FILL THE GAP: Will PR plug the holes in our news media?

Prepared for delivery at the 2015 Public Relations Institute of New Zealand “Mind the Gap” Conference in Wellington 21 May 2015

Gaps can be many things: opportunities, openings, unfinished business, omissions, insufficiences…and something through which you can fall. Whatever the definition, gaps attract us. Have you ever had that fleeting moment of madness when you want to put your foot into the space between platform and train in spite of the warning to Mind the Gap?

There is a sense that gaps are transitory states, things that come and go. When we see a gap we wish to see it filled. It can be a disturbing state of affairs – something that should not be there, something that signals difficulty and even danger, something to be avoided. You, however, need to confront gaps – identify, exploit or close them. And over the next two days you’ll discover, explore and fill many gaps. Among those gaps will be the spaces created by fundamental changes in the news media landscape and I want to explore that landscape with you.

I’ll skate over the reduction in newsroom numbers that have occurred over the past 20 years. I was in the unfortunate vanguard of that movement when I was editor of The New Zealand Herald. After a short honeymoon period I was forced to announce 40 redundancies. It was, without a shadow of doubt, the worst moment in my journalistic career. It was followed by smaller rounds of cuts on my watch and continued long after I retired as editor-in-chief. My counterparts in other media organisations were similarly faced with diminishing newsroom numbers.

We were not, of course, alone. Similar scenarios were being played out across the Englishspeaking world and beyond. In the United States, for example, the total number of people employed in the newspaper industry is now well below the level immediately after the Second World War. You may find that undisturbing,  given the manning levels before computerisation, but time tells a different story and this picture is symbolic of what happened across the Englishspeaking world.

USNEWSJOBS

Source: US Bureau of Labor Statistics

The similarities spill over into the sad story of newspaper circulations and I fear that this will be repeated with television as on-demand video streaming gains ground. It appears to be happening already in the United States. Inevitably declining audiences affect revenue and that, too, is felt here as much as anywhere else. Don’t be too relieved by the rocketing interactive revenue.  Much of that lies outside the mainstream media and, indeed, outside news media of any sort.

Newspaper Circulation 2000-2011

circs

New Zealand Advertising Revenue

nzadrev

Source: Advertising Standards Authority

Let’s look at those strategies and let’s begin with Fairfax. Although off a small base, its digital revenue is growing fast and it has consolidated its position as the top news website. It sits at fifth on the list of most visited sites in New Zealand. It isn’t surprising therefore that Fairfax New Zealand has embarked on a digital first strategy to consolidate this lead over other news media. It has invested in integrated digital newsrooms in Wellington and Auckland and has recently moved to a new Adobe CQ multimedia content management system. It is also negotiating significant changes to its New Zealand organisational structure, with a move away from masthead-based management to regional units feeding into both national and local systems. So the first strategy we can flag is “Digital First”.

NZME, formerly APN New Zealand, is publisher of a number of newspapers including The New Zealand Herald and owner of The Radio Network whose flagship is NewstalkZB. Its strategy diverges from that of Fairfax, principally because of itrs radio assets. Its parent, Sydney-based APN, sees radio as the growth industry.

Net Ratings 2014-2015

webratings

Source: Nielsen online ratings

Newspapers, if not a sunset industry, are seen as shining less bright each year. Already we have seen significant cross-promotion of radio in the Herald, with radio hosts popping up as columnists. The most significant strategy, however, will be the move later this year to premises that will include an integrated newsroom that will consolidate the journalistic efforts of newspaper, radio and online journalists. While it says it will have journalists dedicated to an individual medium, in the middle will be a multitasking core that is all things to all NZME outlets. And I suspect that the number of specialists will decline over time so that eventually all journalists in that newsroom will work across all platforms. They won’t be able to describe themselves as Herald journalists. Will it be an excuse to squeeze even more out of the operation? I hope not. So the second strategy we can flag is “Newsroom integration”.

