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Times they are a-changin’

Posted by Louise Palmer on 16th September 2009

Ten years in PR got me in a nostalgic mood this month. 1999 was a year of faxing press releases, sending out ‘trannies’ & wining and dining media contacts.

Now? The way we reach audiences has changed dramatically with immediate information, online news, social media, IM and exploding inboxes.

And it got me thinking about the changing way in which the world of a journalist has changed, so I asked Bryan Glick, editor of Computing, to give us his insights.

How has the job of a journalist changed in the last 10 years?

Louise brings back memories by mentioning faxed press releases! I remember the three-inch stack of fading, curled-up fax papers someone had to check in case there was a nugget of news we missed. Today, I couldn’t even tell you what our fax number is.

In 2000, I was one of 32 journalists on Computing. Our lives were dictated by the number of pages sent to the printers each day, and the copy deadlines that demanded. Computing was 100+ pages every week. About six months after I joined, our editor announced that VNU had purchased the URL, and we would be launching a web site. With hindsight, few of us really grasped what that would eventually mean.

There were plenty of short-lived but well-paid online news sites emerging, but print was the place to be. Dot com magazines such as Industry Standard, Red Herring and Business 2.0 were 250 pages thick. There were ultra-niche titles such as Network News, Unix & NT System News, IBM User, DEC User, and plenty more. Within three years most of them had gone to the wall, and the longstanding, established brands such as Computing and Computer Weekly were the survivors, but in an environment that had changed entirely and has not stopped changing yet.

Stories came from getting out of the office and meeting contacts. Each reporter’s aim was to fill his or her quota of stories with minimal reference to press releases. Re-writing releases or regurgitating another publication’s stories was anathema.

The big brands are still here of course, and by comparison with some we are doing well, but Computing and Computer Weekly are both regularly 24 pages in print. Now we serve a bigger audience on the web than the economics of printing could allow in a magazine. I’m editing web stories to hourly deadlines, and the weekly print cycle fits around that when it can. I’m also running web seminars, filming videos, recording podcasts, writing and editing blogs, doing whatever it is we all do on Twitter, and on and on.

What impact do you see the internet is having on publishing?

So without a doubt the biggest changes have been the move online, the immediacy of news, the daily interaction with readers on the web, and most of all the fragmentation of the market. The changes have been exciting of course – I write about how technology is changing the business world, but the irony is that I work in an industry that is being changed more by technology every day than almost any other. Ten years ago you could pick up a meaty issue of Computing and find out everything you needed to know about the past week in UK IT and barely need another source of news. Today that concept seems fairly quaint to anybody who has entered the industry since that time.

And the role of the journalist?   How has that been impacted by the move online?

Traditionally, journalists were trained to be gatekeepers of information relevant to their readers – they used their privileged position to analyse all the information they could find, then using their judgement decided which was the most important to impart to readers.

But today, readers have access to the majority of that information through the web and share it through social media, increasingly bypassing “traditional” journalism. So, the role of the journalist must change from gatekeeper to curator; from news source to centre of debate; from purveyor of the facts to analyst or commenter.

A successful journalist in the internet era will be measured by the authority and opinion they have on their subject matter, and that will be gauged in part by the sphere of influence they have among relevant social media, as well as by the quality of what they write. A successful journalist is the centre of an active community of interest, not simply a passive observer with a notebook.

However, one thing that has not changed and is still the measure of the best journalists, is their contacts book. A top journalist with trusted access to the people that matter will still set the agenda.

What are the challenges that you face as a publication/ news outlet?

Not all the internet era of journalism is good. The pressure for web traffic means that it is difficult to resist the siren call of the Google search box. The agenda is increasingly set by quality not quantity – the more sites that write about the same news item, the more important an algorithm deems it to be in the search rankings. That just promotes the dreaded “churnalism”, press release re-writes and rehashing of rivals’ stories. Getting the balance right is a huge challenge for editors.

Today, my team on Computing is eight people. As we – and every other publication – face the perfect storm of low-cost online advertising on one side and the recession on the other, we have had to learn to live with the fewest resources in our history. There is no room for slackers.

Has the way you engage with tech companies and their PRs changed?

In many ways our relationship with PRs has not changed that much. There are more ways for us to communicate with each other – but that hasn’t reduced the number of press releases I receive (quite the opposite) nor does it make the phone ring any less; nor, unfortunately, does it make the value of most of those PR calls any better.

Do you think PR agencies are adapting to the changing media landscape?

I think PRs are often running to stand still in the changing media environment even more than journalists. PRs’ clients want to be seen to be using the latest trendy social media even before anyone knows what the latest trendy social media is – far before anyone can actually quantify the value it might bring. Trying to monitor, manage and (dare I say it) control the news in such a massively fragmented media space must be a nightmare.

Nonetheless, as with journalism, the basics have not changed. The best PRs are still the ones that take time to understand the publications they work with, and the needs of the audience that journalists serve. If anything, there are more opportunities now to show journalists how valuable PR can be in contributing to our supply chain, one whose raw materials these days consists not just of words and pictures but of video, audio and more.

Louise Palmer

Deftly switching between business and consumer accounts, the focus for Louise remains the same; how can Wildfire tell clients’ stories in a way that is faithful, relevant and engaging? Her wide technology PR experience makes Louise an agile Managing Director, combining the strategic management of PR programmes with a hands-on approach to get under the skin of clients and motivate her teams.