn't change along with it somehow," he says.

Brody notes that newsroom cuts will force newspapers to increasingly look to other places for articles. "As newspaper staffs dwindle, we may look to place an even higher premium on getting a good wire service story on a piece of business," he says.

Turning the page

Newspapers are doing their part to cope with the inevitable changes in the industry. Even as the Chicago Tribune cut editorial jobs, it stated a dedication to its online platform by instituting a 24/7 online newsroom. This trend, Borrell's Atwood says, is one that is sure to continue.

"Newspapers are generating some serious revenue growth in online operations," he notes.

But a transition to online news sites is one that will require some work as well, says Hass. "There is an initial credibility [problem] with online information that the information industry really hasn't tackled," he says. "There's no way to measure the value of information online."

And for some PR pros, as well as clients, the value of a printed article is still higher than something that one can read off of a computer screen or PDA.

"There's nothing like having a newspaper story that you can scan, make glossy copies of, and otherwise merchandise and market to other media," says Ogilvy's Brody. "There's no substitute for something in print."

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