The Future of Journalism, Part Two

(The following was posted last week at Media Bullseye – and is republished here to add context. Discussion about this piece at “The El Show,” at BlogTalkRadio. Skip to the update if you’d like.)

Dear Journalist:

I know you’ve been dying to grab that bite of lunch I offered, but I know how it is these days. The calendar is a blur, the endless rush from event to interview to photo opportunity, then back to the newsroom for the daily ritual of wordsmithery and crash story-telling. I remember those days, when a lunch seated somewhere other than a drive-through and a bucket seat was a treat.

But it’s worse now, more so than when the stress of the daily grind pushed me out of the industry six years ago. Then, we were dealing with the lingering cuts of 2001, and dreaming of the day when the newsroom could function at full strength. There was no fat to cut when the economy tanked in 2008, and the meat of the muscle was on the chopping block. TV audiences are shrinking, and you print guys watched 28 percent of your ad revenue vanish in 12 months. Now there is a technological revolution underway, as journalists are racing each other to figure out this new media stuff before the skeleton crew has to figure out which femur it can live without.
I get it. And I know how scared you are. And it’s not just you.

It’s also the many of your colleagues that have also tried to have lunch with me, to pick my brain on getting out while the getting is good. Some of them are considering the very same buyout package you are, and the clock is ticking. Grab the severance and take a few weeks or months in a jobless recovery? Or grit it out, and then take the chance that your position will get eliminated down the road with no parachute, no pad, and all gravity? (And for the life of me, not a one of you has offered to pick up the tab for lunch, but with what you are under right now I couldn’t accept it in good conscience.

So what are you going to do?

Have you considered becoming an embedded journalist?

No, not overseas. I mean within a company.

You see, your problem is dangerously close to becoming our problem.

PR firms and corporate communication departments are noticing there are a lot less of you than there used to be, and you aren’t covering as many of the events and issues that you used to. We’re not taking it personally, we just know that we have to do a better job competing for your time and attention and editorial budget.
In the past, we’ve responded by doing a little bit more of your job. The heralded “Press Release” was nothing more than an institutionalized way to get a bug in your ear, at a time when journalists were supposed to ferret everything out on their own. Later, we started assembling Press Kits, and even B-Roll, which took away much of the uncertainty in the hunter-gatherer aspect of your job, and allowed you to do the parts you enjoyed: the writing, crafting and assembling.

Later, we even started “packaging” the news for you, but some idiots got a little far-fetched with the use of Video News Releases (VNR) and got the FTC involved. (Rightly so.)

But now we (on the corporate side of the fence) have a need that isn’t getting fulfilled, and you need to brush up on your personal salesmanship if you want a place as an embedded journalist.

Comfort in the Belly of the Beast

The embeds of the future will work for the company, and be paid by the company to provide news about the company in a multitude of formats. Print, newsletter, video, blog, podcast, moving billboards, tattoos — whatever it takes. Because the bits and pieces of Corporate America that have a story to tell will still have their stories – just no ready outlets.

How is this different than what you have today? Surely there are corporate PR departments and external agencies already doing these things, right?

No.

What is required is an internal producer who writes in external voice — like the neutral point-of-view so often described by Wikipedia. People can smell marketing and propaganda coming around the corner, and they know when the pitches and puff pieces are missing that edge of neutrality. An accurate and fair piece is accurate and fair, no matter who writes it.

The current newsrooms of record will find their roles specializing even further. Where they have already ceded the “hunt-and-gather” function, they will soon cede some of the writing function. Why bother spending the man-hours to reconstruct a perfectly balanced wheel? It rolls just the same, and since it was likely written by an Embedded Journalist (who just happens to be employed by the company or trade organization,) it will carry the style, tone and quality that news consumers expect.

The remaining journalists will build their utility around curating, aggregating and delivery. They will be the line of defense that says “This story from ACME stinks to high heaven, and I will blast them for their inaccuracy.” They will be well within their rights to do so, and in some cases they may have no choice.

You see, in the future, one way or another corporations and organizations will find their own ways of getting their messages across. The business world isn’t going to sit back and wait for the established newsrooms to catch up. We’re going to blog, and podcast, and publish, and Tweet, and engage directly with the people. That’s not going to be nearly enough, but it will keep the remaining mainstream editors honest. If you ignore our well-written and balanced content, you will only hurt yourself. And if we abuse the privilege of publishing direct-to-consumer, you will call us out.

