Is Subsidizing the Newspaper Industry a Good Idea?

Charlotte business coach Steve Gatter is on a laudable mission to save journalism.

A mutual friend put Mr. Gatter in touch with me recently to discuss his idea of creating a foundation to raise money to subsidize newspapers. The concept, as I understand it, is to supplement their lack of subscription and advertising revenue with what essentially would be a bailout so that newspapers in need of financial help won’t go under.

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He was inspired by a July 15 editorial from Leonard Pitts Jr., a national opinion columnist with the Miami Herald, titled, “What will we do without newspapers?”

In an email explaining his efforts, Mr. Gatter invited readers to share their thoughts and ideas as to whether newspapers should be financially supported.

No doubt about it, newspapers have taken a huge hit with massive layoffs throughout the nation and many of them going out of business. They have traditionally played an important role in American society, though for quite a few media outlets that role has shifted from reporting to advocating.

Citing a 2018 report that found the U.S. has lost nearly 1,800 newspapers since 2004, Mr. Pitts lamented what he called a “devastating” impact on the coverage of local events.

“Decide quickly,” he warned, “because that future is being born right before our eyes, thanks to shifting economic realities and the rise of social media.”

Note where Mr. Pitts places blame for the industry’s decline: “shifting economic realities” and “the rise of social media.”

This is an excellent example of the type of thinking that has put so many papers in a bind: Playing the victim card and blaming external elements rather than trying to understand why this is happening and finding ways to reverse the trend.

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Instead of asking “What will we do without newspapers?” here are three other questions I think would be much more productive for Mr. Pitts to ponder:

Why are so many people abandoning their local papers?

Is journalism, in its current state, worth saving?

If so, how will providing additional funds improve the situation?

When I was in graduate school, one of my professors made the point that newspapers are first and foremost in business to make a profit.

Markets tend to be efficient, and if a business isn’t meeting a need—or doing so sufficiently to satisfy its customers—chances are that business will simply not survive in the long run.

Blaming others for lack of sales and interest is a sure-fire way to expedite an entity’s extinction.

Perhaps if journalism adapted to the new realities and became more market-driven, the industry wouldn’t be in decline. But that would mean quite a few journalists would have to get to know and understand their readers better.

As a starting point, how about some focus groups to see what readers want from their local paper, and make adjustments to the content and areas of coverage accordingly?

Many journalists and editors also would have to set aside their bias and re-orientate their reporting to inform the public about what actually happened (i.e. the facts), not what they want the public to think about what happened.

The media bias problem extends beyond newspapers, as evidenced by a new study that found a whopping 95% of Americans are “troubled” by the current state of the media, with more than half citing “reports on fake news” as a concern.

  • Wow. Now that’s what I call devastating.

Pollster Frank Luntz points out that the media has the lowest level of credibility in more than half a century–which is when polls first started asking about that issue.

Noting that “judgmental journalists” now include their own political bias in their accounts—especially in their coverage of President Trump—a Washington Times article quotes Mr. Luntz as saying such hostility toward Mr. Trump is “turning people off against the media.”

“That’s not their job. Their job in not to label. Their job in not to condemn or criticize,” Mr. Luntz said. “Their responsibility is to present the language as it is used.”

Mr. Luntz is not the only one noticing this bias. The Times article cited a recent Pew Research Center survey that found “68% of Americans say the press is both politically biased and covers up its mistakes, while 58% said news organizations ‘do not understand people like them.’”

“Gallup, meanwhile, found that 69% of Americans say their trust in the media has fallen in the past decade.”

No wonder so many media outlets are losing readers, listeners and viewers. When reporters no longer have credibility, the game is pretty much over because no amount of money can buy trust.
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Someone has defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result. My concern about giving money to newspapers to ensure they survive, without making some fundamental changes to how they approach their work, would only reward the biased reporting and agenda-driven behavior that causes increasing levels of distrust and disgust among the public.

Today there are numerous online news sources that give readers more choices than ever. Some even specialize in local news, so the idea that local coverage is headed for doom if the community newspaper vanishes is simply not borne out by reality.

I sincerely wish Mr. Gatter well in his efforts to help save America’s newspapers. As a former reporter, I believe they have an important function in informing the public, providing accountability in a democratic society and offering a forum for diverse opinions on the editorial pages.

Unfortunately, so many of them have lost their way and seem unable or unwilling to make the kinds of changes that are needed to respond to market demand and restore trust.

