In the same way that PR has changed irrevocably in the internet age, so too has journalism. The industry norms, pressures, and opportunities for journalists have been entirely upturned by the replacement of print by digital. Any business owner, PR person, or marketer wanting to participate needs to understand this new media landscape from the journalist’s point of view.
To a PR person, journalists seem all the same: they have access to the editors who can actually publish your story. The reality is far different. The people who are publishing words online and in print today vary from powerful free agents who answer to no editor, all the way to heavily edited print journalists who are often accountable to a publication or editor’s whims and have little control over how their story turns out.
While journalists vary, there are some general truths to keep in mind. As stated before, they operate from a position of privilege. Never forget that they are not part of your marketing plan and are not a mouthpiece for your company. You have no control over them and very little recourse if they write something you don’t like. So, if you want to be in 100% in control of your message, you should be buying into advertising.
Why aren’t you you buying advertising space? Because adverts are the things you can ignore or put up with in order to read the editorial.
With all that in mind, here’s a look at the different types of journalists you’re likely to meet today in the PR world so you know what you’re dealing with.
The practice of freelancing has grown alongside the internet. Publications with anaemic editorial budgets (thanks to the decline of advertising) rely on freelancers more and more to fill editorial needs. Why? Because they are cheaper than a full time employee and are often based in locales that the publication can’t afford to maintain bureaus in.
Freelancers have more autonomy over what they write about, as they usually come up with story ideas on their own. They also have the added benefit of taking a story elsewhere if the initial commissioning publication “kills it” (industry speak for declines to publish the story after it’s written) or wants the writer to take it in a direction they’re not comfortable with.
The downside for freelancers is that basic coverage—who, what, where, when type stories and straight forward event coverage—are often off limits as publications assign staffers to those. In other words, freelancers have to work harder to come up with original angles in order to sell their stories.
The staff reporter or journalist at a major publication has a lot of power and reach, but they don’t always control how their final story looks when it comes out. Editors are notorious for writing sensational headlines that the writer would never give top billing. Unlike a freelancer, if a staffer doesn’t like how a story is edited, they can’t simply back out and take it elsewhere—they’ve signed an employment contract after all.
Staffers can be separated into news writers and feature writers. Each of these will generally have a “beat” or a niche or topic area they frequently write about. News writers will pursue a story when it’s novel or newsy, while feature writers may approach you as a part of the reporting for a trend or “think” piece which comments on an overall arc in the industry.
The Blogger/Thought leader
Bloggers didn’t exist 15 years ago in the way they do today. And thought leaders—or people who have a large following and influence across social media and/or their own blogging platforms—are a decidedly modern phenomenon. Many people confuse bloggers and writers and they do so at their own peril. Popular boggers are immensely powerful due to their reach, but they don’t have any editorial support or influence in the form of an editor or fact checker. This can be seen as a good thing—they’re more independent—or a bad thing—they don’t have anyone to challenge their false assumptions, reign in their narrative, or catch their mistakes.
While you shouldn’t turn down a blogger if they want to write about you, you would be well-served by doing extra research into their past writing portfolio and work. Remember, they are not obliged to get two sides to every story as a journalist is; they are held accountable to no one. So research if they are known for fomenting controversy or making sweeping statements on their blog. If so, you might think twice.
Depending upon the size of the publication there may, at one end of the scale, be just one person who is editor, staff writer and very often even designer. In larger publications, there may well be section editors in charge of specific areas of interest or tech.
In the largest, and the most old-fashioned newspapers, there will be a picture editor sourcing images for appropriate stories and a sub-editor who is responsible for headline writing and maintaining the house style of the publication. Each has the same principal function, he or she is a manager of the team and an ambassador for the brand. They write least and manage most.
You need to schmooze your editors, get to know them, not just what they are currently working on. If they think that your business is important, and that you are worthy of attention, they still hold the key to the currency of column inches.
Tip #22: Understanding your journalist—and the many and various pressures upon them—is the first step towards pursuing mainstream media coverage.
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