4 Tips for Keeping Up With a Changing Media Landscape

How knowing the news about the news can help inform strategy.

August 2, 2016

Working in communications for a college or university can be similar to working in the news media. Everyone else, it seems, knows how you can do your job better. And they’re not shy about telling you.

In that kind of environment, here’s a helpful note to self: Periodically step back from the day-to-day, grab the binoculars and scan the news media landscape. It will help inform your strategies and your tactics, and it will give you a healthy dose of empathy for your own network of journalists.

Here’s how fast the landscape is changing. In just five months, since I gave an overview of the news media at a CASE conference, we’ve seen the Panama Papers leak, for instance, and the Pokemon Go craze. We’ve seen our daily news become increasingly shaped by virtual reality and by Facebook Live. All have implications for how we get and share news and information.

So where to point the binoculars? Here are a handful of suggestions.

1.  Summer is a good time to review the annual State of the News Media Report, which the Pew Research Center has released every year since 2004. Last year’s report led with the news that mobile essentially had taken over. According to Pew’s analysis: “At the start of 2015, 39 of the top 50 digital news websites had more traffic to their sites and associated applications coming from mobile devices than from desktop computers….”

This year’s report came out in mid-June. Its overview referred to “tectonic shifts” in the industry and then called out newspapers: “In 2015, the newspaper sector had perhaps the worst year since the recession and its immediate aftermath.” At the same time, the report said, digital audiences and advertising continued to grow, television revenues were going up, and cable news especially saw increased viewership.

This data-filled annual report will take you through all the news sectors, though it notes the lack of audited data for “digital-native news outlets.” Pew regularly issues reports filled with insights about the industry and where Americans are getting their news. Keep them in your sights.

2.  While it seems obvious, make sure you know about news media research in your own state or region. For instance, the University of Montana’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research reported last fall on a survey of Montanans’ news habits. For people living in a big, rural state, we’re more traditional in our news consumption.

3.  Check out what’s happening with hyperlocal sites in your area. They aren’t a new phenomenon and many have been around for a decade or more. Often, they are tied to geography, or they focus a few topics, such as science and the environment, or arts and culture. A growing number are dedicated to investigative journalism and their names are as attention-getting as their stories: the VT Digger in Vermont and the Florida Bulldog, which features the slogan “News you can sink your teeth into.”

Some of these news outlets have little funding; they survive on people’s passion for community engagement – for filling in the news gap that exists because local journalism in their world just wasn’t local enough. Others have substantial support from philanthropists, and depend on grants and donations.

One of the newest in my neighborhood is Missoula Current, started in January by a former local newspaper reporter. A couple hours away in northwestern Montana, a successful, long-standing hyperlocal operation just got attention in the Columbia Journalism Review. Now in its 10th year, the Flathead Beacon offers a free print weekly, a sophisticated website, a creative agency to help develop marketing and branding materials, a running club and more.

4.  When you scan the landscape, you’ll see some things haven’t changed when it comes to attitudes about the news media. In June, Gallup reported that just 20 percent of Americans said they were confident in newspapers. It was an “all-time low,” going back more than four decades. Last September, Gallup results showed most Americans reporting they had little or no trust in the overall mass media – a result Gallup has seen since 2007.

Social media have their own trust challenges. A study published in April by the Associated Press and the American Press Institute reported that only 12 percent of people said they trust the news they get from Facebook. The study includes fascinating perspective on the components of trust.

These low ratings are worth noting – not to add to pessimism about journalism’s future, but to understand the daunting landscape that today’s news media must navigate. Journalists are important partners to higher education in examining, explaining and, yes, promoting what we do. They face (as Pew noted) tectonic shifts in their industry, increasing competition and time demands, and serious credibility challenges.

We could say much the same about higher education and our world of communications. If we want to help the media do a better job covering higher education, we need to better understand journalism itself. Empathy and understanding on our part can only help us all improve.


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