The New Normal

It sounds so alien compared to what we’ve been taught is the ideal, but the combination of a new economy and new media leaves old journalism in an unsustainable quandary. There will be a new equilibrium, and one that news consumers will adjust to faster than we give them credit for.

They want some assurance of vetting, and someone to help them weed through the clutter. Tomorrow’s Editor/Curator will do just that.

Companies want the assurance they will be heard. Tomorrow’s Embedded Journalist will tell the stories in ways people will want to hear.

The public at large will demand transparency, and will note the push and pull of this new balance, where Business and The Fourth Estate wrangle for the best truth.

And if you want a job that will sustain you, my fellow storyteller — you’d better brush up on those new media skills and rework your resume. You are a Corporate Storyteller, an Embedded Journalist. And you are for sale.

Trust me… in a couple of years that will sound a lot less ignoble than it does today.

Your pal –

Ike.

(p.s. – when you get that new job, you owe me a lunch.)

Coda:

There is clearly a difference between predicting a future and wishing it were so. I believe there were more than a few people who – in their comments – feel like this is my way of trying to bend the future for some corporate end.

Far from it.

I am merely extrapolating a future based on the data available. Journalism, as it is currently practiced, financed and expected is disappearing too rapidly. There seems to be a collective illusion that we’re bottoming out, and it will all get better again when the economy picks back up. Or that somehow, we’re going to come to our collective senses, and start subscribing to multiple newspapers again.

Or that it will be declared a national emergency, and government will bail out newspapers with some non-profit status or exemption. (Side note – those who express the most fear that Big Business will be running the media in my future scenario seem to have no problem with Big Government running it, and I am willing to wager they’ll change their minds on the next shift of party dominance.)

It’s not the Media Implosion that is the factor, it is the speed of the implosion. From a corporate perspective, we’re seeing a major contraction in “earned media,” which has always had a key place in establishing external credibility for messaging and impact. In the future, Earned Media will also be counting blogs and social buzz. And if the tools are available for anyone to publish to the rest of the world, why shouldn’t the company?

I believe there are others who balk at my vision because they fear a world of pure sponsorship – that somehow the embedded journalists would be on the take as extended spin machines. The fact is that reporters who (used to) work beats often end up adopting the framing and the mindset of the industries they cover. They write to meet the expectation that they will deliver from a baseline of neutrality, but it’s hard to be neutral when you see companies up close. When you meet the people, when you’re privy to their real motives and concerns, you can’t help but be somewhat sympathetic.

So if there is a direct financial arrangement that is transparent and open, wouldn’t you as an Embedded Journalist be even more concerned about being even-handed?

The Embedded Journalist will write for the company, helping it tell its many stories in a manner that consumers expect from journalism. They want narrative, and context, and insight and prose. They want knowledge – sometimes ephemeral and sometimes timeless.

The difference is that with fewer people working in traditional newsrooms, the roles will be more clearly defined.

The editors of the future will be more aggregators and arbiters. They won’t have as much time to dig, but will instead assess and vet. Those Embedded Content Providers who show a knack for writing in the proper style won’t be favored unless they are also credible. Like an Ombudsman, your Embedded Journalist won’t be as valuable if you torch his reputation with a big fat whopper of a lie.

Is this perfect? Heck no. But the same technology that accelerated this disruption will empower organizations to publish their own perspective, straight to the public. That was the goal of the Red Cross social media efforts during disasters – using available platforms to share the great stories that otherwise were left on cutting room floors. For-profit companies, even those not shielded by a glow of noble purpose, can enhance their credibility by talking straight – and straight to – the people.

What these businesses have lacked is the trained corps of writers and storytellers that can produce in compelling and fast ways. No disrespect to those who have labored in-house throughout corporate America, but you have very rarely been asked to turn the daily miracles that news demands, so you don’t have the track record to prove you can. Also, the sheer volume of work to be done demands hiring more people to do it.

So – take a need for better corporate communication, add in a large pool of unemployed and skittish journalists, and shake it up with a rapid implosion that leaves no time for a clear successor to Big-J Journalism.

What you get is the Embedded Reporter model. Which isn’t perfect, and probably isn’t what it will be called forever. But the ingredients are there, and the recipe is in motion.

