Reporters sometimes get the wrong idea about what we do in public relations. You know the usual, unflattering stereotype: that we’re slimy spin-masters out to manipulate the press. As a former newswoman, I admittedly used to believe this about some of my agency contacts. (I now know it’s only the rotten few that spoil it for the rest.)
The PR world has its own misconceptions about news. Aside from casting reporters as cynics and curmudgeons that are impossible to track down, PR pros often lack an in-depth understanding of how today’s newsroom operates. As the news industry has evolved and struggled in recent years, its operations have adapted accordingly. For PR practitioners, understanding the structure of the newsroom is critical when locating media contacts and crafting a pitch.
Of course, there is no one universal newsroom structure. Major national dailies, small town weeklies and niche trade publications are run differently. However, there are a few traits and struggles that many print newsrooms share in common.
Layoffs, for one, have become an occupational hazard in print journalism. As a result, the reporters, editors and photographers that remain after a round of cuts are left with a longer to-do list and fewer resources.
In some cases, layoffs translate to fewer newsroom leaders. A newspaper might ax its managing editor or put a publisher with an advertising background at the helm of the editorial operation.
Layoffs can also mean goodbye to certain beats. If you’re looking for a religion reporter to pitch at your state’s flagship newspaper, that beat may no longer exist. Chances are, it’s been rolled into another reporter’s beat, or religion assignments are doled out to whichever reporter has time to take the story.
Some beats are more likely to weather cuts—public safety, courts or education, for instance. Others, such as entertainment, science or business, tend to be the first eliminated. Of course, beat priorities vary across markets.
Photographers have been hit especially hard by layoffs in recent years. According to data from the American Society of News Editors newsroom census, the number of photographers and videographers at newspapers was cut by 43 percent in 2012, compared to a reduction of 32 percent among reporters and writers.
At the root of layoffs and newsroom reorganization is the question of revenue, a pain point for newspapers. Print media still relies on advertising revenue, but in 2013, the American Enterprise Institute found that print ad revenues were at their lowest since 1950.
Digital ad revenue is growing but not quickly enough to make up for losses in traditional ad revenue. Subscriptions and online paywalls won’t save newspapers either: Audience revenue only accounted for 24 percent of financial support for news in 2014, according to the Pew Research Center.
Here’s what all of this means for the savvy PR pro:
- You can’t rely on old conventions. Searching for a reporter on the transportation beat? That role may not exist anymore, but it doesn’t mean there isn’t a reporter to take your story. Find the reporter with the beat closest to the topic you’re pitching. Ask if there’s someone else on staff fielding pitches related to your topic and take note of who to contact in the future.
- Tools for building media lists are helpful but aren’t a magic bullet. You may be able to find a list of contacts that is (hopefully) up to date. But when the only contacts listed are a publisher, digital editors and a handful of reporters without beats, where do you start? A reporter with a relevant beat is best, but don’t rule out digital editors and online content managers. Often, these are the gatekeepers of content on the newspaper’s website. Particularly in a lean newsroom, there is constant communication between digital and print editors—assuming they have the luxury of working separate roles.
- Send high-quality photos with your press releases. It’s a safe bet that the photographers at your local paper are spread thin across numerous assignments. Not all newspapers will publish submitted photos with stories, but some will—and many appreciate the gesture. Just be sure to send a high-resolution file that’s fit to print.
- Follow up, but be patient. At a small daily, there may be only a handful of people running the entire operation. The editor in chief could be the only person on staff answering the phone and entering community calendar events—tasks that were once handled by an office assistant who was let go during an early round of layoffs.
Understanding the reporters you pitch—not just their beats, but also the dynamics of their newsrooms—will give you a strategic edge in public relations. It may also give you a bit more sympathy when working with that curmudgeonly reporter.
Lauren Sieben is a PR & social media specialist at STIR Advertising & Integrated Messaging.