Only 38% of the media believe it's extremely important to be the first to report on a topic, according to the 2011 PRWeek/Porter Novelli Media Content Survey. That has ticked down 6% from 2008 when PRWeek began its annual Media Survey.
Perhaps more insightful is the fact that 42% of those in traditional media outlets (TV, newspapers, radio, wire services), compared to 25% of those in online media (news sites and bloggers), cherish the scoop as “extremely important,” according to the survey, which polled 855 members of the media from a variety of industries.
That's not to say a leaked photo of the latest Apple gadget or another tale of politicians' indiscretions won't draw attention, or that The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal beat reporters don't keep score of each other's scoops. It simply reflects the reality of how information and content moves today, as well as the changing makeup of media. Information now moves in real time, not on 5pm deadlines – and it's harder to be first in real time.
Many bloggers could care less about breaking news (only 12% say it is extremely important). Online news sites also deem it lower priority (33% say it is extremely important).
That those working exclusively in the typically speed-oriented online media – what's more immediate than hitting “publish” in WordPress, or a CMS? – place less importance on being first might seem surprising, but not to their rank and file who spend much of their time curating perfect online cornucopias of their audiences' preferred interests. They endeavor to be first, for certain, but it might be that they are first to notice a video about to go viral, say Nancy Grace's nipple exposure on Dancing with the Stars, or first to connect the dots for their audience on a political speech.
“A lot of online outlets are trying to find the right alchemy between original reporting, enterprise reporting, and curation of stories so that the combination of all three distinct elements of Web reporting create its own narrative point of view,” says Colby Hall, managing editor of online upstart Mediaite, which covers the media industry with a heavy dose of skepticism. “There's a differentiation between a scoop and getting ahead of the story. I would agree that actually breaking news first is valuable, but it's not critical. Getting ahead of the story, sometimes being second to report the story, gives you more time to provide value and context.”
Hall, a former producer for VH1's Best Week Ever, admits the site's stock and trade is dealing in “holy-shit moments,” such as Vice President Joe Biden's accidental (perhaps?) F-bomb into a nearby mike while embracing President Obama prior to a speech on healthcare reform.
“It's not enough to just know the news,” Hall explains.
The Survey Sample
Target audience: The majority of respondents, 73%, characterize their audience as consumer; 16% as b-to-b or trade; and 10% as other.
Experience and age: The median number of years of experience for respondents is 13 years; the median age is 48.
Part of the reason for the diminishing returns of a scoop lies in the fact that “only one person can be first,” says Garance Franke-Ruta, a senior editor at The Atlantic who oversees politics coverage on theatlantic.com. Using the political speech example, she says, “Readers prefer being presented with analysis and takes on aspects of a speech, rather than a broader summary, because the transcript is going to be online or you can rewatch it on video. You want someone to help you think it through.
“My general philosophy,” she adds, “is you have to be first or you have to be different.”
Being different has often come in the form of openly partisan coverage. The popularization of punditry has been used to explain Fox News' meteoric rise as the top-rated cable news station and MSNBC's first overtaking of CNN in the number-two slot in 2009, as well as the popularity of blogs, such as RedState. The losers, it seems, are those that try to maintain that now seemingly quaint notion of journalistic objectivity. At press time, though, recent viewership figures showed CNN gaining on MSNBC.
“It's probably because we're living in more partisan times where some of the divides are deeper than they've been,” says Franke-Ruta. “It's a reflection of our politics, rather than a creator of it, though there is a feedback loop there.”
“Those driving the conversation today are also who people trust,” says Nick Charles, EVP, global director of content for Porter Novelli. “People used to trust Walter Cronkite. Now they trust Jon Stewart, who doesn't even do news – that leaves a big vacuum. Politicians try to fill it, pop culture tries to fill it, and then you have bloggers, too.”
Let's not forget that Stewart's The Daily Show audience figures, though running in a different time slot, outpace cable news leader Fox by a long shot.
“There's a recognition that the day of the scoop is now over,” says Jim Romenesko, who gained notoriety covering the business of media in blog format on Poynter since the early days of 1999. “If you can retweet someone else's scoop, that suffices for a lot of people. It's the real-time nature.”
No one can scoop Twitter. It scoops us all. Moreover, as Franke-Ruta points out, we're already drowning in information sources, so what readers, viewers, or listeners might prefer is a little perspective.
In his own coverage, Romenesko admits he still likes to break a juicy memo. This summer, he announced he would be leaving his full-time role on the Poynter blog to start a new online site. His decision was impacted in part by this shift in how news is reported. “One reason I'm reducing my role is because what I used to do – aggregating – now everyone's doing it on Twitter. It seems that I need to move on to something else.”
While less interested in a news scoop, a growing emphasis on original content shows the blogosphere's maturation. Fifty-five percent of bloggers do not include aggregated content, according to the survey.
“Some bloggers like to be the first ones on announcements of, say, a product,” says Heather Lopez, a prolific mommy blogger and founder of Super Mom Entrepreneur Conference & Expo and the Bloggin' Mamas Conference Cruise. “But they're more interested in building relationships with their community. It doesn't matter if I put up content two hours later than someone else. As long as I put out content that my readers like, they'll read it. They know me, they like me, and they trust me.”
