Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Future of Journalism, Part II

A few weeks ago I wrote about the future of journalism and how is providing innovative, interactive coverage of NASA Space Shuttle launches. To me, the future rests in the hands of the journalists and entrepreneurs who will find creative ways to deliver information to diverse audiences. Social media platforms and other new technologies will evolve to give venues to journalists who are now losing their jobs at newspapers and more traditional mediums.

As has happened throughout U.S. history, journalism finds a way because information is best when shared. I believe journalism will find a way now, too.

What bothers me, is that Congress is poking its nose into journalism's future. Senator John Kerry (D-MA) has announced he will hold a hearing on the future of journalism on May 6. Apparently the economy, war or health care no longer require our attention. According to Broadcasting and Cable, there is no witness list yet, but from Kerry's statement, it appears to focus on newspapers.

"The history of our Republic is inextricably linked to the narrative of our free and independent press," he said in announcing the hearing. "Yet today, America’s newspapers are struggling just to stay afloat. I called this hearing to directly address a problem that for too long has had us turning the other way. Whatever the model for the future, we must do all we can to ensure a diverse and independent news media endures.”

Does anyone remember anything good that ever came from a Congressional hearing? What is he looking to accomplish? The Constitution says that Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of the press. How can anything that comes out of this exercise do anything except abridge it? Are we going to bailout newspapers? If so, how will we trust that an editorial written to endorse a candidate isn’t compromised because Uncle Sam dropped a big bag of cash to the publisher?

To avoid the appearance of partiality, most newsrooms have policies against sources buying a reporter lunch. If a sandwich at the deli is going to screw up the editorial process what will a bailout do to it?

My advice to Senator Kerry (not that he’s asking) is to let the journalists and entrepreneurs figure this out. Miles O’Brien was laid off from anchoring and reporting on CNN, but he’s back anchoring and reporting in this new environment (and doing really well!). Just as people figured out how to make their newspapers relevant with the advent of radio, and radio reinvented itself when television came on the scene, the media will figure this out. We know that people want news. We know that people will figure out ways to make money delivering it.

Congress can’t help with this. Freedom of the Press includes the freedom to fail.

Bill Salvin

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Making the case for Corporate Social Media: Control vs. Influence

I spent much of this week talking to companies about using social media, particularly in crisis situations. I listened to them as they asked me questions and discussed among their teams the potential risks and rewards of social media. I sensed both salivating optimism at the upside and palpable fear about the downsides.

But, people are starting to get it. When we look back at 2009, this will be a tipping point year. The momentum of social media seems to be self-sustaining now. A fantastic example of an industry that has a great social media presence is the American Petroleum Institute's Energy Tomorrow site. (Full disclosure: I don't consult with API, but I consult with several of its member companies).

Control seems to be the big issue. When people ask me "How can we control the message?" what they are really asking is "How can we keep anyone from saying anything bad about us?" Most companies understand how to work with reporters and the news media. If you compare traditional media relations to participating in social media, you can get an interesting perspective.

You really don’t have any more or less control over social media than you do over traditional media. I think a case can be made for more control and effectiveness with social media than with the traditional media relations with which companies are already comfortable.

As companies debate whether or how to engage with social media, I find a false premise underlying the discussions. That being a belief that discussions about their company, their products or their industry won’t start until they start them.

Guess what? Those conversations are already taking place. New research from Nielson shows that two-thirds of people that use the Internet visit social media sites. People spent more than 45 billion minutes on social media sites last year. Social networks and blogging sites are now the fourth most popular activity on the Internet. Ahead of email.

Instead of control (or lack of it) think influence. Last year during the presidential primaries, I wrote a column for the Arizona Republic to highlight the quirky primary voting system in my adopted state that made it easier to run for president than to vote in the primary. As the comments came into the newspaper's Website, there were a lot of harsh remarks. My wife was appalled that I was being flamed. But, it didn’t matter to me what people were saying. What mattered is that they were talking about what I wrote. Not only did I give the conversation the context in which it took place, but I had influenced the conversation because of that context.

And if you just can’t let go of that control, ask yourself this question: If you think participating in social media gives you too little control over your message, how much control will you have by not participating?

Bill Salvin

Thursday, April 2, 2009

A Future for Journalism?

