Changes in Journalism, Ad/PR
I want to thank Leslie for the invitation to come speak with you for a few minutes today. My objective is to give you something to think about, to provoke some reactions. In keeping with the title, I hope I don’t step on anybody’s toes, but to mix a metaphor, if the shoe fits ….
I’m going to try something a little different as an overview of what I want I want to talk about today. Here are five song titles that I hope give you some idea of what’s to come: Bob Dylan’s The times they are a-changin’; Aretha Franklin’s Think!; Joe Cocker’s Unchain my heart; Jonny Lang’s Lie to me; and then closing with the title song, if you will, by Elvis, Lay off of my PERSUADE shoes.
There’s no doubt that the times are indeed changing, given the number and severity of the many problems or crises we face, not just in the U.S. but throughout the world. These kinds of challenges will require us to bring our “A game” so to speak, if we are to resolve and not become consumed by them.
However, it’s pretty clear that one of the overriding crises we face is that for every one of these problems, and most other problems, there’s no clear consensus. There’s no clear consensus on the nature of these crises, and therefore no consensus on what to do about them. Just about every political party, religious organization, industry group, government, or special interest advocates an approach to these problems that fits their own specific agenda or point of view.
So to make a dent in this list, somehow we’re going to have to appeal to our best capabilities as individual human beings, beyond the competing special interests.
That’s the big picture I hope you’ll keep in mind as we go through this presentation. But of course, closer to home with you guys, is the real crisis of what’s happening to journalism today, and perhaps to a lesser degree, advertising and PR.
Now, I should say here that these are my own personal assessments. I’m describing what I perceive as a non-credentialed consumer, I don’t have access to any inside information or professional insights.
As I see it, it’s not journalism as a process that’s broken, but it’s the business of journalism, and specifically daily newspapers, that seems now to be on its deathbed. The times that are a-changin’ are a-killin’ newspapers.
And while the changes aren’t yet so visible within advertising and public relations, I would argue that hairline cracks are beginning to show.
For one thing, it’s become a commonly-accepted practice, when you have a problem and don’t quite understand it or know what to do about it, to change what you call it. And since within the industry, and the university establishment that trains its practitioners, there are moves to new labels such as “Strategic Communications,” I’d say that’s probably a portent of things to come.
But a more tangible reason for concern for ad/PR interests is that newspapers have historically provided the persuasion industry with a principal platform for their appeals. With the demise of the newspaper as a platform vehicle for advertisements and press releases on behalf of clients, what media will pick up the slack?
From my perspective, change is here and change will continue for journalism, advertising, and PR.
What’s driving this change?
An old movie clip, with some minor editing, gives a clue.
I first heard the term “digital convergence” in 1995 when I was working for Texas Instruments. We had a consultant come in to talk with us and one of his themes was “digital convergence.” He said that with the advent of the Internet, the new digital mobile phones, and continued miniaturization of consumer electronics, we were heading toward a future in which all of our major electronics would be able to “talk” or communicate with each other. And one of the effects of that would be that we would someday be watching TV on our cell phones.
Well, kudos to that consultant, because digital convergence has happened. Not only do we have new devices that weren’t envisioned in 1995, they’re all based on digital interfaces that allow us, primarily through the conduit of the Internet, to transfer data from one device to another.
Some of the major consequences of digital convergence include:
- There’s no hard media … it’s all bits and bytes and electronic energy.
- Since there’s nothing tangible to distribute, there’s no need to packaging or shipping so there’s no transportation costs.
- The Internet is world-wide, so there are no borders or limits to the range or reach of these digital packages.
- Because the bits and bytes can be stored in computers, and devices with increasing memory capacity, we can read, watch, or listen to the digital content whenever it’s convenient.
- And with the latest digital phones, notebook computers, and iPods, we can take our digital media with us wherever we go.
All of this wondrous progress brought to us by digital convergence has all but killed the printed daily newspaper. Why?