Until those issues are addressed and corrected, I suspect we’ll continue to see newspaper layoffs and closures in the years to come.

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Keeping Your Agency in the News: The Drip, Drip, Drip Approach

My first job in public relations was with an international nonprofit organization. I was blessed to have a terrific mentor, a former newspaper editor who took me under his wing and really helped me understand the news business. He taught me how to think and write like a reporter, and how work with them successfully on stories about our organization.

We had a small staff and typically were overwhelmed with requests and things to do. All too often, we were putting out fires. We did very little proactive media work to generate publicity, except for some of the large events we held.

At the time, my idea of media relations was when the phone rang we answered it, and if it was a reporter calling we did our best to be helpful.

When I went to work for a large PR firm years later, I was immediately introduced to the concept of generating publicity for our clients by coming up with ideas and angles for what would hopefully be positive coverage.

And, by the way, the clients expected ongoing coverage, so we had to be persistent and sometimes creative in coming up with story ideas and new angles.

Consistency is an important part of an effective PR program, and finding ways to keep your agency front and center is vital to a program’s overall success.

  • Think of it as the drip, drip, drip approach to keeping you in the news.

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One of the most galling things for agency principals is to watch from the sidelines as competitors are quoted and featured in the news media. Even worse, agencies that were not part of the story may actually have more experience and expertise than the agency that received the coverage. Of course, the impression people get is that the folks quoted are the cream of the crop in their profession, which may or may not be true.

It’s no accident that some agencies get more ink and air time than others. It’s because they have an intentional, ongoing, strategic effort to get their names in the marketplace, and they have made PR a priority.

With that in mind, here are some publicity topics to help keep your agency in the news:

  • Commentary about marketing trends/current issues
  • Sponsorships
  • Community involvement
  • Events
  • New clients, employees, awards, publications
  • New services, office expansion, etc.
  • Mentoring programs
  • Pro bono work
  • Guest columns in the local paper or business journal
  • Articles in relevant industry publications
  • Human interest stories about employees (unusual hobbies, their community involvement, humanitarian work, etc.)

The effort is worth it. A consistent PR program can help agencies not only get more exposure to important audiences and build their brands, but also compliment their new business efforts.

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Why off-the-Record Conversations Should be off Limits for Agencies

One of the things I stress when doing media training is the importance of not speaking off the record in interviews.

There may be exceptions–such as if you really know and trust the reporter–but generally it’s not a good idea to tell a news media person anything about your agency or clients that you wouldn’t want repeated on radio or TV, in a publication or on the Internet.

Some news media outlets have policies forbidding off-the-record conversations. That’s a good, ethical policy, but unfortunately not all adhere to it.

There are lots of examples of why talking off the record is so risky, but I’ve yet to find one that drives home the point better than this headline titled “India’s nuclear identify unclear.”

Check out the subhead: “‘Off the record, we are totally unprepared’ says one of its top military strategists.”

Off the Record Newspaper Comment

Wow. This subhead makes a pretty clear statement beyond the quote: Don’t trust us because we won’t keep an off-the-record remark confidential. Need I say more?

The best practice is to assume everything an agency spokesperson says in an interview is on the record and may be used.

Understanding the different levels of speaking with reporters is important for PR success in agencies as well as other organizations. A number of years ago, a reporter for The Tennessean newspaper described these levels in a column. They provide helpful guidance to anyone preparing for a media interview:

Off the record:  “To have an off-the-record conversation means that the information will not be used in any way in a story.  Many editors, including mine, don’t allow reporters to have off-the-record conversations.”

On background:  “To have an on-background conversation means that the information may be used in a story, but the person who is talking will not be named in connection with the information that is ‘on background.’”

On the record:  “This is the standard conversation with reporters.  However, reporters should identify themselves as working on an article before beginning an interview…once a statement has been made on the record, it cannot be taken off-record.”

Is Truth Still the Most Important Factor in a News Story?

A number of years ago, the senior editor for our local newspaper authored a column about the paper’s policy for using anonymous sources and its commitment to accurate reporting.

“The most important factor for us in using an anonymous source is that the information given us by the source is true,” she wrote.

“It’s too easy for people to hide behind anonymity, planting information with no accountability. And when you’re not accountable, isn’t it easier to stretch the truth?”

She wrote this column in 2009. A decade later, we’ve witnessed an amazing decline among numerous news media outlets when it comes to accurate reporting and vetting sources. All too many of them are just fine with stretching the truth—or outright misrepresenting it—to advance their agendas.

