Business Communications in a Post-Gutenberg WorldBy David Schneiderman
Senior Counselor, The Abernathy MacGregor Group Inc.
In 1984, Rupert Murdoch thought he had seen the
future. He summoned his top editors and publishers to a
meeting in New York to learn about “electronic journalism”
and the impending death of printed newspapers.
After two days of spirited discussions and a primitive
demonstration of an electronic Washington Post, the
attendees declared that the demise of printed newspapers
Strangely, we didn’t discuss what might happen to the
advertising dollars that accounted for the lion’s share of
revenue for newspapers. It was merely assumed that those
dollars would migrate seamlessly to the electronic newspaper.
The participants focused on a simple, attractive equation:
If you subtract the cost of newsprint, printing and the
subsequent job reductions in production, newspapers
would become money machines. As we now know, it did
not quite work out that way.
As newspapers struggle to remain viable in the post-
Gutenberg world, it is worth recalling the newspaper
industry’s long and tumultuous love/hate relationship
with technology. The arrival of radio and television
threatened to displace newspapers as the dominant source
of news and information. Television did make the
evening newspaper irrelevant, but with fewer competitors,
the survivors thrived. In the 1970’s, computerized
typesetting permitted newspapers to substantially reduce
payroll, turning them into cash cows and attractive
investment vehicles. Now, technology has become the
Grim Reaper, with the Internet steadily drawing readers
and advertisers from print and imperiling the very existence
There are no easy solutions to the decline of newspapers,
but ultimately, websites with large, desirable audiences
will win, which is why the appealing content newspapers
know how to produce remains the crucial element for success
in online journalism. However this plays out, every
business is confronted with not only unprecedented and
growing challenges, but also exciting opportunities in this
new communications ecosystem. Here are some of the
Web journalism is fast becoming the dominant form of
news media. Not so very long ago, web journalism was
nothing more than an afterthought, the electronic version
of a print story. Now that’s changed, as journalists post stories
throughout the day, adding updates, corrections and
new material in an effort to be current and competitive.
This web-first approach means that information, access and
materials should be provided first and foremost with the
Web version in mind. Online journalism is multimedia and
corporations must now equip themselves to provide news
with video, audio and graphic content, moving beyond the
traditional text-only news release. And communications
professionals must gear themselves to the post-it-now aspect
of web-based journalism.
Nothing is ever final online. With news websites rapidly
becoming the primary editions, they are now publishing
the most fluid form of journalistic storytelling ever. Stories,
in essence, are never quite put to bed because they are so
readily revised or even entirely rewritten throughout the
24/7 news cycle.
It is, therefore, essential that sharp communications teams
be equipped to “fix” stories as they evolve over the course
of a day, rather than having to fight the uphill battle
against what’s been memorialized in print. This of course
means that life must change for everyone in the approval
and response process in order to stay on top of stories as
they are posted hour by hour and minute by minute.
The Internet has democratized media by shifting power
from institutions to individuals. The media world has
evolved from a top down, command and control model
into a complex ecosystem of mainstream media, blogs and
user-generated content. It was once relatively clear where
news came from (your local paper), when it would arrive
(each morning) and who was the messenger (the longtime
beat reporter). Today, the news can come from anywhere,
anybody, anytime. News, gossip, and rumor move instantly
through the Web—often without the benefit of an editor
attempting to separate fact from fiction. One important
scoop can turn an obscure blogger into an influencer virtually
overnight. Conversely, a reporter’s reputation is far
more fragile as readers are quick to identify and call out any
example of journalistic malfeasance.
The media landscape is constantly in flux, and as a result,
the traditional news release distribution list may never be
the same again. It’s always been important to figure out
who really are the important reporters. Now it can be as
important to identify the important bloggers and opinion
influencers in your space. Get to know them. Decide which
AWorld Without Newspapers
Business Communications in a Post-Gutenberg World
By David Schneiderman
Senior Counselor, The Abernathy MacGregor Group Inc.
ones you can work with, and cultivate them, and keep an
eye on the wannabes who can quickly develop a following.
Know the different rules of engagement for each individual
who matters, not just the rules as they’ve traditionally been
applied by different journalistic outlets.
