Old Journalism's Demise Is Good for Communicators

So, I work in PR and a lot of people (like me) depend upon newspapers. But they're dead, pretty much.

Everyone I know wonders whether newspapers and magazines firing just about everyone who isn't a star are going to affect people who PITCH for a living. They're asking:

1. Will their cuts be followed by mega-ones on our side?

2. Does this mean talented reporters will take the good jobs that we have?

3. Finally: So who will we be talking to?

Print outlets have been ill, let's call it changing, for a while. Unlike most of us, owners have not paid attention to a wide world of newish (free for everyone) media. While most recognized that Web properties are two-way streets, venerable newspapers and magazines kept thinking they ruled our worlds.

I laughed (out loud) earlier this year when writing to compliment Tom Friedman. In the absence of a comment board area, I clicked on his email "link," sent my message and received this:

Your message has been received and will be forwarded to the reporter...Please note that messages are delivered once per day, at 8 a.m. (EST). Because of the high volume of responses we get from readers, not all communications can be responded to personally. But be assured that we want to hear your thoughts

Let's call it what it is: "We will do what we've been doing for years and hope everyone will fail to notice there are FREE ways to get our online subscription efforts."

All of us who call out to media can learn from old self-importance -- or arrogance. As a guy who wrote for dozens of newspapers in the 1980s, I can report (get it?) that the attitude from then remains:

Editors were always telling me that they knew better. "People will read what we say because our reporting is what everyone wants -- period."

Now, in these recessionary days, here is the news:

In the recent past, 6,000 journalists have become unemployed, among them:

• Some 70 people cut from the News-Observer in Raleigh.
• More than 75 gone from The New York Times (wow!) including almost all the second-string critics and long-lost colleague Barnaby Feder, a science guy who has been there since, well, anyone noticed reporters.
Los Angeles Times, Orlando Sun-Sentinel, Newsday, Baltimore Sun hemorrhaging crucial staffers.
Dallas Morning News cutting 500 jobs in the next month.
• NJ Star-Ledger says if there are no takers of cuts, the parent will sell!
Fortune Small Business drops its entire staff, Wall Street Journal cuts a variety and Fortune kills off dozens.
• Memphis' Commercial Appeal daily has its first "in the red" month in its storied history!
• An Atlanta Journal-Constitution staffer tells us that they're having daily meetings now...and that if we have any stories pending, to hurry up and get them written.
• Gosh, The (Bergen) Record is shutting down its headquarters - everyone go home and work, dammit...

And so on. If you have been working with any technology in the past couple of years (even scissors) you saw this coming. For me, it started two years ago, when the New York Times was still haughtily running a weekly "Circuits" section, even as every story had a tech angle. Like all news junkies, when I find a Fortune magazine, I read it. I think: "Why is every story about Apple or Google or Microsoft?" If I did not know better, I'd think "Payola!" It's like a business of celebrities -- it appears only the companies with the best ratings are granted real estate!

On the other end of the spectrum, blogs, podcasts, push/pull e-newsletters and every kind of live streaming service cover what is fascinating to its "participants," and that's much more beguiling than hearing the same found-everywhere repeats. Oh, and far more interesting to talk about and to.

Most of the stories in PaidContent, TechCrunch, News.com, Mashable and even hip oldsters like CSMonitor.com are so viral we can't live without them. And as we have learned, what's shared or passed along brings in hard-pressed ad dollars.

Take away is clear: If you work for a living that depends upon outlets to cover your material, you need to look for every other place but the print media to pitch, because ink-stained pages are only picked up if you step on them after they are dropped in public places.

I think newfangled online sources have it going on. If you're (still?!?) spending all day talk to the old media, you are soon going to be stuck with very little to do.

If you work for someone who wants to "be in the paper" and doesn't count anything that doesn't kill trees as real media, now you just have to buy a better printer. Soon, he or she isn't going to be able to count much except what's online.

The metrics are changing faster than I can type this. The old fogeys who can't figure why a blog post is better than a few words in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution are going to have the point proven expediently. Stop them in their tracks by showing them Technorati rankings and compare them to the few hundred thousand readers of the Atlanta Journal (and for a kicker, show them the paper'sonline rankings, which are probably lower than most uber-popular blogs).

Those of us who "pitch out" for a living have the numbers at our fingertips. We had a client (the CEO of an online company) last year who got mad because a guy from WSJ.com wanted to interview him. He yelled: "It has to be in the paper!" We pointed out that ten times more people would see it online. The guy ultimately became a former client.

Let's all learn from print's fall from grace. All they needed was to make the content exciting and get the reader "involved," and really participate. But no, it appears that was not in the paper cards.

Communication works both ways. Give and receive. Speak and listen. And that trying to make folks pay for what they can uncover for free is, well, just bad business.

Every day, smart folks uncover another online bigmouth to get our messages out there and wave buh-bye to what once ruled.

Hail to the cheap.

I'm Richard Laermer and I have a book about communicating in the future titled 2011: Trendspotting. Get one now.