From OK to KO’d – Can This Be the Golden Age of Journalism?
Last week marked the 174th anniversary of the initials “O.K.” In 1839, The Boston Morning Post first published the term (short for “all correct”) as it was gaining popularity and acceptance among young and even those educated circles where intentional misspellings and abbreviations were trendy. With the help of a few clever politicians, O.K. soon permeated the vernacular, making the switch from modern 1839 jargon to acceptable language via newspaper articles. Today, it is one of the most recognized words not just in America or English-speaking countries; but the world over.
The significance of this moment in lingual history is by no mean limited to vocabulary. It also marked a milestone in the ascendency of traditional media. In the late 1830s, newspapers were no longer just sources of information and commentary; they had evolved into arbiters of all that matters. They helped the public decipher what was worthy of attention and what was not. They were authorities on what to think, what to buy, and, as we see, even how to speak. They controlled the ink; so they controlled the public’s hearts and minds as well.
To read Pew’s State of the News Media 2013 report, it’s clear that those days are as dated as inkwells. Today, the ink – and the authority that comes along with it – is shared amongst us all. As a result, “O.K.” will likely outlast the very media that officially coined the term.
The Pew report’s lead sentence offers no surprises, but says it all just the same: “In 2012, a continued erosion of news reporting resources converged with growing opportunities for those in politics, government agencies, companies and others to take their messages directly to the public.” Pew hits the nail on the head, though it omits stating the obvious cause and effect. The rise of direct-to-the-public communications and the fall of traditional media are not independent phenomena. One is causing the other – and forever changing the way we consume news as a result.
Reading between the lines, it’s evident that the public increasingly regards traditional media as mere gatekeepers standing between it and the horse’s mouth. The modern news consumer doesn’t need or want anyone acting as a gatekeeper of information or opinion – and the explosion of social and digital media has provided a myriad of opportunities by which the public can exercise its desire for informational freedom. In this context, the rise of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, blogs and crowd-sourced journalism isn’t squeezing traditional media because of increased competition alone. It is doing so because the news market is changing to provide the direct access that consumers now demand. Put simply, old media encumber that access while new media emphasize it.
Today may thus be the golden age of journalism – just not for traditional journalists.
At the same time, newsmakers aren’t doing the traditional media any favors. They are adapting their communications strategies in such a way as to do the media’s job for it – and with far more favorable results. After all, what is the value of a traditional media interview for a politician with millions of followers on Twitter? Why would a CEO hold a televised news conference when hundreds of thousands of stakeholders subscribe to the company’s YouTube channel? Why would business leaders break news via The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, or Washington Post when they can do so via their official blogs, assume total control over the message, and generate a readership and SEO boost in the process?
Today’s newsmakers recognize that social media beat traditional media in terms of speed, influence, audience engagement, and even reach in many cases. As a result, they are cutting out the middle men, i.e., the gatekeepers, wherever possible.
For corporate communicators, there are three key takeaways.
1.Don’t just build your audience – engage it.
When companies and corporate leaders amass multitudes of Facebook friends, Twitter followers, and YouTube subscribers, they aren’t merely erecting monuments to brand loyalty and strength; they are building their own captive audiences that can be engaged, influenced, and mobilized when it matters most. As such, making more and more connections isn’t the only strategic imperative to social media success. What are you doing to ensure that existing connections keep coming back? What information and insights are you providing that can’t be accessed anywhere else? How are you building the trust necessary to drive connections to your side of the story first, when good or bad news breaks? How are your connections encouraged to echo your views across their own networks?
Before a company can cut the traditional media gatekeepers out of the equation, it must first establish its own points of audience access. That takes time, investment, and a great deal of good-faith interaction.
2.Optimization matters more than ever.
As more and more news makers avail themselves of direct-to-stakeholder communications, the harder it will become to break through an increasingly crowded online space. That only ups the ante in terms of the Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Marketing (SEM) tactics that win the race to be found. If there is a gatekeeper today, it isn’t a major daily or nightly newscast; it’s Google. The search engines are where people turn first for news. The time is soon coming when messages that don’t rank on the all-important first page of results might as well not be uttered at all.
3.The traditional media won’t go down without a fight.
As the traditional media grasp for ways to reverse the tide, we can expect them to get back to basics and leverage one of their few remaining strengths: investigative reporting. Investigative budgets have taken a beating during these lean years for daily papers and TV news but there are signs of a renewed journalistic scrutiny that was once a pillar of the Fourth Estate – not the least of which is Pew’s finding that 31 percent of respondents have “deserted a news outlet because it no longer provides the news and information they had grown accustomed to.”
Expect, therefore, a more contentious traditional media than we have recently experienced. The rise of direct-to-the-public communications will only add fuel to the fire. As companies increasingly speak for themselves, the traditional media will increasingly focus on ensuring that they do so credibly – and taking them to task when they don’t.
It’s competition that the public should certainly welcome.
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Richard Levick, Esq., Chairman and CEO of LEVICK, represents countries and companies in the highest-stakes global communications matters — from the Wall Street crisis and the Gulf oil spill to Guantanamo Bay and the Catholic Church. Mr. Levick was honored for the past four years on NACD Directorship’s list of “The 100 Most Influential People in the Boardroom,” and has been named to multiple professional Halls of Fame for lifetime achievement. He is the co-author of three books, including The Communicators: Leadership in the Age of Crisis, and is a regular commentator on television, in print, and on the most widely read business blogs.