Mainstream journalism is in free-fall—or so the headlines warn us. Months after Gallup reported another historic drop in Americans’ trust in traditional mass media, questions about the legacy media’s resonance and longevity continue to stir a cryptic pot of speculation. Just last month, reports on Edelman’s 2022 Trust Barometer noted that 67% of people worldwide believe journalists are deliberately misleading their readers, while Politico put a finer point on the nihilism that surrounds the industry by asking experts point-blank: “Is the Media Doomed?”
Wherever you perceive the trajectory of journalism to be trending—to new heights, to “doom,” or somewhere in between—there’s no doubt that a major shift is taking place. For the 2020s and beyond, the landscape of journalism is poised to look and feel very different than readers and media/PR professionals like myself have, by and large, been used to seeing: more independent, more freelanced, and less reliant on the waning prestige of legacy media publications, companies, and TV channels to achieve popularity among a wide readership.
Of course, the late 2010s and early twenties have already given us a window into this phenomenon. Legacy media journalists like The New York Times’s Bari Weiss, for instance, have shed their corporate publication affiliations and found new, independent homes on Substack or in podcasts. Libby Watson quit The New Republic to critique US healthcare issues on her own terms with Sick Note, while The Hill’s Rising co-hosts Krystal Ball and Saagar Enjeti took their popular left-right dialogue format out onto their own independent platform, to great success. Prominent tech writer Casey Newton ended seven years with The Verge to found the independent publication Platformer. And NBC alum Megyn Kelly returned to the spotlight with a long-form podcast, YouTube, and Sirius XM editorial presence, creating her own independent media company, Devil May Care Media.
The examples roll on across industries, topics, and interests (don’t even get me started on the independent food writers space—looking at you, Alison Roman), but these all cohere around one, abiding theme: decentralization. Journalism has always had freelancers and independent writers, but this movement towards true à-la-carte media consumption, where consumers curate their own niche assortment of online journalists and personalities that they trust and follow apart from the mainstream publications, is new—and it may very well be the future of the industry.
For PR professionals, the task at hand is to scrutinize these changes in the media landscape and find a way to converse within and through them. Those who lose that dynamism and mistake this shift as a fluke or a passing fad may ultimately find themselves, and their clients, left behind—shut out of conversations with the sources and journalists that audiences actually read and actually trust.
As breakaways from the traditional media outlets become more and more popular and noteworthy, finding ways to pitch and form relationships with these independent journalists and platforms presents a fresh challenge. While we’re all still learning how to navigate this new environment, several key pointers are worth bearing in mind moving forward:
Colloquial Creativity – Making a good first impression is always key, but establishing a point of contact in this new landscape may require more creative, outside-the-box thinking. Thankfully, most PR folks have advanced leaps and bounds beyond the stodgy and overly-formalized email pitch templates inherited from the 90s (replete with ample boldface type, paragraphs—upon paragraphs—of prose, and repetitions of the journalist’s first name in direct address to convey “warmth”). But trimming down emails and dropping the smarmy salesman persona is just one piece of the puzzle.
In lieu of an institutional publishing or news organization network, many of these independent journalists build their thought communities on Twitter or other social platforms. Sliding into DMs, following and reposting online discussions among them and their peers, or—better yet—commenting publicly (and frequently) with informal food-for-thought or a compelling angle is more likely to get you noticed than an email sent to the “Contact Me” address on their website.
Anticipating Rejection, And Trying Again – A recurring theme among many of the more popular independent journalists of late is that they “got out” from under the old media model to shove off corporate interests, onerous story/topic requirements, and editorial oversight and mandates they ultimately didn’t agree with. Having been extricated from those expectations, they now feel much freer—and as such are under no compulsion to give voice to a client or special interest they have no personal affinity for, no matter how “reputable” or “important” they may be.
Proving to these journalists not only that your client is “relevant,” but also compatible with their more values-driven reporting will be no easy task and will likely result in more misses than hits in the future. Persistence, coupled with careful attention to building bridges between the values of both the journalist and your client, will prove critical to getting your client’s story told on these platforms. Given that these reporters are also freed from their remit to report on, say, the largest and flashiest companies, the placement landscape is now more democratized and, ostensibly, amenable to anyone who proves they can craft a great, classic story.
Risk (Re)Assessment – Part and parcel with the “values-driven” point above, you may also find the new journalistic landscape will force new—and potentially uncomfortable—conversations with clients about how they evaluate risk, reward, and success. While robust reputation management is paramount in any PR team’s mind, getting clients’ stories told in the independent spaces that matter may require a higher tolerance for vulnerability, candor, and openness with journalists than has been previously encouraged. Canned, vanilla PR lingo extolling safe and noncommittal platitudes simply will not suffice in this environment (and never did much to elevate our industry’s respectability to begin with).
To get noticed and join the conversation, clients will have to volunteer clear opinions that can’t be so easily equivocated and neutralized. In this context, true “thought leadership” will require earnest, well-articulated perspectives that offer something new and compelling. The result is potentially higher risk, but the possibility of greater trust and interest generated with the journalist and their audience.
Deeper Connections with the Client – Ultimately, discerning the right path forward for your client in this independent environment will mean going the extra mile to truly understand them inside and out—their strengths, weaknesses, dreams, and fears. Discerning exactly who your client is and what their ideal audience looks like will be fundamental to securing successful opportunities and strong placements. Tailoring a story to the right audience, while always a core function of the PR business, will matter even more moving forward as audiences eschew the passive publication “of record” to actively choose their own unique rosters of journalists and favorite platforms. Knowing the right “fit” starts with knowing your client fully.
On a related note, many PR professionals will recall a still-recent period (c. 2005-2010) when our clients wondered aloud about the true reach and impact of digital—in other words, if an online story really carried the same weight as a traditional print story. While many felt the digital version was clearly inferior, today we know that’s rarely the case. The PR industry may experience the same learning curve with our clients as we approach these new models. Let’s hope we can bend the curve.
Though it’s still in its infancy, the new journalistic landscape has the potential to catch our profession by surprise if we don’t prepare for it. Yet it also has the potential to invigorate this industry with a new and exciting challenge—one that leads to more dynamic storytelling that captivates readers and draws the very best out of our clients. Time to get to work!
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