Digital Essays: Ruder Finn Interactive - The new face of journalism

Far from being overshadowed by new media, traditional news outlets are thriving, so it is important to understand the difference between a journalist with web responsibilities, and dedicated online reporters.

Last year, Ruder Finn hosted a roundtable with the Foreign Press Association in London to discuss digital media. I was surprised by the tenor of the dialogue: enthusiasm and wonder tempered with suspicion.

The 12 journalists present reported heavier workloads due to the quantity of online research available, an increase in correspondence from readers via email, and the addition of online writing responsibilities. They also reported a great deal of competition from 'citizen journalists', bloggers and freelancers, and complained that readers' attention span was dwindling.

To illustrate his readers' changing media consumption habits, a Russian journalist described his children's behaviour at a recent football match. He was shocked by their inability to sit still. 'They just want the highlights,' he grumbled.

Tremendous new pressure and uncertainty present opportunities for PROs. Journalists from traditional media outlets are relying more than ever on credible source material that can be repurposed or syndicated in a digital format. Of course, not all content makes the grade, but PROs can increase their chances of coverage through greater creativity, more insightful measurement strategies, and an awareness of what is interesting to particular journalists and their readers.

It is essential to understand the differences between traditional journalists with online responsibilities and 'online journalists'. The latter are essentially bloggers, discussion group moderators, webmasters and well-connected individuals on social networking sites.

Both types of journalist are influential, but their needs are different. Traditional journalists are trained professionals with accountable ties to a media organisation. Online journalists range from the novice to the expert, who answer to no editorial agenda and are enticed by tech-savvy content. Few bloggers will be stirred to action by a press release, for instance. All the forces of creativity must be brought to bear to build buzz and create scoops for social networks, community sites, blogs and user forums.

Delivering messages effectively requires PR consultancies to develop a broader network of contacts with traditional and online influencers, while content must be created with different media and cross-channel syndication in mind.

Perhaps most importantly, a successful online campaign will have a sound methodology for assessing its target audience. More than a Google search, this process should identify influencers, monitor their needs and attitudes, and foster a network of relationships that can be put to good use in the event of breaking news or a crisis.

A client contacted me recently with a daunting assignment. 'We have no news, but we want media coverage of our topic,' she declared. 'And it has to be non-branded.'

Armed only with a dry press release, our creative team began developing content ideas with the help of online analysis, which had identified a number of high-traffic, reputable sites relevant to our target audience. We contacted these, offering syndication of a variety of content, from video and Flash animation to imagery and podcasts.

We achieved 15 placements in three weeks, and the strategy helped us establish relationships with influencers we would have previously considered risky. The work demonstrated how an understanding of different journalists' needs can help deliver highly successful campaigns.

Looking back to the roundtable, another complaint was that the web could render traditional journalism obsolete. But journalists need not despair. Research indicates that the growth of new media is driving reader consumption of the source for most online news - traditional media.

As illustrated by the reporting of the 7 July bombings in London two years ago, the emergence of the new media has not rendered traditional journalism obsolete. Pictures taken by members of the public on a mobile phone were syndicated to every major news outlet, which built the story around an interpretation of events and the opinions of experts and leader writers. The internet provided further editorial interpretation, discussion and continuous updates, and allowed the public to submit their stories and air their views.

PR consultancies that understand this complex media interaction and the new needs of journalists will succeed in developing campaigns that target the entire media universe.

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