The television and radio newsrooms of Mediaworks have also been integrated and the new Paul Henry Show is an example of that inegration in action. However, Mediaworks, under the control of former NZX chief, Mark Weldon, and reality television maven, Julie Christie, has also developed an overtly entertainment-oriented strategy that sees news and current affairs only as potential rating gains or failures. As MediaWorks board chairman Rod McGeoch was quoted as saying: “We put news on, but only because it rates.” So we have a third strategy: Ratings rule.

Sky Television – which has barbarians at the gate in the form of Netflix, Lightbox and so on – has embarked on a strategy that eliminates costly, marginal operations. It has leased out the Prime News: First at 5.30 time slot to TV3. Its strategy: Get out of the news production business (and limit itself to foreign satellite feeds).

So far, the news organisations I have canvassed have one thing in common: They are all commercial companies mandated to return profits to investors. And in every case those investors include a significant holding by investment companies and private equity funds. Their sole purpose is to maximise returns and we can chalk that up as an over-riding strategy.

Finance companies’ media stakes

Finownership

Source: JMAD New Zealand Media Ownership report 2014

On the magazine front, Bauer Media has followed its purchase of ACP in Australia – a stable of 60 titles, many of which span the Tasman – with the purchase of most of APN’s New Zealand stable. That has given it an unassailable hold on both women’s magazines and current affairs magazines in New Zealand. In Australia, the takeover led to the closure of some titles. We have yet to see that happen here but I would not rule it out. The magazine strategy then is “consolidate market share”.

What of state-owned media? Television New Zealand has made a strong move into its own on-demand video, after a disastrous experience with Igloo. It clearly sees a future in which traditional push-technology – scheduled television broadcasts – will be supplanted by viewer-driven selection and display on a range of increasingly portable devices. It is, of course, faced with the emerging competition from digital download services such as Netflix so has little choice but to embark on a matching strategy: Enter the on-demand market.

Radio New Zealand for too long neglected its digital strategy but chief executive Paul Thompson is in a fast game of catch-up with redesigned web pages, a site for younger people and an agreement to joint the digital  radio platform iHeartRadio. We may be seeing the embryonic beginnings of a strategy to replace broadcast radio as the number of radio sets declines and mobile reception rockets.

Maori Television, under a new chief executive Paora Maxwell, has turned inward to serve a Maori audience and Julian Wilcox and Carol Hirschfeld – who also saw the channel embracing a more general audience – have gone. I would see this new strategy as a form of narrowcasting. It may meet the mandate as Maori Television sees it but the potential audience has contracted.

Finally, a strategy adopted by a web-only entity is worth mentioning. Scoop – which carries a mix of media releases and news from its own staff and contributors – has announced a novel form of paywall which it hopes will make ends meet. It is novel in that, if you use it for private purposes it is free but if you are a commercial enterprise regularly accessing it, you pay on a scale related to number of staff. We’ll have to wait to see how it works. National Business Review, of course, has operated behind a paywall for some time but I think we can see that as a special case. Financial newspapers can justify charges to a specialist audience. The Wall Street Journal does it very successfully. So, too, does the New York Times [I’ll talk a little later about another move by the New York Times that may be highly significant]. The Times now has something like 900,000 digital subscribers. However, we are still waiting for NZME to launch is muchtalked- about New York Times-style metered paywall on nzherald.co.nz. There is something of a Mexican standoff with Fairfax NZ, which has so far failed to follow its Australian metropolitan titles by introducing paywalls on its New Zealand titles. Who will blink first? I don’t know.

Let’s list those strategies again

• “Digital First”

• “Newsroom integration”

• “Let ratings rule”

• “Abandon news”

• “Put profit first”

• “Consolidate market share”

• “On-demand”

• “Transition to digital”

• “Narrowcasting”

• “Paywalls” (?)

We shouldn’t see these strategies as mutually exclusive to the organisations that I have mentioned. in fact, to one degree or another all of them are implementing most of these approaches.

Collectively they will have significant effects on news and other editorial content. If you look at these strategies you have to say they do not give the impression we are standing on the brink of a New Golden Age of Journalism. Immediacy, brevity, popularism and profit will be the driving forces and – while they will privilege delivery via mobiles and tablets in particular – we will see creeping anorexia affect print, broadcast and even what I might call transitional digital formats like PC-based websites.

