Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Does journalism need to give in to the dark side to survive?

If there's one thing that our first-year PR students have learned this year, it's "hyper-local."

Hyper-local, roughly defined, is targeting your publics in highly refined and segmented niches. In layman's terms, it means that there's no such thing as the general public to advertisers or PRs anymore. Instead, it means being concerned with influencing and selling to "Mary, a 45-year-old single mother with two kids who lives in the R3M postal code." Among others.

It's not just advertising and PR that are going hyper-local, it's also journalism - mainly because it has to in order to compete with the Internet. In fact, there's a model out there that could work, called "community journalism" - traditional reporting supported by online bloggers/reporters.

The idea is that big journalism can't send a journalist into every, little neighborhood to cover every, little story. So, how about paying a traditional journalist to not only cover the news, but also organize his or her little pod of community bloggers, who report on themselves and work for free?

One can imagine a seasoned reporter from the Winnipeg Free Press working with five or 10 student journalists from Red River College and interested bloggers, organized hyper-locally by neighborhood, like Outside.in, Patch.com, or Baristanet.com, which is run by a former New York Times columnist and "combines original reporting with aggregated news."

Can journalists report, organize, and chew gum at the same time?

Could the professional journalist's new role be to not only report, but to help organize local blogs into "online neighborhoods?"

Much like Obama's stimulus package, I believe in this model, because no one has come up with a better one. One can see the value in this approach - a reliable hub for local news about and by the community. And where there's value there's not only hope, but hope in the form of advertising.

Here's the big problem: reporters have never been good at teamwork. Each year, for example, the Creative Communications advertising students raise upward of $5,000 in order to participate in the AAF competition in Minneapolis, or - this year - even more to go on an advertising tour of Chicago.

The journalism majors pay for the trip out of their own pockets. "I've never been any good at fundraising and neither are you!" says the journalism instructor to his charges, half in jest.

Indeed, the lone-wolf reporter who digs up the news and exposes the dirt in order to "scoop" other media outlets is so entrenched in our minds, it almost seems laughable that such a beast would care about "publics" and "community," but maybe he or she will have to learn to do it in order to survive in the new-media wilderness.

PR & J sandwich

Gone are the days when journalists can talk to their public; here are the days when they must converse with it.

Have you watched CTV's evening news lately? It's remarkably hard to make it through the entire hour without flipping, falling asleep, or giving up:
Sylvia Kuzyk: "Here's today's weather. Stay tuned after these commercial breaks for tomorrow's weather."

Me: "Uh, no thanks, Sylvia - why don't I just check Environment Canada online now?"
We're not content to just passively watch a talking head deliver the news anymore. We want news when we want it. Better yet, we want to participate in the process.

This notion of two-way communication was first considered by PR guru James Grunig. According to this model, you use communication to "negotiate, resolve conflict, and promote mutual understanding and respect between an organization and its publics."

PR, it should be noted, is often called "the dark side" by journalists. Memo to journalism: give in to the dark side.

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