Demand-driven journalism increasingly influences news
judgments. Journalists once cared primarily about getting a
great story, being on the front page and winning awards,
usually in that order. They still care about those things, but
they are often now caught up in how many people are reading
their stories on the Web. The popularity of a story is
playing an increasingly larger role in assignments and story
placements on a web site. This creates the strongest incentive
since the era of Hearst and Pulitzer to search out
stories that will attract eyeballs, and to write headlines that
may not faithfully reflect an article’s tone and content.
This will make it harder to interest reporters in stories that
may be important and worthy, but don’t have legs.
Reporters now keep a close watch on the most viewed and
most emailed story lists on their sites, and you should too.
You now have intelligence on what moves readers and what
doesn’t on a particular news site. This will help you in
deciding how best to pitch a story and to whom. And it will
give you insight into the mindsets, preferences and interests
The best and most influential reporters are becoming
brand names. Journalists are embracing the tools of social
media to create online personas. They are breaking free of
the constraints of traditional media to blog and tweet
everything from deep thoughts to random musings to personal
information that was considered verboten not too
many years ago. Not everyone can be a one man media
conglomerate, but reporters are encouraged by their editors
to be more transparent and accessible to readers offering
new opportunities for engagement.
Brand name reporters are far more accessible than their
counterparts in the era of old media. You now have multiple
avenues to get to know the most important reporters
covering your business. Keep track of their musings
through various social media tools and connect with them
when appropriate. A reporter’s tweet can become an entry
point for a conversation outside of the usual give-and-take
dictated by a breaking news story.
The distinction between news and opinion will continue
to erode. Successful bloggers know that a mix of news,
opinion and expertise, with a dose of attitude, is the surest
route to growing an audience. This is not lost on mainstream
reporters so it is not surprising that journalism, in all
its forms, is becoming more and more subjective. The days
of “just the facts” are gone (if they ever really existed),
as reporters use context, analysis and third parties to shape
a story that reflects their point of view. This doesn’t mean
that most reporters are partisan, but it does mean that
they now have less incentive to be disinterested observers
The upside of this reality is that it is now far easier to
know where a reporter is coming from and to deal with
him or her accordingly. You also have the ability to communicate
directly, particularly through a company blog, to
the audiences that matter to you—your institutional
investors, your employees, your business-to-business customers.
So companies (and universities and non-profits)
must think of themselves as publishers and expand their
ab ility to speak to these constituencies through the Web
without a media filter.
Tabloid journalism will flourish on the Web. Unfortunately,
a flood of fictitious junk courses through the Web
and it will only get worse. Most goes nowhere, but some
goes viral, forcing companies to spend time and resources
containing the damage. Thanks to the First Amendment,
there will never be a sheriff on the Web, so this challenge
will always be with us. This new media world may sound
eerily similar to the old media world—the very old media
world of early 20th century newspapers. Tabloid journalism;
opinion mixing with news; intense competition; a premium
on speed—Hearst and Pulitzer would have been very
comfortable and successful practicing web journalism.
In the 21st century media world, it will be critical to distinguish
between credible and irresponsible news sources
and to know which have clout and which merely create
noise that will quickly dissipate. It will be equally important
to have a basis for gauging when a public response
will sting the opponent or simply feed your opponents’
desires. With increasing opportunities to engage your
critics, it will take discipline to decide when it’s in your
interest to respond and when it’s best to remain quiet.
Consider creating an internal “truth squad” if you
haven’t already, one equipped to aggressively monitor
and correct inaccuracies in real time.
A Final Perspective. Many of the fundamental, underlying
principles of effective public relations remain unchanged by
this emerging world without newspapers. But make no
mistake, the revolution is indeed here. And that fact makes
it all the more imperative that every institution affected by
this revolution not miss the boat in adapting its communications
capabilities to this new reality.
David Schneiderman was formerly Chief Executive Officer
of Village Voice Media. If you would like to discuss
this article, please contact David Schneiderman at
email@example.com in Seattle or Lex Suvanto at
firstname.lastname@example.org in New York.
2 JANUARY 2010
AWorld Without Newspapers