Monday, September 22, 2008

The Echo Chamber

I've stated that we need better rules of engagement between journalists and PR professionals when it comes to conducting media relations. One of the things I suggested is that PR pros begin recommending and demonstrating the effectiveness of alternative ways to communicate their client's core messages in today's multimedia world.

I was stoked this morning to read Robert Niles post at The Knight Digital Media Center about how journalists can begin to utilize new and social media in their coverage of stories. Specifically he looks at the partisan "echo chamber" that has emerged among political journalists/pundits and how reporters (particularly from newspapers) can learn a lot from how politics is covered across multimedia channels. Niles writes, "We need to use the power of online interactivity to build our own echo chambers, not for partisan spin, but for real reporting. Because without it, traditional news reporting is going to continue to lose readership, and influence, in a hyper-competitive media market." (No kidding!)

How do journalists do this? Niles says:
  • "Journalists must offer reporting that people actually want to tell other people -- news so compelling that people will put aside whatever version of Scrabble they're playing on Facebook at the moment to send that story to all their friends."
  • "Use the skills of a social scientist to look at what he said, and what she said, then to show readers who actually is telling the truth? That's how journalists can motivate readers to click. But better, sharper reporting won't be enough. We also need to use our reporting skills to identify what bloggers, Tweeters and discussion board leaders can help us spread the word."
  • The media business model needs to shift its attitude when it comes to proliferating the echo chamber. Niles writes, "The last thing that newsrooms ought to be doing in this media environment is punishing people who write about our work, whether it be with threats, ridiculous licensing fees or lawsuits. But that's too often been the response from news managers who are locked into a pre-Internet mindset about how intellectual property gets and keeps its value."

Niles argues that this last point is crucial if mainstream or traditional media is to thrive in today's multimedia environment. He notes, "With each repetition of our work, the echo grows louder. More readers start paying attention. Influence, and value, grows. Eventually, with enough repetition and enough penetration into enough social networks, good journalism can once again reach the ears of those readers who long ago left their local newspaper for partisan talk radio, blogs and cable news."

He concludes his article on the importance of audience engagement in today's society.

From a PR perspective, Niles article nails a lot of the issues facing newspaper and other traditional journalists today. It reinforces the need for PR pros to demonstrate the value of new social and multimedia tools to clients. It reinforces the engagement strategy that most companies are adopting for long term growth of their brands and reputations.

My only reservation after reading Niles' article is that the "echo chamber" is good for getting past the initial gatekeeping function of new social media, but does very little for long term sustainability. While applicable to the larger stories (like the financial crisis), the trouble (and perhaps the threat) with an echo chamber is that after awhile, all you hear are the same voices or messages being proliferated.

I would argue that if traditional journalism wants to stay relevant in today's multimedia world, focus on covering the continuing debate on issues. The ongoing search and addition of new content and stories is what will draw the widest audience to online newspaper formats or to the hard copy of the newspaper.

The way I read Niles' entry, he is advocating that newspapers and traditional journalism lead the way in what the social media and new media spheres are talking about.

The news cycle has changed. Depth, breadth and relevance of information (in real time) is what makes a news story popular. My message to journalists struggling to find balance in a traditional news medium: Don't be afraid to cover complex issues and certainly don't be afraid to lean on your PR peers as well as your readership to help you do so. The good sources will help you find what you need and more importantly, will listen to what will help you do your job in this new media world. The rise of citizen journalism, blogs, and social media means the gatekeeping rules have changed. If the echo chamber model becomes popular, it must be done in such a way that it not only sustain the media business models, but allows multiple points of view (not just the popular ones) to be represented in traditional print and online forums.

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