Pitching reporters in the age of pageview journalism

As pageviews become the currency for digital journalism, public relations professionals need to adjust the ways they reach out to reporters. Here’s how you can make that adjustment.

Earning coverage in the mainstream press is harder than ever for two reasons.

The first reason is the reduced opportunity for coverage. By 2010, newsrooms had 30 percent less staff than at the turn of the century. The reporter who covered your company is gone. Now there’s a reporter who covers your industry or several industries, and he has less time for you and your pitch. High-priced veteran reporters are being replaced with younger tech-savvy journalists who have no long-standing relationships with PR sources. Meanwhile, newspapers have fewer pages than before. A 2008 study showed that 34 percent of newspapers had reduced business coverage, while only 17 percent had increased it.

The second reason is the shift to the Web. Whether digital newspapers can turn a profit remains a key concern. The New York Times offers a glimmer of hope on that front. It will earn $91 million from digital subscriptions this year, representing 12 percent of subscription sales. So it seems newspapers that produce content people want to read can thrive behind paywalls.

This notion of content that people want to read is what should perplex PR practitioners. In the bygone world of journalism, publishers measured success by total subscriptions and newsstand purchases. Readers might be as likely to read an article on an obscure topic—as long as the headline was enticing—as they were a story about something in which they were already interested. Today, every click on every article counts. Journalists are under intense pressure to produce content that will generate those clicks, increasing the challenge of getting a reporter to cover your company’s or client’s story.

The rise of pageview journalism

“Pageview journalism,” as tech reporter Tom Foremski calls it, has resulted in some bad reporting. Being first to report can means hundreds of thousands of extra clicks, even for a paper that beats the competition by mere seconds. As a result, CNN and Fox News both reported that the U.S. Supreme Court had overturned the individual mandate of the Affordable Health Care Act, only to issue retractions later. Meanwhile, news sites such as Gawker pay reporters based on pageviews. In 2009, Gawker publisher Nick Denton said in a memo to his staff:

“Each writer on a site will have a (pretty demanding) individual pageview target. …That target will be proportional to a writer’s base compensation. i.e. the more your monthly pay, the more people you’re expected to reach. If you go 10 percent over target, you get a 10 percent bump in pay. The target will rise as the traffic of the site as a whole increases. Your site’s editor-in-chief will be in touch to discuss the details later this week.”

So, even with the proliferation of online news channels (from Techcrunch and Mashable to BuzzFeed and The Huffington Post), a story that doesn’t promise boatloads of clicks isn’t likely to appeal to a reporter or editor.

Foremski, author of the Silicon Valley Watcher blog and a ZDNet columnist, has been writing about pageview journalism for two and a half years. In a recent column, he reaffirmed the notion, saying “reporters are increasingly rewarded based on the traffic they bring, either through direct cash compensation or by a boost up the editorial ladder, which is essentially the same thing.”

Some believe the practice is unsustainable. Chip Oglesby opined a couple years ago that a publisher would be better off to have fewer pageviews with a lower bounce rate. “Using goals, outcomes and conversion rates, you’ll be able to increase your visitor loyalty, depth of visit and recency,” he wrote, suggesting these metrics would convince advertisers to buy ads on your news site even if pageviews were lower.

If only advertisers thought that deeply. Two years later, pageview journalism has only become more deeply entrenched as the norm. As a result, Foremsky writes, today’s journalism is “a bland me-too media landscape which publishes huge numbers of the same stories.”

PR in the land of pageview journalism

So what would it take to get a reporter to cover your company’s or client’s story if it’s not one of those sure-fire magnets of pageviews? Melissa Cafiero, writing on the communiquepr blog, advises that pitching strategies need to evolve to highlight the story’s appeal, drama, and relevance. But Foremski is looking for more.

“Can PR companies drive traffic to a story that I write?” he asks. “If they can, they are golden. Reporters will take their calls over any others.”

It may have happened, but I’m not aware of a PR practitioner who has included traffic as part of a pitch. As long as it’s done ethically, why not? Why does the pitch have to end with the story’s publication?

There should be two components to the pitch in the era of pageview journalism. First, we have to sell the reporter or editor on the value of the story. Even if it’s not the big story that any idiot knows will drive pageviews, we need to make a compelling case for why the story should be produced anyway. We need to hone our storytelling skills to demonstrate why this story is more than just another thinly veiled press release.

Second, we need to outline the steps we’ll take once the story has been published to drive traffic to it. Some of the techniques to employ include

  • Having done your homework upfront, share keywords with the reporter he can build into his article that will drive traffic;
  • Referencing the article on the client’s corporate blog;
  • Having the client tweet the link and include it in an update on their Facebook page;
  • Promoting the link in communities whose members have an intrinsic interest in the subject;
  • Sharing the link in the agency’s channels;
  • Pointing out the story to influencers within that subject matter area;
  • Buying keywords (on behalf of the client) that lift the link above organic search results.

There’s no immutable law of the Web that says only big stories everybody’s covering will earn pageviews. Doing the hard work of attracting visits can also pay off. It certainly complicates the idea of the pitch—you’ll wind up spending considerably more time—but the payoff should be demonstrably better, too.

In the old days, we told clients the pitch worked because the article was published; the number of eyeballs we reported as a metric was based on subscription rates with no real means of determining who viewed the article. By working with reporters to drive views of the articles we’ve placed, we can provide better metrics and even correlate those views to more tangible, meaningful outcomes.

PR doesn’t have to lament the rise of pageview journalism. Enhancing the pitch to include efforts to drive traffic will produce better results than ever. And, as Foremski suggests, reporters will be happy to take our calls.

Shel Holtz is principal of Holtz Communication + Technology. A version of this story first appeared on his blog a shel of my former self.

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