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Posted At: April 15, 2009 1:12 PM
by Kayla Gail Anthony

These famous headlines from newspapers around the world remind us why a life without print newspapers would be lackluster. Newspapers have existed for centuries — even Julius Caesar carved announcements into stone for government affairs in Rome. They survived the introduction of radio, television and magazines. So why does the Internet seem to be printed newspapers’ imminent demise?

Perhaps the strangest part about the newspaper crisis is that they have more readers than ever. The problem is that fewer of their consumers are paying for content. Pew Research Center for the People and the Press conducted a study last year that said more people in the U.S. got their news online for free than paid for it by buying newspapers and magazines. But why would you? News organizations are giving it away.

Pew, however, also found that only 2 percent of people surveyed used the Internet as their only regular news source. The average Joe is actually getting his news from a variety of sources — some from TV or radio, some from online and some from magazines and newspapers. Despite this statistic, it is evident that more and more people are relying on the Internet for their understanding of the world.

Even more interesting is the status of future readers. One hyped perception is that young people aren’t reading newspapers. Pew’s research found that only 23 percent of people under age 30 had read a newspaper before they participated in the research. However, those same people said they weren’t interested in news from any source, either electronic or print.

The biggest problem facing the industry is that today’s young people may not develop into the next generation of readers. While that is a reasonable source of anxiety for print newspapers, it is also a problem for other media, including the Internet. Part of the problem will fix itself because people tend to pay more attention to their surroundings as they begin to pay taxes, buy houses and settle down in general. Most of these people will read the paper some day, but the question is when and how.

National versus local newspapers
National newspapers seem to be hurt the most. Just last week, the New York Times Co. threatened to shut down the Boston Globe, stating it needed $20 million in concessions from unions. In February, Denver’s Rocky Mountain News closed down after 150 years of reporting.

Locally, however, newspapers seem to be doing well. Brian Reynolds of The Tuscaloosa News said that subscriptions aren’t really declining, pointing to the lack of competition. Reynolds also didn’t feel that losing local readership to online media is a problem.

“People trust the [Tuscaloosa News] more than they trust Joe Blow with a blog,” he said. “You’re always going to have the mom or grandma who wants to put a picture of their kid on the fridge. They want to see it in print, so the desire for a small-town paper will always be there.”

Local newspapers do enjoy a few unique competitive advantages over national news. One is definitely the local readership. Readers will always want to know about the government, schools, businesses and teams close to home. No other organization is better equipped to do this than a newspaper. The brand name recognition of the local paper is also a benefit. Newspaper organizations have put a lot of effort into solidifying their purpose, which has built a reservoir of goodwill and support in the community.

Public relations: an adapting industry
The condition of the newspaper industry, however, affects more than just its own well-being. Many other industries, including public relations, are adapting to the way they interact with the newspapers and their reporters. Cathy Andreen, director of media relations at The University of Alabama, said that public relations professionals must be faster in responding to newspaper reporters because “stories on the Web do not wait for the next morning’s edition.” She said that PR professionals must react as online news strives to meet the Web’s demand for new content on an almost hourly basis.

Another problem PR professionals are experiencing is the shrinking news hole. As newspapers strive to make more room for advertisements, fewer press releases are being placed. Andreen, however, sees it as a good challenge for public relations.

“There is no question that the news hole has been shrinking for many years. It means [public relations professionals] must target news releases more carefully; however, a good, relevant story will still be covered,” she said.

Because UA is also in the national spotlight, Andreen must pitch stories nationally, regionally and locally, whichever is deemed appropriate. Andreen said that UA media relations uses many outlets to disperse news, including its new Web site.“Reporters and others can sign up to receive updates by RSS or e-mail, search by categories and easily navigate between news releases, calendar items, research stories and video,” she said. UA has also jumped on the Twitter bandwagon with itsnew account.

Renae McKinney, the director of community relations for Walker Baptist Medical Center in Jasper, Ala., works with the local reporters to get stories covered. “Because the local papers in this area traditionally have maintained a smaller staff, we have more opportunities to receive full coverage of the releases sent,” she said. Part of her success stems from a more rural market where printed newspapers are still thriving. “Local newspapers are seen as the main source to receive localized news,” McKinney said.

However, in more rural markets, social media seems to be lagging behind. McKinney said Walker Baptist Medical Center is not presently utilizing the new social media avenues, although she plans to pursue that in the coming year. “This is a new area I am itching to get into. I believe that you must be privy to as many conversations as possible about your organization or facility,” she said.

For newspapers, the issue to go completely online, remain in print or hold a combination of both is no easy decision. And while newspapers seem to be struggling to find their new identity, the public relations industry is meeting the challenge.

“Good public relations professionals have always sought and used a variety of vehicles to reach their stakeholders,” Andreen said. “Changes in newspapers and broadcast media and the introduction of the Internet and social media are part of this ever-evolving process.”

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