There is a lot of hand-wringing about the future of journalism. Editor and Publisher has a list compiled by the AP of daily newspapers that have been downsized, taken online or shutdown. The Chicago Sun Times filed for bankruptcy March 31. So much for going out like a lamb. Unless to the slaughter.

These are trying times for journalists. Scores of reporters, editors and photo-journalists are being asked to take unpaid furloughs if they aren't losing their jobs altogether. And just when you thought it couldn't get worse. Congress is involved. The Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi has asked the Justice Department to weigh the public good of a newspapers existence against antitrust concerns created over media mergers. I'm sure that will go well.

According to Tom Rosenstiel, Director of the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, this isn't an industry that is dying, but rather an industry that is disoriented. So there is hope. But while a lot of stories about journalism's demise focus on business that fail or what government intervention would look like, Rosenstiel says it is the individual journalist that will reshape the information landscape. "Power is shifting to individual journalists away from institutions, he said."

In other words, there are a lot of ways to keep journalism vibrant. One way with great potential was on display for the last Space Shuttle launch at Journalists Miles O'Brien (formerly of CNN) and David Waters along with Astronaut Leroy Chiao did a live streaming Webcast for four and a half hours on launch day. They were joined by guests who had long blocks of time to tell their stories. That's much different from a 15-second soundbite or two-minute live shot. It gave the audience depth and context often missing from traditional media.

Above: Astronaut Leroy Chiao, Miles O'Brien and Journalist David Waters discuss the launch of Space Shuttle Discovery. Photo Courtesy Gene Blevins/LA Daily News

"We weren't 'broadcasting' or even 'narrowcasting' we were engaged in a stimulating, informed, in-depth, lengthy dialogue with a community that is thirsting for it," said O'Brien.

The major cable networks cover launches with a few two or three minute slots in the hours leading up to the launch. Once the Shuttle gets safely to orbit, that's about it. So if you want coverage of the mission and more news on it, you won't find it on cable TV. Network news covers it in their evening newscast. Most newspapers pick up the AP dispatches on the mission. Local TV will always show the video of the launch (the only way video of a Shuttle launch could be more spectacular is if someone figured out how to include puppies in the shot.)

Space reporters generally fall into two categories. First is the temporary space expert, covering the launch one day and the Red Cross Blood drive the next. The other is a true expert on the space program (Bill Harwood at CBS, Marcia Dunn of AP, Mark Carreau, formerly of the Houston Chronicle, Todd Halvorson of Florida Today, among others). But, those reporters are often constrained by their formats. They tend to ply their trade in mediums that don’t take advantage of or appreciate their expertise.

So what happened on was this: some of the best space reporters in the world put on a compelling live broadcast embedded in a resource-rich Web site on top of social media-driven audience interaction. People loved it. The audience got loads of information they would never get in the Main Stream Media (not a knock against MSM, just acknowledgment that they serve their audiences in different ways).

(Left: Space Shuttle Discovery blasts off, March 15, 2009. NASA Photo) The nearly five-hour live Webcast had its share of technical difficulties, but the team was up front with the audience about them. The audience didn’t seem to mind. I talked with friends who watched online and they thought it was thrilling to be part of the event.

So now the key is to build on the success of the first test flight during the next launch (STS-125, set to launch May 12 to repair the Hubble Space Telescope). “The format was perfect to get an instant global audience that stuck with us. But the NEXT live show for the Hubble Shuttle launch will blow the last one out of the water,” says Waters.

Not only did people watch worldwide, but advertisers wanted in on the broadcast, too. The Shuttle’s prime contractor United Space Alliance (USA) was the major sponsor (full disclosure: I have consulted with USA since 2001) as well as ATK, the prime contractor for the first stage of NASA’s next generation of rockets, the Ares. There were other sponsors, too.

USA’s Director of Communications, Jeff Carr (above, being interviewed by Miles O'Brien) has been finding creative ways to communicate space exploration for more than two decades. He says best part of the program was the access it gave the audience.

“The story of human exploration sells itself. Given the opportunity to get close to the action and participate in some way, people will come in greater and greater numbers to 'feel' what it must be like to actually be involved in the story, Carr said.”

Audiences are used to seeing companies (and their spokespeople) in the traditional media. As more and more people make the journey from traditional to new media outlets, they will expect to see those traditional players in the new media.

After all, there’s nothing quite like seeing a familiar face when you reach a new destination.

Bill Salvin