Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Tipping Point for Online Journalism?

The task of determining precisely who is a journalist is getting murkier. Mainstream media (MSM) are looking more like social media in their online editions. Teens are using texting to make or break movies on their opening weekends. Corporations are becoming publishers by encouraging employees to blog. Public relations firms are pitching influential bloggers for exclusive stories. And the jobs of marketing and communications strategists get tougher as we sort through our influentials and how best to reach them.

It’s my theory though that, with a few exceptions (predominantly in the technology and consumer marketing sectors), most public relations professionals are still conducting media relations much the way they always did.

As a sign of the times, in a recent RFP, a sales prospect from a London-based technology firm whose targets are chief marketing officers asked, "Has the shift online in U.S. media meant that most of your work is online?"

We responded that there is no question that the importance of online media in the U.S. is accelerating, a trend more pronounced in the consumer category than the business category, although the latter is changing fast. The recent announcement by the Wall Street Journal surrounding the roles of its print and online editions will give more impetus to that shift in the business press.

That said, a majority of business-to-business clients, particularly in industries such as financial services, professional services, health and investor relations, still say that their companies’ senior management value MSM over online media and prefer to be seen there. It’s time to reconsider.

It’s our job as communicators to be strong and knowledgeable in both print and online modalities and to help our clients and peers to understand the coming trends. In a recently released report, Surveying the Digital Future – The World Internet Project, the University of Southern California Annenberg School found that today’s 25- to 54-year-olds are far more likely to read offline newspapers and magazines, while those aged 12-24 prefer to read publications online. The 12-24s who get their news online often find consumer-generated media and MSM-generated sources just as trustworthy (although they apparently become more discriminating as they get older).

If you doubt the blending of social networking and journalism, check out digg.com , a user-driven social content site in which readers play editor and decide the value of a news story. The stories that get the most "Diggs" make the front page; alternatively users can "bury" stories that they don’t like, as well as post comments. The stories can come from anywhere and users don’t always differentiate whether the story is journalistically sourced or from elsewhere. As CNET reported , from time to time users plant phony stories and the site tries to crack down on such instances when discovered – just as Wikipedia has experienced more than once. Come to think if it, sometimes the MSM doesn’t get it right either…

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