Lunch, anyone?

Share Button

Comments

  1. I was watching one of the local morning shows this morning.  They were talking about “Can this Marriage be saved?”  They ran a clip.  It looked staged.  The woman was complaining about her mother in law.
    After they gave their opinions (3 in the morning show talked about the clip) then the “expert” came on and gave her point of view.
    At the tail end of the segment, they said to look at Ladies’ Home Journal for more…”Oh and by the way, the company that owns us, also owns Ladies’ Home Journal”
     

  2. Lots to chew on here, Ike. And I’ve been chewing on it, wanting to post a comment that says you’re full of crap. But I can’t. You’ve made your points and defended them well. And the system you present is, indeed, already in motion.

    I’m one of those PR people who trembles over the loss of mainstream news outlets. I’m terrified by it. We need someone to keep us honest, and media gatekeepers have filled that role well — until recently. As the cuts continue, every outlet from the New York Times on down is losing its muscle, and thus its ability to gather and relay the important stories.

    But can PR really replace most of the 4th Estate? That’s a bold prediction.

    OK. You’re right. We already have to some degree. But I worry that a storytelling system run by paid advocates will be biased and untrustworthy. In the past, we had editors to call “bullshit” when we stepped out of line. Someone’s gotta do that. Democracy and free enterprise can’t afford to lose such an important check and balance.

    But damn if you haven’t answered that objection, too, forecasting a system of embedded storytellers who will still be accountable to a fact-checking authority — those “aggregators and arbiters” who will oversee the embedded reporters. Let’s hope they’re up to the task and above reproach.

    Your ideas deserve a lot more discussion in media and corporate boardrooms. I’ll do my part by taking it to my Ethics and Issues class next week at Kent State. Something tells me this is a bit too deep for Twitter!

    • Bill, I will take that as high praise.

      I feel at this point that those fearing this the most somehow think I am advocating it as a perfect model. It’s far from perfect, and there will be huge adjustments required (particularly in the strengthening of the consumer’s BS detector.)

      But I see this as the most probable outcome from three trends:

      Businesses needing to tell their story
      Talented storytellers and writers looking for work, and
      Too little time to solve the dilemma any other way.

      I’m not here to pick sides.

      I’m here to help my friends find gainful employment for their skills.

      Thanks for helping elevate this discussion to a higher level. We may not be able to steer the train we’re on, but we can mitigate some of the impacts if we can anticipate them.

  3. Ike, this is depressing. I, like Bill, fear for the loss of objective media (but fully realize that I’m imprisoned by the Golden Age of Journalism, from Murrow to Watergate).
    PR is paid advocacy – remember the book from 1999, “Beyond Spin: The Power of Strategic Corporate Journalism”?  It called for internal communication to be practiced by an objective force within the company, figuring that a warts-and-all portrait of the company from the inside would breed confidence among the staff.
    That didn’t go very far, as companies don’t want warts-and-all from their paid advocates. There are even codes of ethics and conduct that prohibit being less than complimentary about one’s firm.
    As Bill writes, there’s a danger that the vat of KoolAid will be too delicious for anyone to resist. We like positive, we don’t like negative, but without negative there is no credibility.
    Aieee!
    Sean
    @commammo

  4. This is not a replacement for investigative journalism, nor is it something beholden to marketing’s every edit.  This is a compromise on both sides of the messaging equation.  On the journalism, objective story telling side I get to understand the details of why a company acted the way it did.

    There are numerous examples of bloggers who don’t know half the story pontificating about how a company should do X or Y.  That’s OK not knocking it, they get the conversation going, but they don’t have an appreciation for the inner workings or non-workings of the entity of which they are critical.  On the marketing side there is compromise.  That compromise is based on a premise that social media and our culture will reward candor. If, and only if you accept this premise can this idea move forward.  Can candor result in lawsuits, maybe, will those lawsuits be as costly as if the company covers up information? likely not.

    90% or some high number like that of all stories are not life or death, they are pro and con.  As is the case in all decisions individuals and companies wrestle with the pros and cons.  Embedded corporate journalism as I’ve called it in many pieces in the last year or more, is about telling the pros and cons.  or the highlights of the story.  I just completed a brand journalism project for Verizon Wireless covering the SxSw conference, holding Tweet-ups, and blogging on mobile applications and the mobile web.  Here is a piece on this specific project. 