By anorexia, I mean that the resources applied to traditional media will continue to diminish and, increasingly, preference will be given to delivery on smartphones. Michael Miller, the CEO of APN News & Media was quoted this week in the Australian Financial Review: “Where previously news was an at-home experience (e.g. morning newspaper readership, evening news broadcast) news digestion is now an out-ofhome and instant expereinec”. He pointed to mobiles, wearables, public venue screens, and in-store/office narrowcasting as the means by which it will be delievered.

All this will cater for the emerging mantra:

• I want it now,

• I want to read what I want

• I want it integrated into my social media

• I want it short

• …oh, and I don’t have time for boring shit.

You may define “boring shit” any way you wish but it is likely to be anything that ISN’T show business, scandal, sport, sex and serious crime. And we have evidence of that every day in the deeply depressing “Most Popular” lists on Stuff and the Herald websites.

The public relations industry is already confronted by the challenges that arise from these tectonic shifts that have opened fissures in the media landscape. How well is it coping with those growing gaps? How closely are its actions aligned with the strategies now being rolled out by the media companies? But, more fundamentally, does it care about mainstream media now that it can reach out directly to audiences through an expanding range of digital services? I really need to deal with that question first because if the answer is “no”, none of the rest matters.

Walter Lippmann, one of the greatest journalists of the 20th century, coined the phrase “the manufacturing of consent”. In other words, the formation of collective public opinion on what is being done on the public’s behalf. At the centre of this process was the Press – the vehicle through which very large numbers of people could be reached and provided with the same information. It was the link between policymakers and citizens. He set out his views in a book called “Public Opinion”.

We still have the ability to reach masses of people through mass media. We do not, in spite of the fact that Facebook has 1.44 billion active users worldwide, have the same capability through digital communication outside that fed by mainstream media. Of course social media is a wonderful tool for reaching targeted individuals and groups. However, social media is a fragmented form of communication. That statistic – 1.44 billion active users in the first quarter of this year – is misleading. Not one piece of information (and I even include Facebook disclosures of changes to privacy settings), not one piece of information is shared by all 1.44 billion people. The average number of Facebook friends is 338. Half of its users have fewer than 200 ‘friends’ . The most shared item on Facebook last year was passed on by a little over 3 million users (a free popcorn cartoon).

Of course, YouTube beats Facebook hands-down on sharing. Its most popular item last year was shared 111 million times (now more than 140 million). You probably saw it: a dog dressed as a giant mutant spider. Is this really important stuff? No, I don’t think so. And we are talking here about worldwide distribution. Social media communication across groups in New Zealand is tiny by comparison.

In contrast, the multiple sources produced by mainstream media in this country attract large audiences. Stuff.co.nz ranks fifth among the top websites in New Zealand (and the only news site in the top half dozen) with a unique monthly audience of 1.8 million. The daily combined print and digital readership of the New Zealand Herald is 838,000.

In short, you can’t afford to ignore them. So the answer to the question whether you have to care about mainstream media is “yes”.

So, let’s move on. There are significant gaps in the ranks of journalists and gaps in the range of subjects to which they are allowed to devote time. They have less time to spend on stories. A senior political journalist told me a couple of weeks ago, while I was researching a chapter for a book, that the Internet has created a weakness – which applies to news media generally – because coverage is increasingly being driven by a 24-hour news cycle and a need to constantly supply and update Internet news sites.

Feeding the Internet is now such a priority (and made more so by online editors becoming a new layer of authority in the newsroom) that there is little time for investigative or in-depth research and analysis. This from a journalist whose stock-in-trade is just that – in-depth research and analysis.

There is little doubt that public relations professionals are helping to fill some of the gaps created by these factors. We’ve known for more than a decade that as much as half the content of a newspaper or news bulletin can be traced back to media releases or other PR activity. I haven’t seen any recent statistics for New Zealand but I’m sure it hasn’t significantly dropped.

What may have increased is the frequency with which this material is published with little change. Is it possible that time and resource constraints have reduced not only in-house editorial production but also the filtering processes that previously evaluated and augmented the material produced by PR professionals?

