The Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism recently released their 2009 State of the News Media report, their annual look at the health and status of American journalism. The report provides a wealth of information for anyone involved with media at any level, most of it not very good — nearly every segment of media, with the exception of online news, saw a shrinking audience and declining ad revenues. More and more newspapers face financial troubles — some of which the report believes may be cyclical rather than structural — and small operations like ethnic media and alternative newsweeklies are being hit especially hard due to their scale. (Although it appears that the supposed impending deaths of a handful of papers may be greatly exaggerated.)
Three news topics — the 2008 elections, the Iraq war and the US economy — accounted for around 55% of the newshole in major mainstream media; the remaining 45% was often devoted to what the report calls “one-week wonders,” hot news topics that generate intensive coverage for a few days, then quickly disappear. The agendas of the news media and their audiences didn’t align completely, either. The News Interest Index shows that, for example, when audiences showed a 66% interest in news on rising gas prices over the summer, stories on gas prices filled only 4% of the newshole.
Worst of all may be the public attitudes towards the media. Generally, a minority of viewers or readers find the majority of TV, cable and print outlets to be credible or believeable. And strangely, while online news viewership grows, fewer than 25% of users find the top 7 sites to be particularly credible. Only Google News and Yahoo! News — both of which are aggregators and don’t do original reporting — were rated as positive on a credibility scale.
There’s a lot more there, and lots of people are going to be discussing what it all means. But one key takeaway is that, with the gatekeepers shrinking, disappearing, and having a reputation for less credibility, it’s more important for companies and groups with stories to tell to make them relevant to everyone, not just to journalists. There will always be writers and editors of some sort who help contextualize and distribute information. But more and more, news seekers are going to be going straight to the sources and making their own decisions about the usefulness and credibility of the news.
What this means for public relations professionals and marketers is (among other things) that content has to be less buried behind corporate-speak and clumsy, made-up quotes; and made more engaging, personal and — you guessed it! — social. And it has to be made available via the channels and outlets people are actually using: Twitter, Facebook, and the growing networks of sites with user-generated content. People talk about and care about your brand, and if you don’t find them and engage with them via their preferred outlets, you risk PR and marketing disasters.