MEDIA ROUNDUP: Media shifts focus to report on a changing society

The public remains fascinated by society coverage, but the media's new focus has seen bluebloods and rich family parties take a backseat to career achievers and fundraisers.

The public remains fascinated by society coverage, but the media's new focus has seen bluebloods and rich family parties take a backseat to career achievers and fundraisers.

Although it occasionally feels like a relic of a bygone journalism era, society writing is surprisingly alive and thriving in most major news markets across the country. But what has changed is the definition of society and what constitutes a socialite. Coverage of "old money" families and galas for and by the wealthy is gradually disappearing. Instead, the focus has shifted to charities and benefits, and the people featured by society columnists today are known more for their career achievements than their family connections. "Much of the society I cover is fueled by fundraisers," says Dana Bisbee, columnist for the Boston Herald, adding the people he writes about tend to be business leaders or local television personalities. That's not to say that traditional society is dead. It's just that coverage has been pushed out into the suburbs. "The suburban papers, especially the weeklies, still cover society the same way they did two decades ago," notes Fred Marx, partner with the Detroit-based PR firm Marx Layne & Company. But Marx says the major newspapers now "want diversity, and they want younger couples. It's not the standard AARP crowd. Instead, they're more inclined to write about the people who are doing the actual work for a charity." Seeking out youth Bisbee also notes a change in demographic, saying, "To fill the future void, there's a big, big recruitment going on for younger people. The accent right now is on youth." Bisbee adds, however, that it doesn't extend to one former mainstay of society, the debutante ball. "Because of a lack of girls willing to participate, the debutante cotillions are pretty much dead right now," he says. It's not that the Park Avenue princesses and "ladies who lunch" have completely disappeared. Indeed, in cities such as New York, and in publications like Women's Wear Daily and W, they still get their due. But Mathew Evins, CEO of Evins Communications, notes that writing has evolved somewhat. "It used to be simply coverage of events and who was lunching with whom," he says. "Now it's who was lunching, what they were eating, what dress and shoes they were wearing, what was the handbag. Social columns now encompass the entire social lifestyle." And given that many Americans remain fascinated by how the rich and well-connected live, the leading lights of society can still be counted on to drive trends, especially in fashion. "Certain social columns are key to influence marketing," says Evins. "The Hermes Kelly handbag probably got more play in the social columns than it did on the fashion pages, which made it harder to get." As the concept of society changes, society writing has begun to be blurred together with nightlife coverage, and even gossip and celebrity journalism. Journalists such as Richard Johnson of the New York Post's Page Six, the New York Daily News team of Joanna Rush and George Malloy, Aileen Mehle (Suzy) of Women's Wear Daily, Lloyd Grove and Roxanne Roberts of The Washington Post, and nationally syndicated columnist Liz Smith seem to straddle these various categories with ease, dishing gossip in one paragraph and covering the latest posh society benefit in the next. Susanna Homan, group supervisor at Chicago agency PR21, and writer of the "Susanna's Night Out" column for the Chicago Sun-Times, says, "It isn't so much about family anymore as it is about people who are movers and shakers. And it's not just who can afford to spend $500 a plate for a fundraiser, it's much more inclusive. I cover backstage at concerts or the Grammys, or the scene at the Kentucky Derby." Looking for the local angle Even if it's a national event, Homan says, "I'm definitely looking for an angle that's relevant to Chicago." Indeed that seems to be the tendency of most society writers. Jeff Jubelirer of the Philadelphia-area agency Jubelirer Marketing Communications, says that often times reporters from different suburban newspapers will attend the same society event, yet cover only those people who reside in their community. The result is that society stories about the same event will have a completely different cast of characters. What remains of the national society scene tends to be covered by Women's Wear Daily, W, Town & Country, and a few regional outlets such as Gotham, Ocean Drive, and Avenue. The focus often changes with the time of year, ranging from summer in the Hamptons, winter vacations in Palm Beach and Miami, skiing in Aspen, as well as occasional jaunts to Santa Barbara and La Jolla. "The national media will cover them wherever they go, and the regional media will cover them from a social standpoint if they're either from that market, they have come to that market for an occasion, or they are doing something with someone from that market," explains Evins. Since few of these socialites have, or need, their own publicists, most of the PR aimed at society writers tends to be from venues such as restaurants or nightclubs, or from nonprofits looking to attract the press to their gala or benefit. Given that there are often competing events on the same night, it be- hooves all PR people to reach out to the press as early as possible. "I need more than two weeks notice," says Bisbee. Homan adds that since most journalists are inundated with e-mails, PR professionals should avoid sending complicated e-mails laden with images or other unsolicited attachments. "I love one-page attachments explaining what it is, where it is, and when it is in a simple way that makes sense," she says. "Also, when you use e-mail, either personalize it or include the date for the event in the subject line." Jubelirer says that even though these are society writers, it's important to remember they are reporters competing with other outlets, so you shouldn't invite every society writer to every event. "Everybody wants a scoop," he notes. "They really want to be given the exclusive." While many society writers often bring along their own photographer or carry a camera themselves, most society events should have a photographer on hand anyway. Even if they can't actually attend an event, society writers will often write up a charity event, even if it's only with a picture and caption. But Marx recommends, "They all don't want to use the same pictures, so as a publicist you have to make sure that you're not sending the same shots to different publications." Marx also stresses the need to include how much money was raised at the event in any follow-up calls to the journalists. The future of society journalism Given that many society writers have been bedrocks of their local community for decades, there is the interesting issue of what will happen to society journalism if they ever retire. "Of all the society writers in Las Vegas, I only know one that's under 60," says Gina Yager of Preferred PR. "It's very old- fashioned journalism, and the people they cover are generally older, although they'll still also cover hot new stars." But Evins thinks society journalism will continue to thrive simply because people still aspire to that lifestyle. "It may not be the debutantes and bluebloods anymore," he says. "Instead, it may be the Sean P. Diddy Combses or the Russell Simmonses. Society today is any dinner, any benefit, or any party where influencers, tastemakers, and style arbiters are seen. People will always be interested in that." ----- Where to go Newspapers The New York Times; New York Daily News; New York Post; The Washington Post; The Boston Globe; Boston Herald; Houston Chronicle; Dallas Morning News; Philadelphia Inquirer; Miami Herald; Palm Beach Post; Los Angeles Times; Chicago Sun-Times; Chicago Tribune; The Detroit News; Detroit Free Press; Women's Wear Daily Magazines New York; Washingtonian; Gotham; The Improper Bostonian; Ocean Drive; Avenue; Town & Country; The Shiny Sheet; W; InStyle TV & Radio E!; local morning and evening lifestyle TV programming; community-based radio programming Web;

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