The Profound Transition of the News

It isn't just the news business in transition. The switch to mobile devices is driving news content and delivery in new directions.

It isn't just the news business in transition. The switch to mobile devices is driving news content and delivery in new directions.

Everyone acknowledges the news business is undergoing a fundamental transition. That transition, however, may be more profound than we realize.

It is obvious print and electronic news media are moving rapidly to establish or enhance their online presence. Less obvious is the shift to delivering the news on mobile platforms such as smartphones.

Gone are the days when a large percentage of the population sat around the kitchen table in the morning reading the newspaper or coming home at night from work, putting on slippers and watching the nightly news on TV. Nowadays, people experience the news almost constantly on electronic devices. 

Instead of making a point of intersecting with daily news events, readers and viewers today are soaked with a persistent shower of news, which they tend to read in spurts.

News people talk about the reality of a 24/7 news cycle, with fluid deadlines and an imperative to publish first (and clean up later). That 24/7 news cycle is paralleled by a similar change in news consumption habits. People expect to find out what's happening – not just what happened – when they light up their phones and tablets.

The news has a shadow in the form of social media. News outlets use social media to promote their stories. But social media itself has become a barometer of what's trending, an indicator of what's collectively viewed as important, or at least interesting, in the moment.

While websites, especially news outlet websites, routinely feature multimedia content, social media sites increasingly enable one-click access to videos. It is another sign of the news reaching viewers without going through a news channel.

New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet reflected on these changes in an interview published over the weekend in the newspaper's "Sunday Review" section. The Times, he said, has divided its prodigious news resources into a "print hub," responsible for the newspaper, and a video team.

The video team's assignment, Banquet says, will be to identify and pursue stories that appeal to corporate advertisers. However astute that may be as a revenue-generating stream, it may overlook why viewers are fascinated with video.

Because video is no longer the hostage of expensive or unwieldy production equipment, almost anyone can shoot it and edit into a comprehensible story. The appeal of video is its authenticity. It puts the viewer on the scene to see for himself or herself.

More importantly, video works a lot better than a lot of words on the small displays of smartphones. You don't have to read about what's happening right now; you can see it and experience it in something closer to real time.

News outlets have tried to latch onto this real-time fascination by emphasizing "breaking news." Too often, however, that has become a path to covering fires, shootings and ice storms in lieu of more challenging stories about policy debates, community problems and disturbing trends.

The real power of video is to tell a story in a compact, emotive manner that holds strong appeal to a wide range of viewers. Videos are very versatile. As we've seen, they can show a police officer gunning down an unarmed man or they can make a complex story approachable and understandable.

As news producers race to catch up with news viewers, those of us who pitch stories on behalf of clients have to don running shoes, too. Pitching will still be a person-to-person activity, but what we pitch needs to change dramatically.

News releases prepared by public relations professionals have already become more sophisticated, with visual assets, infographics, B-roll video, charts and links. Now, we will need to go further.

With shrunken news staffs and heightened demand for video content, news outlets will be more open to accepting volunteered video content. This is a great opportunity to tell stories that otherwise would have little chance of ever seeing the light of day in traditional or new media. It also is a moment that requires building trust so we aren't pushing brand messages in the guise of news or distributing intentionally distorted, one-sided information.

The key takeaway is that how the news is distributed and read will have a strong bearing on what news is conveyed. The transition underway in the news media is causing a transition in what is viewed as news. Consumers of news, who now have an exploding number of options to get "news," will have to take more responsibility for the economic survival of the news channels they want and trust.

News influencers, including PR professionals, need to shoulder some of the same responsibility if we want trusted news channels to exist. 

Tags:    News, news coverage, news channels, social media, smartphones, news videos, story pitching, marketing PR, public affairs, Dean Baquet, CFM PR