If so, one of the hidden gaps that you may have to negotiate is an ethical one. If the checks and balances that have been applied by news media are in any way weakened, does this impose on you added ethical burdens. PRINZ has a code of ethics that includes provisions on honesty, fairness and independence that are designed to promote ethical behaviour toward the public as well as your clients. In your roles as advocates you are enjoined to “provide a voice for the ideas, facts and viewpoints of those we represent to aid informed public debate”.

You have been able to rely on journalists to, for example, provide balancing arguments against your own or added facts that didn’t quite fit your framework. If that doesn’t happen, do you have an added duty of care NOT to take advantage of that situation and exploit the weaknesses? Does it require you to acknowledge alternative points or provide contextualising background? Does it, in other words, require you to take on some of the tasks that, in the past, you could legitimately assume was the work of journalists employed by mainstream media?

The rise of paid content or native advertising – something that I believe currently has insufficient transparency and which is in danger of leaving readers feeling duped – adds to this ethical burden. Financial weakness is what has led newspapers in particular to embrace this disguised form of advertising. I’m sure some of you have produced material of this sort.

How many of you have asked yourselves whether you have a responsibility to the audience to leave them in no doubt of the basis on which what they are reading has been published? Is an arguably disassociated strap saying “Paid content in conjunction with…” sufficient? You may well think it is, but it is an example of the ethical gaps that are opening and which you need to consider.

And, like the journalists on mainstream media whose work is being squeezed into smaller, more mobile parcels, you will need to consider the ethical – and professional – constraints that are imposed by brevity. Pushed to extremes: Can you be accurate and truthful in 140 characters?  If Hamlet was on Twitter, this is as far as he would get in his soliloquy:

To be, or not to be- that is the question: Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune Or to take a[rms against a sea of troubles, And by opposing end them. To die- to sleep- No more; and by a sleep to say we end The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks That flesh is heir to. Tic a consummation Devoutly to be wish’d. To die- to sleep. To sleep- perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub! For in that sleep of death what dreams may come When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, Must give us pause. There’s the respect That makes calamity of so long life…]

I raise these ethical issues as questions for you to consider, not as pronouncements or obligations. They simply represent some of the emerging gaps that you should consider.

But let me now turn to some more pragmatic gaps that the strategies may expose.

Let’s roll “digital first” and “newsroom integration” into a single initiative – because basically they are very closely aligned. Has the PR industry similarly reorganised its resources and outputs to serve a fastmoving, multi-media environment? Do its media releases have short-form versions with audio and video in formats suitable for both web and mobile applications, alongside an alternative long-form version — the traditional press release with text and still images? Come the end of the year, will you provide the NZME newsroom with text and graphics for the print and online versions of the Herald and audio for NewstalkZB?

I said I would come back to the New York Times. Last week it announced a deal under which it will post stories directly on Facebook, rather that waiting for people to post links to its stories. National Geographic has reached a similar agreement and so has the Washington Post, which is now owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

The Facebook solution for newspapers and magazines is an emerging strategy. It appears to be a way in which publications can share significantly in advertising revenue that is built around their material and which until now has gone to Facebook, Google and the like. It may yet loom very large in their futures. It will be as multi-media as a “Harry Potter” newspaper – text, audio, images that turn to video and panoramas. Are you in a position to provide all of the elements for that sort of story presentation?

Another practical consideration: Is there a gap in your thinking about deadlines? Journalists are being forced to think 24/7, to continually update and refresh their digital news services. Has your concept of deadlines kept pace with that?

Will the PR industry find ways in which to cope with a ratings-driven approach to news values? The metadata available on digital media tells an editor or publisher what is being viewed at any point in time – with the temptation to pander to it. If a body falling out of a hearse gets a lot of ‘hits’, let’s have more bodies falling out of hearses. If a 7pm current affairs programme doesn’t rate like its entertainment-driven competitor, let’s entertain instead. We are already seeing aspects of the ratings-driven strategy being played out.

The problem is that this will limit the range of material presented to an audience. We have already seen what I might call civic content relegated and removed. Important issues have been dealt with as bullet points that leave no room for nuance or explanation. Or they have been ‘personalised’ to a point where who is saying it is more important than what is being said.

