Newspaper SOS: Why print publications are in desperate need of PR

PR professionals are starting to wonder why newspaper reporters aren’t covering their clients like they used to. It’s because print media is on life support, and needs some help.

In my last newsroom, working for Ohio’s largest newspaper, I didn’t have my own desk. Reporters could claim a space at one of the long, counter-like tables that served as workstations as long as we pretended to clear out by the end of the day. Anyone stocking a pencil holder, or posting a family photo, could be accused of “hoteling.”

Despite a steady drubbing of layoffs, pay freezes and furloughs, space was at a premium. Our corporate owners had moved us from the paper’s roomy headquarters to a leased office above a downtown mall. The new address was too small to hold us all, should everyone expect to be treated like they worked there. We were given backpacks to make it easier to co-work from Starbucks or our cars.

Imagine my surprise when I reported for work in public relations, having leaped from the unfolding train wreck that is newspaper journalism after 30 rewarding years. I was escorted to a cubicle with my name on it, one with my choice of desktop computer or Wi-Fi enabled docking station, book shelves and file drawers, even a small closet in which to hang my jacket.

My pencil holder held a shiny new pair of scissors. People smiled when I posted a picture of my kids.

My new colleagues—bright, energetic and collaborative—reminded me of a news staff of, oh, three years ago. Except they had access to tools we could only dream of, like network-quality video equipment and co-workers who knew how to use it.

It’s as if I moved from a trailer park to a gated community. After years of being told to do less with less, I was free to envision doing more with more.

Why newspapers’ problem is PR’s problem

Alas, that requires the participation of our poorer brethren, my former colleagues, and that’s why public relations has a problem. For all of our resources and enthusiasm, we still rely upon the working press to give voice to our pitches. As the impact metrics show, Mark Zuckerberg has yet to create the Facebook page with the influence of the Sunday front page.

The people who produce those front pages are fading fast. I don’t think my new colleagues realize the depth of the carnage.

One of the questions I’m often asked in my new world goes something like, “Why did you leave The Plain Dealer?” as in, “Is something wrong there?”

A second common question helps to answer the first: “Why don’t reporters call me back anymore?” my colleagues wonder. “What happened to the med team?”

The PD newsroom had more than 400 writers, editors and photographers when I joined it in 2000. When I left this spring, there were fewer than 70 of us. The once-vaunted medical team—covering the region’s fastest growing industry—had shrunk to an overwhelmed army of two. The managing editor, once focused on coverage strategy, was editing deadline copy.

Meanwhile, the region’s marketing and public relations corps had ballooned, inflated with an influx of former journos. We were all flooded with press releases and news alerts and invitations to events we could never get to. I stopped responding because there were only so many ways to say, “I’m sorry, the newspaper you remember is not here anymore.”

Now that I’m on the other side, better fed and better equipped, I can’t help but think we should share some of the wealth, if only to help ourselves. We need journalists to be able to their jobs so that we can do ours. As every media relations expert knows, newspaper journalists are still the best, most trusted sources of news in town. When they write, people listen. We need them to see a future, if not a desk. What to do

What are public relations specialists to do, hold a bake sale for the working press?

Why not? Reporters are hungry. Besides, they’ll probably cover that.

Foregoing outright charity, there are other steps we can take to help ourselves by helping the other side. We could:

  • Subscribe to the paper, or what’s left of it.
  • Respond to pay walls by, gulp, paying. Editors across the land are trying to convince out-of-town owners that their community will pay for quality journalism, the kind that public relations practitioners would like to see.
  • Finally, we can start to speak up for the daily newspaper. We’ve sold tougher ideas—I imagine. PRSA chapters around the country could be challenged to suggest ways of promoting public support for thoughtful, balanced, professional news reporting.

That’s something us newspaper folks never did very well.

Before Cleveland became the nation’s largest market to lose seven-day home delivery, the Newspaper Guild—which represents much of the newsroom—tried to soften layoffs and slow the rush to cheaper, shallower, online journalism with a “Save The Plain Dealer” campaign. Civic support was thin.

A leader of our chamber of commerce later told me he opted not to go to bat for the paper because he figured the New York owners were going to do what they wanted, anyway. Maybe so, but I think he would have raised a fuss if it was the city’s NFL team in peril.

Public relations specialists are in a unique position to know the value of the local daily, battered though it may be. We know it remains the haven of the region’s most thoughtful writers and editors. We know it’s an agenda setter and a unifying force in the community.

We know that, as quaint as it sounds in this digital age, nothing tops a story in print.

Instead of asking what happened to the paper, let’s start asking what to do about it.

Robert Smith, a communications manager for Cleveland Clinic, is the former economic development reporter for The Plain Dealer.


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