The latest example is BuzzFeed News’ reporting that Michael Cohen, President Trump’s former attorney, told Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s prosecutors that the president directed Mr. Cohen to lie about a potential Trump Tower deal with Russia.

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A spokesman for Mr. Mueller disputed the lie allegation, hurling BuzzFeed’s “Russian bombshell” report into a fiery grave.

As reported by Reuters: “‘BuzzFeed’s description of specific statements to the Special Counsel’s Office, and characterization of documents and testimony obtained by this office, regarding Michael Cohen’s Congressional testimony are not accurate,’ Peter Carr, a spokesman for Mueller, said in the special counsel’s first comment on a media report since its probe started 20 months ago.”

The Daily Caller noted “CNN and MSNBC collectively used the word ‘impeach’ nearly 200 times on Friday” before the special counsel’s office discredited the BuzzFeed story.

The damage such irresponsible and speculative reporting does to the media’s credibility can hardly be overstated. While there still are a lot of honest, reputable journalists around who care about truth and fairness, the trend is not encouraging.

Sloppy reporting, lack of accountability and the pressure to be first to break a story are all contributing factors in the decline of journalism and its eroding trust among Americans. But surpassing all these is the willingness among an increasing number of reporters and editors to run with stories that have no basis in reality, and to not really be concerned about it because it appears that in their minds the ends justify the means.

Avoid These News Release Mistakes for Agency PR Success

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A common complaint among journalists is the lack of relevance of the materials they receive from corporate communications and PR professionals.

Much of this information, they lament, is written like advertising, not journalism.

As a former reporter and editor, I can attest that is a sure-fired way to have your news release discarded.

Here are 6 key mistakes to avoid when writing a news release:

  1. Crafting a “no news” news release. This is where you’re trying to get your agency or client some media coverage but without a real news hook. It’s better to hold off on issuing a release until you have an appropriate angle to justify contacting a reporter.
  2. Using puffery, vague generalities and exaggerated descriptions of people, events, products or services—followed by lots of exclamation marks!!!!!! Nothing screams amateur quite like that.
  3.  Being verbose. It’s usually harder to write short, concise copy than long copy, but journalism is all about being succinct and to the point.
  4.  Writing about “pseudo” events that are contrived to get attention but have no real news value.
  5.  Presenting statements that are subjective and opinion-based as facts. If you want to include a statement that involves an opinion or judgment, turn it into a quote and attribute the statement to someone.
  6.  Writing like an advertising copywriter instead of a journalist. To be considered credible by the news media, you have to write your release as objectively as possible, emphasizing its news value, connection to a trend or its human interest aspect. Use third-person pronouns and the active rather than passive voice.

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Ad Agencies: Three Ways to Prepare an Inexperienced Leader for Media Interviews

In an age of sound bite communication, companies need articulate spokespeople who are prepared to deal with the unexpected and can deliver clear, concise and consistent messages to a variety of audiences. After all, how well a leader communicates, and the degree of credibility he or she maintains with important audiences, will likely affect your agency’s or your clients’ image for a long time.

Trouble is, leaders who are inexperienced in doing media interviews can easily fall into traps and say something they later regret. They can go off message, start rambling or fidgeting, freeze up when the camera light comes on or give out inaccurate information—any one of which can create a giant headache for the organization.

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Having done media training for 20+ years, here are three ways I’ve found to help prepare inexperienced leaders for interviews, build their confidence and give them the tools they need to be successful:

1. Demystify the news media for them.

I think of this as a “News Media 101” overview of how the media work and the criteria they use to determine a potential story’s news value. For example, leaders need to understand that reporters are looking for high impact stories which will capture attention. They especially like a local angle for a national or regional topic, trend stories, controversy and a contrarian point of view. And they are always looking for articulate, expert commentary on current issues. It’s also important to make sure that inexperienced interviewees have a good handle on the differences they will experience in a print interview vs. a radio interview vs. a TV interview.

2. Have a goal for each interview.

Leaders need to realize that if they don’t control what they say to the news media, the media will control them. They need to have a clear idea of what they want to get across and accomplish with each interview. Stress the importance of preparation because “winging it” can lead to disaster. One of the best ways to prepare is to develop key messages—also known as talking points—to help your leader communicate effectively

Practice asking questions you think the leader could be asked, and then counsel your leader to use the questions to bridge to what he/she wants to talk about (i.e. your interview goal, using the talking points to achieve it). Leaders possess valuable expertise, and in most cases they are going to know much more about the subject matter than the person doing the interview.