Newspapers live by advertising revenue, particularly classified ads. With the widespread availability and effectiveness of free listing services such as craigslist and eBay, which allow virtually unlimited text space and images to promote whatever it is you have to sell, local classified ads have become marginalized if not altogether unaffordable, ineffective, and unnecessary.
More people are getting their print news online, where the local news must compete with regional, national, and international news … on demand. That means fewer people are buying newspapers, so for newspapers the circulation revenue stream is also drying up.
So far, newspapers haven’t figured out a revenue model for online advertising to replace their print losses.
The biggest factor, however, indicates to me that newspapers are already the 21st century equivalent of the telegram. And that’s this: other than personnel, the major cost drivers for newspapers are “bad” and, given the Internet, they’re not necessary. When I took the daily Fort Worth Star-Telegram, I recycled a full grocery sack of wasted newsprint and advertising inserts every week. That amount of waste is bad environmentally. But that’s nothing compared to the amount of energy it takes to process and deliver newsprint to the printer, run the printing presses, and then drive the finished product to its destination, whether it’s a newsstand downtown or a front porch in the suburbs.
And I said earlier, as the circulation of newspapers shrinks, so shrinks the platform for advertising and PR.
But then looking specifically at advertising and PR in the broader context beyond just the impact of dying newspapers, consider these impacts from digital convergence.
The consumers that used to be reliably reached through “mass media” now have an increasingly large array of choices beyond the traditional TV, radio, newspapers, and magazines. Not only do consumers spend more and more time online rather than glued to the tube, but they now have hundreds of digital TV channels to choose from, plus TiVo or DVR recording capability. And in addition to the old AM and FM radio stations, we can listen to radio stations from around the world brought to us via the Internet, plus we have satellite radio, and HD radio.
Which means we’re a much more fragmented and hard-to-reach audience for advertisers and PR practitioners. They used to think in terms of reaching a “mass market” with a major campaign or initiative. Persuaders now have to prepare a variety of specifically-targeted packages to be delivered across a variety of platforms to reach specifically-targeted demographics.
Perhaps the biggest challenge to those in Public Relations is the fact that with YouTube video, blogs, social networks, and the means to immediately communicate and organize through texting – they no longer exercise a media monopoly on their clients’ projected image. The Internet and the integrated digital capabilities it enables can provide just about anyone the means to rant about a company or a politician, or investigate, organize, or mobilize.
If it’s still unclear why newspapers are gasping for survival, it might be worthwhile to look at another familiar medium that has been radically transformed as a result of digital convergence.
The 78 rpm record format became a standard in the 1920s, and remained so until the late 40s when the slightly larger 33 1/3 rpm “Long Play” or LP record came on the scene. The smaller 45 rpm format shortly followed.
Then in the late 60s came 8-track tapes, which were short-lived as the cassette tape became the tape format of preference throughout the 70s. Then in the 80s records and tapes both became obsolete with the emergence of Compact Discs. It looked like CDs would rule for decades … until digital convergence brought us the media-less advent of iTunes and digital music.
Just as the media of records and CDs evolved into … literally … nothing but bits and bytes, so the medium of the printed daily news is rapidly evolving into … nothing but bits and bytes.
So from global crises to national problems to worries about millions of jobs, we have lots to think about. What are our prospects for survival?
Well, let’s hope they’re not this dire. After all, we’re humans … we have our finely-tuned and exquisitively-developed cortex, or mammalian brain, with which we can intelligently reason. We don’t have to rely on our reptilian brain that governs our emotions. We can do better than this roomful of reptilian chauvinists … right?
We can learn and thoughtfully discern our way through our crises … Right?
So let’s look at a couple of quotes that reflect two different perspectives.
On the left, Perspective #1 comes from a book published in 1928:
The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.
How does that compare with Perspective #2 on the right, written in 1933?
Man’s achievements rest upon the use of symbols. For this reason, we must consider ourselves as a symbolic, semantic class of life, and those who rule the symbols, rule us.
Which of these two perspectives do you most agree with? Which do you believe would be more relevant in terms of thinking our way through our myriad crises?