Elise Jones, social media director and blog editor at BabyBites, a support group for New York moms, concurs, saying that “being first” isn't necessarily her priority, but originality is. “Our community comes to us to learn more about parenting topics from a different perspective,” she notes.
For legacy media outlets, such as CNN and the dominant daily papers and their respective websites – The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, et al – as well as local news reporters interviewed by PRWeek, getting there before competitors remains part of their core value proposition. Sixty-eight percent of those in TV and 49% in newspapers agree it's extremely important to be first. These reports might appear as a breaking news banner on NYTimes.com, for example, and later as a paragraph, then a column's worth, before a story is fleshed out for a print edition.
Matthew Daneman, a business reporter and 13-year veteran of the Democrat and Chronicle in Rochester, NY, notes that since online news' advent, “When I get in each morning, one of my first jobs is to make sure nothing major happened overnight that I need to get on the Web tout suite.”
Piling it on
Those working in traditional media outlets, however, continue to be hamstrung by their legacy of old models that no longer work, while simultaneously reinventing themselves. The same enormous payrolls and geographic footprints that allowed these institutions to run investigative series on the goings-on at City Hall or in war zones – and to out-scoop the competition – cannot produce the same margins of profitability their investors came to expect as print ad declines and online models fail to match those profits.
The top three situations affecting the job of those in traditional media in the last year are tightening budgets (37%); increased volume of content to produce (29%); and more responsibilities outside of official duties (18%).
“Media is in survival mode,” says Porter Novelli's Charles.
Sheila Gray, co-anchor for Fox 19 Morning News in the Cincinnati area, used to have two employees who booked talent for the program, which ran 6am to 9am. Now she books her own segments and the show's hours expanded to 4:30am to 10am. If she does a cooking segment, she also must ensure the recipe is posted to the channel's website. Her and the other leading personalities on the program each blog weekly and regularly post updates to their individual Facebook pages. Gray says she enjoys the opportunity to write again, but admits “it's a lot of juggling.”
“We all know that's what we have to do if we want to be in this business,” she says. “We don't complain about it.”
According to the survey, 71% of those in traditional media said they have more work than the prior year.
Veronica Chufo, a health and business reporter with the Daily Press in Newport News, VA, writes three to five news stories a week, but she also sends out breaking news SMS alerts directly to subscribers herself, ensures her stories make it to the mobile-optimized website, and uses Hoot-Suite to push out her articles, as well as those from some of her colleagues, through Twitter and Facebook.
“Sometimes you just don't know what to do first,” she relates. “Do I send a text alert? Do I continue to report this story? How soon do I put it on the website?”
Either way, Chufo says the newspaper values speed. “I try to have it up [online] faster than the next guy, even if that means working through lunch,” she says. “It's a matter of getting up there faster than the neighboring newspaper. Our editors have made it a priority.”
As the economy softens again, many expect more layoffs among traditional media. Thirty-three percent of those working in magazines or newspapers expect more staff reductions this year, according to the survey.
“I've noticed the pace of layoffs seems to have picked up in the last couple of months,” says Romenesko. “As newsrooms get smaller, the workload gets greater for those who survive. There's no promise that it's going to change.”
Yet legacy media continues to be the dominant news source for Americans – online and off. TV is the No. 1 source of news for the country, and although hybrid news sites that rely heavily on aggregation, such as AOL News and Google News, rank in the top 10 in terms of website traffic, legacy news organizations (CNN, The New York Times, The Washington Post) make up two-thirds of the most-trafficked 25 news sites, Pew Research Center points out in its annual State of the News Media report.
“Newspapers are still an important part of the media economy in America – big-city editions still sell hundreds of thousands of Sunday editions,” says Sree Sreenivasan, professor of digital media at Columbia University. “They set the political and business agenda in many communities, if not nationally.”
In Virginia, Chufo points out the role local papers continue to play in their communities where they have survived. When Hurricane Irene shut off locals' TVs, “Our newspaper was still being delivered at their footstep every day telling them where they could get ice for the freezer to preserve their food. We've received a lot of feedback from our readers saying ‘Thank you.'
“Newspapers are still around,” she adds. “We're just trying to find the best ways to deliver content to meet our readers' needs. Not every venture is going to work.” New content models
While everyone recognizes TV's dominance, its share has been steadily falling over the years, though not as quickly as print newspapers, in favor of the Internet. New models of news producing are appearing, from nonprofit investigative organizations to AOL's expansion of the unapologetically low-budget local site network Patch. Not to mention that Huffington Post is nipping on the heels of NYTimes.com in terms of traffic.
The media, too, is reading more online: 95% of those working in online media say they consume most media through online sources; 58% of those working in traditional media say they consume most media through online sources.
