Biz press on the ropes

by Greentarget

The national business press is struggling to keep pace with the volume of news that deserves to be reported. This declaration has become to PR pros what old, seasoned stage routines are to comedians – it isn’t a particularly new point to fixate on, but it’s worth revisiting again and again.

What few have bothered to do, however, is collect statistics that suggest just how overworked and understaffed the nation’s business and financial news outlets are. We’ve done just that.

We analyzed story queries posted to Help a Reporter Out (HARO), a utility that connects journalists to sources via a thrice-daily email newsletter, from July 9 to July 27, a three-week period. Journalists use HARO to find new sources when they are on deadline with a story, and public relations practitioners monitor the story queries in hopes of getting their clients interviewed and quoted.

We found that, during those three weeks, there were more HARO queries posted to the Business and Finance beat than to any of the other 11 beats HARO identifies. Reporters on deadline with business and financial news accounted for 23.34 percent of the overall queries, with the Lifestyle and Fitness (18.51%), Entertainment and Media (12.18%), and the ambiguously categorized General (23.03%) coverage beats trailing.

This supports the notion that reporters who cover the business and finance beats are, for a variety of reasons, under a spectacular amount of deadline pressure relative to other coverage areas. As the number of reporters covering those beats has fallen significantly over the years, their needs have changed significantly. Today, they are turning, en masse, to technology that augments the process of collecting information to use in their reporting. Notably, some major business news outlets regularly use HARO and similar utilities to dig up new sources without having to go look for them.

Why this trend matters

These utilities pull in new information in ways that traditional reporting doesn’t. Old-school journalists will recall that meeting new sources used to involve a substantial amount of legwork – ambushing the mayor outside his favorite restaurant or eavesdropping at the pub next to the stock exchange.

In other words: being places they weren’t expected to be. Pushing their questions onto often-unprepared sources. In the preface to Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion wrote of her time as a reporter, “my presence runs counter to [my sources’] best interests.”

Now, the reporter-source relationship is flatter; many reporter inquiries come, via HARO and other mediums, directly to would-be sources. Acquiring access to reporters is easier than before, which makes the substance of what a source has to say more important than ever.

HARO isn’t the only pull mechanism one can observe in today’s modern media sphere. Every time an outlet quotes from a blog post or a TV network presents someone’s Twitter post as a piece of on-the-record commentary, that pull mechanism is elbowing its way into reporting.

Many reporters – perhaps of the same type as those likely to use HARO to meet two-dozen new sources in half the time it would take to pound the pavement to meet three – want to use technology to pull in relevant facts and opinion. Way back in 2009, Reuters financial columnist Felix Salmon wrote: “When PR people offer me interviews, my first response is always to simply say that the would-be interviewee should blog his or her thoughts, and then I can link to them. Better for both of us.”

This shift towards pulling in many sources at once and sifting through their thoughts to find what’s most relevant not in itself a bad thing for business and financial reporting; the market for old-school investigative journalism had eroded far before utilities like HARO became popular.

An exception to the rule

What’s perhaps most interesting about the analysis on HARO queries we conducted is a noteworthy exception to trend described above.

The Public Policy and Government queries account for just two percent of the overall queries during the time period analyzed. This is worth mentioning because it suggests that reporters who cover policy keep the same queue of pundits on call, which makes it difficult to wedge new views into their coverage of policy and political news.

This creates a Catch-22 scenario for knowledgeable sources who want to be recognized authorities on public policy and government. It is difficult to build their profile without getting quoted, and they can’t get quoted without having a nationally recognized profile.

The clear solution to this challenge is to implement a communications program built on contributed articles, blogging, and social media profiles as opposed to news releases, statements, and interviews with journalists.

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