Obama snub highlights shift to niche focus

If there was any doubt that print-based media outlets had surrendered a portion of their national news agenda, it dissipated on March 24, during the President of the United States' second press conference.

If there was any doubt that print-based, big-city media outlets had surrendered a significant portion of their national news agenda, it dissipated on March 24, during the President of the United States' second press conference.

During his second prime time press conference, President Barack Obama made it clear that he didn't need once-essential newspapers to reach specific constituencies with his message. During the hour-long question-and-answer session, the president ignored reporters from The New York Times, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, The Wall Street Journal, and USA Today, instead taking queries from Ebony, Spanish-language Univision, military outlet Stars and Stripes, and even right-wing DC daily The Washington Times. Obama also took questions from the Associated Press, Politico, and major broadcast and cable outlets.

In other words, the era of the irreplaceable print newspaper as gatekeeper of public discourse is over.

“I think he was doing two things: First he was sending a symbolic message that he doesn't need the national media as a filter... I think it was a symbolic, ‘Hey guys, we don't need you,'” says Nick Ragone, SVP at Ketchum. “Secondly, it just speaks to the waning influence [of newspapers] in general.”

While Obama has used two press conferences – among the most traditional outreach methods – to communicate with citizens, he's also taken his message beyond traditional media to late night and the Web, becoming the first president to appear on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and in a virtual town hall. By doing so, the White House is demonstrating that it understands what many corporations already know: that it can reach targeted groups of consumers through specialized outlets, adds Howard Opinsky, EVP at Powell Tate and national spokesman for Sen. John McCain's 2000 bid for the presidency.

“I think it would be a misnomer to say that the White House thinks that they can ignore the traditional news outlets, but they won't rely on them exclusively,” he says, adding that prior administrations have reached out to specific magazine segments. “Now you have the same type of narrowness on cable [as in niche magazines], where you can talk to the History Channel or ESPN... and particularly if you want to reach a segment of supporters, it may make more sense to go there.”

Data released by the Pew Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism in February that showed the types of journalists in Washington is an impetus for a niche-focused outreach strategy. While the vast majority of newspapers no longer have DC correspondents, publications such as ClimateWire, Energy Trader, and Food Chemical News do. The report also cited research showing the number of specialty magazines, newsletters, and periodicals in DC has jumped by about one-third from 1985 to 2008, and nearly 20% from 2004 to 2008.

John Hlinko, president and CEO of Grassroots Enterprise, notes that Obama has recognized this shift and displayed a nontraditional and targeted outreach strategy since conducting his first formal interview as president with Dubai-based Al Arabiya.

“I don't know that [not calling on traditional outlets] was meant as a slam, but more as a thing that would energize [readers of]... smaller [outlets], perhaps hit some niche audiences,” he says, adding that the decision to call on Stars and Stripes instead of a general interest title was an example of targeted outreach to members of the Armed Forces. “I think that someone, clearly with a good head on their shoulders, said, ‘Let's show an extra degree of respect for the military.'”

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