Sean O’Leary is a vice president at Susan Davis International.
As a former reporter and current public relations pro, the dramatic decline in newsroom positions is really depressing.
Axios reported this month that 1,972 newsroom jobs have been cut so far in 2023, surpassing the total for all of 2022. It’s confirmation of anecdotal evidence that has piled up since the COVID-19 pandemic that newsrooms are being slashed to their bare minimums.
On social media, I am constantly seeing reporters sharing that they’ve been laid off and seeking new opportunities. I’m a big sports fan, and The Athletic cutting top-notch sports writers was further indication journalism is not making money the people running media companies need to make.
There have been other signs of distress. I am seeing outlets giving reporters double beats. A local publication that I frequently work with lost two reporters and hired a single reporter to replace both. I cannot imagine the stress level associated with that.
There’s also the issue of aggregated news sources and articles, as legacy outlets are trading on their previously established name to produce clickbait or sponsored content to keep views up while not producing any journalism of their own. As a kid who grew up wanting to write for Sports Illustrated, that brand becoming just another website desperate for clicks has been painful.
But hope is not lost. Though there may be fewer journalists, there are still exceptionally good journalists out there, doing their best to manage tough situations and deliver high quality articles.
As a public relations pro, I cannot lament the changes in the journalism industry. Well, I can, but I can’t do it for long. Our clients still need media coverage, and we still need to deliver. With that in mind, here are a few tips for succeeding with smaller newsrooms.
Understand resource limitations
Five years ago, if a reporter told me a story was being shelved or not followed up on due to lack of resources, I would feel like I was told a fib. Today, I understand completely.
So far in 2023, I’ve worked with several top-level mainstream outlets who have confirmed news stories for clients, got started on the story, and then told us they couldn’t finish due to resource limitations. This is, sadly, a part of the PR business now.
The difference is that, unlike five years ago, when an outlet presses pause on a story, it’s not for good. As a PR pro, it’s never easy to get – or relay – the message that a story is on hold. But it’s not the end of the world.
It’s critical to understand why outlets are pushing back, and to keep faith that the potential story is still out there for publication.
Accept late arrivals for events
In Washington, D.C., there are so many events taking place daily that it’s impossible for today’s newsrooms, stretched to the limit already, to keep up. While every PR pro dreams of a lengthy list of confirmed media weeks in advance, the reality of today makes that extremely unlikely.
Since we’ve come out of COVID, I’ve been lucky to pitch media for a slew of high-profile events, including with members of Congress, President Biden, and foreign prime ministers. The one constant over the past two years is how the media consistently RSVPs for events at the very last minute.
This has not been good for my blood pressure or anxiety around these events, but I have come to accept it as part of the job now.
Last summer, we worked on securing media for the groundbreaking of a new Memorial dedicated to Operation Desert Storm. The day before the event, we had two media members confirmed. By the time the event took place, we had a riser full of cameras and reporters – the vast majority of whom confirmed the morning of the event. I even had one TV outlet call me 15 minutes before the event began to see if they could still attend.
Is it frustrating? Only if you let it be. It’s a shift in mentality. Events are more at the mercy of the news cycle, as newsrooms make late decisions on coverage because of smaller staff sizes.
Make the reporter’s job easy
This is not a new aspect of public relations. Our role has always been to help a reporter tell a story for our clients and provide them with the necessary information to do so. But that role is more important than ever because these reporters are stretched so thin.
It means going beyond a simple media kit or basic background information. It’s about providing as much as you can to the reporter. Do you have pictures or videos ready for your story? Send it to the reporter in advance. Do you have more detailed explainers or articles that would help the reporter understand a subject? Share it with them beforehand.
Most importantly – remember that there is no such thing as a stupid question. As newsrooms shrink, we are also seeing newsrooms get younger because those younger employees make less. It’s incumbent on us, as PR professionals, to guide and educate younger reporters on the subject matter so the stories they produce are better.
The future will bring more consolidation
The hard truth about journalism in the United States is there will be more cuts and more consolidation unless something changes. While I’d love to turn the clock back 20 years when I was entering the world of journalism as a daily newspaper reporter, it’s not going to happen. Heck, my first job as a cub reporter for a daily with a circulation of about 10,000 doesn’t even exist anymore.
It’s a different world. We must prepare for a future that features even fewer journalists and outlets.
It’s not great. But I’m a PR pro, so my job is to spin the news.
It’s a challenge. And with challenge comes opportunity.