Neil Martinson: The news release is not dead but how we tell stories must change

The medium is the message. Written almost fifty years ago it was remarkably prescient about what was to become the web. Marshall McLuhan suggested that the medium itself affects our understanding of the content and has a social effect.

Neil Martinson: the medium is the message
Neil Martinson: the medium is the message

I was reminded of his phrase whilst reading some interesting data on the internet produced by the estimable Enders Analysis. On average internet users spend 45 minutes a day online, of which they spend 29 minutes a day streaming video. That’s two-thirds of their time watching video and no more than 15 minutes a day reading copy online.

Now consider how much time people spend looking at newspapers online. The daily dwell times vary significantly, and there may be some questions about the validity of the data, but it varies between 5 and 20 minutes a day. Finally, on average we spend 34 minutes a day reading newspapers.

What does this tell us about communications activity and behaviours? Words alone may not be enough to get our messages across. The discipline of developing a story with a broadcast angle is now truly about moving images and sound for almost everything we do and it is about how media work together to meet our objectives. The difference is that there may not always be an intermediary (editor) who decides what goes on air or not and that we may work with our end users to create the content. We should, though, resist the temptations of online vanity publishing.

The amount of information we digest through reading a newspaper, and its potential for analysis and reflection, is very different to a few minutes spent grazing news websites. The emotional power of a first-hand straight to camera piece can be far more engaging than a two-par quote in print if we reach the right audiences. The power comes from the media working together.

The red button or the mouse click, allow us to make very different choices because we have more control compared to that of buying a print newspaper or magazine. The fact of purchase is a clear statement of value and the decision of The Times and Sunday Times to charge for online content should be seen in that context.

Web zealots are missing the point in their arguments that all online content has to be free. The move by the Times cannot be seen in isolation from its Times+ initiative. It is refining its value proposition offline and online to build brand loyalty – 'You read the Times because you have certain values that are reflected in our products'. That should be welcomed by the PR industry because it means that consumers should associate a greater value to stories that appear in The Times.

It may be easier to get PR-produced content online, partly because there are no space restrictions, partly through decreasing editorial resources. But we cannot be certain that content is seen as having the same value or as much value in spaces differentiated by brands (BBC v Anon Blogger) or the nature of the content (unmediated v mediated).

For all the talk about the web revolution most stories still follow a fairly traditional news cycle. National print newspapers still retain the most extraordinary power to set agendas and, as yet, there is little sign of that shifting online to a great extent. The reason is simple - it’s about us as tactile beings. Print is a physical product, it feels more substantial than an online blog. You can hold it, feel it and easily show it to someone else.

Of course the well worn cliché that today’s news is tomorrow’s chip paper is no longer true. Our heroes and zeroes can now be immortalised courtesy of the web and their past claims to fame and infamy forever searchable.

What has changed is the ability of citizens to explore, interact and deep dive on the issues that matter to them. The news release is not dead but how we tell stories has to change. That means changing our internal structures and replicating multi-media news organisations where content production is integrated. Start with the story, think about context and develop content that adds value and is relevant to your audiences and channels.

Neil Martinson is director of news and PR at the Central Office of Information


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