The move toward online, combined with the scrap of online startups, has allowed sites such as Politico and Mashable to enter the mainstream lexicon and challenge older players in their respective fields. Mediaite, only two years old, enjoyed a record number of 3 million unique visitors in June, thanks in large part to its popular Twitter feed, says Hall. Josh Marshall, who founded Talking Points Memo in a Starbucks nine years ago, is now a “media mogul,” as Franke-Ruta says, with two bureaus, more than a dozen reporters and editors, not to mention sales staff.
Online sites are attracting the talent away, too. Big names moved to Huffington Post after its cash infusion from AOL, while others hopped ship for The Daily, the first iPad newspaper, which debuted in February 2011.
“It's clearly a more mixed media ecosystem than it was five years ago,” remarks Jim Rainey, the Los Angeles Times' media columnist.
“When I first got into television, we were competing with TV, radio, and newspapers. It was very easy to know who your competitors were,” says Gray. “I don't know if we even know who we're competing with anymore. It's TV, and cable news, newspaper, radio, and the Internet, but they all cross paths because newspaper reporters now have to shoot video and TV reporters write online.”
Since the last PRWeek Media Survey, there has also been a higher adoption of paywalls as legacy media works to defend its turf – and its margins.
“You're going to see more sites trying to charge for content because the ad revenues for print and online will level off or go down,” says Rainey. “The stuff you're going to get for free will continue to diminish in value.”
The decline of the big-budgeted multi-city, multi-country news gathering operation is perhaps equally as mourned as the local news organization.
“Ultimately, you're going to end up with a lot of communities getting anemic coverage if much coverage at all,” predicts the Democrat and Chronicle's Daneman. “I have the same worries about the longevity of my job that probably everyone does.”
Less than half of respondents said their primary goal as a media member is to “educate and inform,” a figure Charles finds dispiriting. “That's very surprising to me. It should be higher,” he says. “Who is watching the government for you? Who will call the President to account? Who will find the corruption? It used to be the media.”
Part of these technological advances, though, will benefit legacy media, which still has more resources than upstarts.
‘Raise' the game
Bloggers learned early on to cultivate audiences in a way traditional media often did not. They are wary of upsetting their audience and spend a good chunk of their day interacting with readers.
“I told myself as soon as I wasn't passionate about it anymore, I was going to stop,” says Jacin Fitzgerald, who runs a relatively popular wedding blog, Lovely Little Details, which enjoys about 3,000 uniques each day. “I love putting things out there and getting feedback from readers. It feels like even if I am touching one person a day, it's cool to have a way to reach out to people. I like to put things together that help people and reassure them.”
That is a far different sentiment than you might get from a newspaper reporter. After all, as Sreenivasan says, “Journalism is a calling. People want to do big, important things.”
Fitzgerald isn't a novice, though, just passionate. She writes all of her posts for the week on Sunday, so that they are prescheduled. She dedicates part of each day to commenting on other blogs and chatting with her fans on Facebook and Twitter. Her full-time job is running her events and wedding consulting business, which draws 65% of its referrals from her blog. Not a bad ROI.
Journalists are not supposed to care about their audience's feelings as Fitzgerald does, but they are learning to embrace digital trends in order to protect their leading role in the information and content business in the face of new rivals.
“It shouldn't be a threat,” says Charles. “[Traditional media] should be motivated to raise its game. Some of these blogs or YouTube pages, they're good, they have a point of view, they can write, and they're well sourced. You have to raise your game to match them.”
Search, Facebook, Twitter, and links from other media, including blogs, are driving traffic to the legacy sites, giving traditional media even more reason to pay attention. Witness The Wall Street Journal's reading app within Facebook, and The New York Times' aggressive blogging and social media format, or its recent collaboration with YouTube for coverage of the tenth anniversary of 9/11.
“Social media is forcing journalists to pay attention to a lot more sources of information,” says Sreenivasan. “It's also helping them build better connections with their audiences.”
Traditional media reacted positively when asked how social media networks impacted their coverage. Fifty-four percent said it has increased their viewers, listeners, or readers, while 39% said it has impacted sourcing. In comparison, 78% of online journalists said it has increased their audience, and 37% see an impact on sourcing.
Franke-Ruta says social media can act as an “amplifier” for legacy media as others link back to them or they try to reach new audiences that might not be arriving through the homepage. “Anyone who is doing valuable original reporting has more power, rather than less,” she says.
Don't be boring
Whether a wedding blog, a general interest newspaper, or a brand looking to break into the news cycle, Hall's comment that “the first rule of media is don't be boring” has more meaning today. Those looking to create a commercially viable journalism must find new ways to support the types of long-form, public serving pieces that are vital to a healthy society. Sometimes that might be a Kindle Single or a metered paywall, but it also means learning more about the audience and engaging them with new types of exciting content and, occasionally, strong opinion.
“There are so many sources of news today that you have to somehow build loyalty because there are so many other sites that people can go to,” summarizes Gray.
The 2011 PRWeek/Porter Novelli Media Content Survey was conducted by PRWeek and CA Walker. Email notification was sent to 83,883 US media professionals with 855 completing the survey online between July 11 and August 2, 2011. Results were not weighted and are statistically tested at a confidence level of 90%. This article offers only a summary of findings. A premium version of the survey is available for purchase at prweekus.com.