3. Teach them how to take control of an interview

This usually doesn’t come naturally, even for leaders who have excellent communications skills. However, it’s vital that interviewees learn the art of taking control of interviews and dealing appropriately with difficult questions. Here are some practical tips to share to make sure your leader stays on point and doesn’t get off in the weeds:

Answer only within the scope of your authority and responsibility.  If you don’t know something, say so—and then offer to get back to the interviewer later with an answer.

Look for opportunities to use transition phrases, such as “The real issue is…” or “What I can tell you about XYZ is . . .” or “What I’m here to discuss today is…” or “What’s important to know about XYZ is….”

Identify ways to turn negatives into positives. For example, in a layoff situation, stress how many jobs were saved by taking this action. It won’t put a happy face on a negative situation, but it can provide the audience with much-needed perspective.

Be aware that your body language often will speak louder than your words. Remember to smile and have energy during the interview. Don’t lose your temper no matter how provocative or loaded a question you are asked.

If you’re on camera, look at the person conducting the interview, not into the camera (unless you are specifically asked to do so).

Avoid industry jargon, and never say “no comment,” which equals guilt in most people’s minds.  If you can’t discuss something, explain why (e.g. confidentiality, proprietary information, pending litigation, timing because you’re still gathering all the facts, etc.).

When you’ve made your point, stop talking. This may be the most important point of all, because more times than not people make their best points in the first sentence or two they give in response to a question. When they elaborate too much and get “off message,” they typically end up in the swamp and say something they later regret.

TV Leaders Interview Tips 26554989678_ff03a10665_n Media training can make the difference between a successful interview and a disastrous one.

With proper coaching, the right messaging and some practice responding to challenging questions, leaders will have the tools they need for a successful interview and the confidence to pull it off.

If the interview is a high profile one, or you have concerns that it may be hostile, or the leader seems to be having difficulty delivering key messages and you sense he/she is not ready for the interview, you may want to consider retaining a media training expert from outside the organization to help.

One final thought: Now days even a local interview in a small market, or an Internet radio interview with a tiny audience, can go viral. Social media has been a game-changer and can broadcast mistakes all over the world instantly. Small doesn’t necessarily mean safe when it comes to interviews, so the best approach is to devote the time and resources needed to make sure leaders doing interviews are prepared, confident and effective.

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For Ad Agency PR Success, Avoid These Mistakes When Writing a News Release

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One of the most important roles of ad agency PR is to disseminate agency news to reporters and bloggers. There are, however, some pitfalls to avoid when seeking publicity, especially when it comes to writing a news release. Here are four mistakes journalists often gripe about when receiving releases from agencies and other sources:

1. Attempting to disguise advertising to make it look like a news story. One of my more memorable academic experiences was the day a college professor returned a paper I submitted with “SJ” at the top instead of a grade. When I asked what SJ meant, he replied “snow job.” Trying to put one over my professor didn’t work in college, and it rarely, if ever, works with reporters. A news release needs to be about news, and it should be written objectively using Associated Press style. Write the release with third-person pronouns and the active rather than passive voice (e.g. John shot Mary, not Mary was shot by John).

2. Stating things that are subjective and opinion-based as facts. If you want to include a statement that involves an opinion or judgment, turn it into a quote and attribute the statement to someone. Otherwise, stick to the facts and let them stand on their own merit.

3. Using puffery and exaggerated descriptions of people, events, products or servicesfollowed by lots of exclamation marks!!!!!! Nothing screams amateur quite like that. Ditto for platitudes and vague generalities. Be as concise as possible. Mark Twain said he would have written a shorter letter, but he didn’t have time to do so. It usually takes longer to write short, concise copy than long copy, but journalism is all about being succinct and to the point. Don’t fall in Twain’s trap; less is more in a news release.

4. Failing to be relevant to a reporter’s area of coverage. You may have some great news to share, but if you haven’t invested the time to understand a reporter’s beat, audience and interests, you may very well reach the wrong person. There are times when a considerate reporter will email you back and say that he/she has forwarded your release to someone else who might be interested, but don’t count on that happening. It’s far better to take the time to make sure you reach the right person the first time.

If you learn to think and write like a journalist, and understand their criteria for judging the value of news, you’ll have a much easier time getting them to pay attention to your releases and take you seriously as a useful source. And that will improve your chances of getting publicity for your agency and your firm’s clients.

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