In that sort of environment, will you and your clients be able to engage with a media outlet on matters that fall outside a ratings-driven ‘news recipe’? Do you resort to gimmicks? Do you pay personalities to provide the necessary attention-getting component? Or do you resort to other avenues of communication and lose out on that critical mass that mainstream media can deliver?

There is an alternative. Oases of good journalism survive in mainstream media. We see them, usually buried deep in that desert of show business, scandal, sport, sex and serious crime. I call them that because you can’t have an oasis without a desert. Yet they are there. These are in-depth stories that engage readers on subjects that matter. We see business stories about how an enterprise succeeds rather than fails. We are given detail and considered analysis.

The question remains: why are these worthwhile exceptions rather than everyday, prominent elements of our news and current affairs menu?

There is a two-fold answer. The content strategies being employed by mainstream media suggest an air of desperation as they struggle to replace revenue and audience lost to the digital world. In the absence of a financially secure business model, they employ a lowest-common denominator approach in the belief that this is where the largest potential audiences lie.

The second part of the answer lies in the fact that the New Zealand public is monumentally complacent when it comes to media. You may think the campaign on behalf of Campbell Live gives the lie to that claim but I suggest to you that those who have shown their support for that programme were the converted and were mobilised by well-intentioned politically active organisers. The rest sat back and watched Shortland St or Seven Sharp or Netflix or YouTube.

My rather-too-long experience in the media tells me that the vast majority don’t think it is important enough to get worked up about.

Around AD100 the Roman satirical poet Juvenal coined the phrase “bread and circuses” to describe how to keep the population content. It sounded cynical then and it sounds cynical today but we might analyse some of the motivation that made it a successful ploy.

It played to the self-interest of Roman citizens who above all wanted to be well-fed and happy. The poor received a grain dole and were kept happy at the circus because it offered show business (it was spectacular), scandal (when the crowd’s thumbs went the wrong way), sport (lots of gladiators and chariot races), sex (lots of nudity and male and female gladiators) and serious crime (if you happened to be a Christian or on the losing side).

Our media companies increasingly provide the circuses but the bread ration is running low. As well as being entertained, people need information that helps them live their lives. There will be opportunities to help fill these gaps in information. You should think about the ways in which information you wish to impart can be couched in these terms.

First, however, you may need collectively to encourage the media to metaphorically bake more bread and to leave space on the shelves for loaves that other bakers – people like you – can deliver.

I come back to that concept of self-interest. If it is in the interests of the public to have certain information, it is in the interests of the media to provide it.

How do you encourage media to re-think the menu? You might start by opening discussions either directly with media organisations or though collective bodies like the Media Freedom Committee on which the editors of all major mainstream media are represented.

Having enough of that figurative bread on the table is in your interests, your clients’ interests, the media’s interests and, most important of all, in the public interest.

It is too easy to be pessimistic about the future of mainstream media. Personally I think there will always be people and propositions to fill the gaps. There may even be a cathartic moment when that complacent public is jolted into a realisation that it needs a healthy, vibrant, inquisitive news media for the sake of its democratic well-being. More likely, the news media will need helping hands and much new thinking to restore it to good health.

You must not under-estimate the importance of being able to reach a majority of the public with your clients’ messages. The much-fragmented digital world won’t deliver that for you, for our civic leaders, for advertisers, for pressure groups, for those who need to be heard by a majority.

So I want to leave you with one other potential gap to contemplate. Well, not so much a gap as something that would rival the Grand Canyon and the Great Rift Valley. If the money and resources devoted to serious journalism and meaningful media continues to diminish, we may be confronted by a situation where we no longer have a coherent means by which to routinely reach a critical mass of the population and facilitate consensus. I say “routinely” to differentiate it from the extraordinary measures that might be used in emergencies. I am talking about day-to-day contact.

If we are reduced to a multiplicity of small bakeries each producing flatbread, we lose a readily available means of achieving public concensus. I sincerely hope that your contemplation of gaps during this conference identifies the ingredients and the contributions you can make to ensure that our bread continues to rise.

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