Muck Rack has just released its latest “The State of Journalism” – an annual survey I look forward to as a former journalist of more than 20 years who “went to the Dark Side” five years ago by joining agency PR at Allison+Partners.
Every year, I browse the stats and feel as if they’re still talking about me. I hear my inner monologue saying, “Um hmm. Yep. Exactly! Glad this isn’t my problem anymore! God, I miss the newsroom!” I am not too far removed from the pressures and issues the news media face. I lived them passionately from 1996 to 2017, and I loved what I did as a reporter and editor. I still feel a sense of romance about getting the scoop, beating a deadline and informing the world about key events.
Let’s take a look at some of Muck Rack’s key findings for 2022, and allow this grouchy old reporter to add some insights to help us better serve our clients by better serving the journalists we work with in the ongoing symbiotic, and sometimes challenging, relationship between PR and the media.
Finding – Experience: 32% have been a journalist for more than 20 years. 25% have been a journalist for 10 to 20 years. 21% have six to 10 years of experience, while 5% have one to two years of experience. Finally, 1% have less than one year of journalistic experience.
Most journalists are now Gen X (like me) or millennials. It’s really strange for me to see the majority are now in my age group, because I can remember like yesterday being a cub reporter who looked up to experienced baby boomer reporters and editors for mentorship and guidance. They were grizzled veterans with no time for bull. And when I became the grizzly old newsroom vet, I retained the mindset of a newbie who had to prove himself.
We must understand who this majority is in the modern media. These are reporters who mostly began their careers before the internet or grew along with online journalism during its early days. The most advanced tech I used in my first job was a fax machine! Yet, by the end of my career, I had launched and led my newspaper’s website and took us into the digital age. I went from being a reporter who every day walked the halls of county and city government and courts to find out what was going on – for you youngsters, we called this “shoe leather reporting” – to being a guy who received hundreds of pitches in his email inbox and could instantly break news with the click of a mouse.
To deal successfully with this Gen X majority, and to a certain extent the millennials behind them, understand you’re dealing with reporters who have an immense amount of experience and who are as comfortable interviewing in person or on the phone as they are getting info online. Though they evolved with tech, they are “old school.” They won’t suffer fools (or fluffy marketing pitches), and they appreciate a true relationship with sources and pr people they can trust. Give them honesty and respect their time, and they will respect you. Give them good information with a solid news hook, and they will gladly work with you time and again. Accept kindly when they reject your pitch with an honest explanation of why they cannot use it, but ask sincerely what sort of information they seek. If you promise an exclusive, it had better be an exclusive. Their memories are long, so never burn a bridge by breaking the trust you worked to establish.
Finding – The average journalist covers 4 beats. Last year, the average journalist covered 3 beats.
When I began my career, it was during the last hurrah of print journalism. I’m grateful I got to live my dream of being a reporter when it was still untainted by clickbait and the constant online news cycle. Back in those halcyon days, news organizations assigned their reporters to specific beats and allowed them to grow in those roles to become experts on the subjects they covered. The newest reporters were usually GA (general assignment), and gained experience by covering a variety of topics until they found their niche and could take on a beat. Either way, being a reporter is a high-stress job. There’s pressure to make deadline, not make a mistake and to beat the competition to the story.
As I remember it, things began to really change around The Great Recession in 2008. Print journalism was already struggling in the internet age, with vital ad money and the audience shifting away from paper to digital. When the financial crisis hit, news orgs simply had to get leaner and meaner to survive. More experienced (higher paid) reporters were often laid off in favor of younger (lower paid) reporters, and the reporters who remained were asked to cover more than one beat.
While any reporter worth their salt will adapt and do a good job being well-versed in a variety of topics, this ramped up their stress. Imagine working solely in B2B pr for just three major clients for several years, then one day you come into the office and get assigned an additional three new B2C clients in industries you know little about even though you have no experience in B2C. Oh, and you get paid the same or maybe even took a pay cut due to the economy and its impact on the organization. Not fun, right?
Modern journalists are overworked, overwhelmed and often underpaid. I lament that we also lose institutional knowledge and expertise when we spread reporters so thin across multiple beats. As PR professionals, we must be sympathetic to their plight and understand what they are up against when we pitch. We cannot expect them to be experts at everything and we cannot expect them to be as enthusiastic as we are about our clients when they are on tight deadlines and juggling four beats, some of which they may not have passion for.
Make your life and theirs easier by making sure they are the correct reporter for a specific pitch, making sure what you are pitching isn’t just a shot in the dark that wastes their valuable time and making sure you are reaching out the way they prefer (phone vs. email vs. social media). Most important, don’t bury the lede! Get right to the most compelling information – that strong news hook – you have to share.
Finding – Fewer journalists said CEOs and company PR pros are credible sources for reporting. However, more journalists find social media personalities (17% vs. 12% last year) and celebrity spokespeople (14% vs. 12% last year) more credible than they did last year.
This one both surprised me and confirmed an old bias. Perhaps it’s because I spent most of my career in business journalism reporting on companies and their CEOs or maybe it’s because I’m a child of the ‘80s who loves Wall Street, but I trusted executives way more than trusted some random social media personality or celebrity. I mean, as much as reporter can “trust.” Quoting an exec had more weight than some unknown source online.
That has clearly changed. I suspect the mistrust of CEO types stems from the Great Recession, bank bailouts and inflation. It’s easy to dislike those who profit when you struggle. And there’s a growing mistrust of capitalism in general, particularly among the younger generations. My advice if pitching a C-suite member for thought leadership or as a source is to make sure they are media trained/savvy and that they stay on-topic. Make sure the reporter understands why the C-suite member is a valuable source and expert they can trust.
As for the mistrust of PR pros… the more things change, the more they stay the same! Journalists are generally trained not to trust PR pros, because we do have an agenda to get our clients into the news. Journalists called PR people “flaks,” and PR people called us “hacks.” It’s an old rivalry of competing interests, so the solution has long been to build a relationship and then give them what they want or need to get what we want or need. Our job is to give them usable information.
And more credibility for social media personalities and celebs… above the pay grade of this old journo! Of course, the impact of social media and influencers over the years is obvious even to me, and I know there’s a team of professionals at A+P who understand this world and navigate it beautifully, backed by research, analytics and experience.
Let’s end on some good news: 80% of journalists say a quarter or more of their stories originate from pitches. That means they are still receptive. If that’s the case, we’d all do well to read the full Muck Rack report to glean its valuable insights and position ourselves for successful pitching in 2022.
Jacques Couret is senior editorial manager of the Marketing Innovation Team and works out of Allison+Partners’ Atlanta office, where he boasts the company’s best collection of Star Wars desk toys.