    These are a couple of pieces on the topic over time.
    right on Ike,
     

  5. The idea of an embed reporter has actually been happening for some time. Some US sports teams have been doing it since 2008 as this blog post shows - http://bit.ly/daGh5g

  6. Actually, I’ve been thinking bigger.  I believe that the future organizing force for the human race will be the corporation, and the in time the nation state will be obsolete.  Therefore, people will need to swear allegiance to their corporation, and serve it unto their very lives and sacred honour.
    I pledge allegiance to Microsoft?
    Well, yes.
    In this we have a problem.  See, I could understand “I pledge allegiance to Nintendo” or some other Japanese corporation, but an American corporation?  They have no commitment to anything, no honour.
    Well, Google’s “don’t be evil” is a start (people say it’s a pose… but most countries’ mottoes and “sacred beliefs” in modern times have turned out to be poses when the chips are down).  Corporate Mission statements, in the future, will take on the importance that we currently give to the Declaration of Independence.
    God help us all.

  7. I know journalists who have moved over to the “dark side” and they are happy for it. A regular paycheck and some interesting work.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] 27 of the El Show featured Ike Pigott, and his recent discussions of embedded journalism. From Ike’s most recent [...]

  2. [...] brings me to the estimable Ike Pigott, whose post yesterday on the Future of Journalism points the way to a world where black is white, up is down, there are dogs and cats living together [...]

  3. [...] thoughtful essay by Ike Pigott has me wondering and worrying about “The future of journalism.” The post scares me because it presents an all-too-real [...]

  4. Craig McGill says:

    Old news but worth a read: RT @scottgdouglas: Possible future for journalists/PRs? This sounds terrifyingly probable – http://ow.ly/1xg8Q

  5. RT @scottgdouglas A possible future for journalists and PRs? Scary stuff – http://ow.ly/1xg8Q

  6. Ike Pigott says:

    My "Future of Journalism" piece is making the rounds in the U.K. Waiting to see differences in reaction. | http://ike4.me/o59

  7. Michael says:

    RT @ikepigott: My "Future of Journalism" piece is making the rounds in the U.K. Waiting 2 C differences in reaction. | http://ike4.me/o59

  8. New roles for journalist from somebody who knows @ikepiggott -> http://ike4.me/o59

  9. Tom Brander says:

    RT @ikepigott: My "Future of Journalism" piece making the rounds in the U.K. Waiting to see differences in reaction. | http://ike4.me/o59

  10. Carrie Bond says:

    RT @markwschaefer: New roles for journalist from somebody who knows @ikepiggott -> http://ike4.me/o59

  11. Don't miss it. RT @ikepigott: My "Future of Journalism" piece making rounds in U.K. Waiting to see diffs in reaction. | http://ike4.me/o59

  12. Ike Pigott says:

    @CurtMonash – Hey Curt — thanks for picking up my idea and running with it. I continued the process here: http://ike4.me/o59

  13. [...] When the right person is not on staff or readily accessible through existing vendor networks, Ike Pigott offers a compelling option worthy of [...]

  14. [...] When the right person is not on staff or readily accessible through existing vendor networks, Ike Pigott offers a compelling option worthy of [...]

  15. [...] When the right person is not on staff or readily accessible through existing vendor networks, Ike Pigott offers a compelling option worthy of [...]

  16. [...] mentioned several of the trends that are accelerating the shift toward a concept I call the Embedded Journalist, but don’t expect that transition to be [...]

  17. Ike Pigott says:

    @thekellytaylor – Think a bunch of local hospitals wouldn't love to pool up and hire Anna? http://ike4.me/o59

  18. [...] has created a tsunami of true independent talent in this area – perhaps you can bring on an embedded journalist)?  Maybe you need a new type of agency beyond your current agency roster – one that can help [...]

  19. [...] the right person is not on staff or readily accessible through existing vendor networks, Ike Pigott offers a compelling option worthy of consideration. As the axe swings vigilantly at all media [...]

  20. Ike Pigott says:

    @StoryPartners – Interested to get your take on this: http://ike4.me/o59

  21. Interesting peice by @ikepigott on the Future of Journalism http://ike4.me/o59

  22. Ike Pigott says:

    @raviduddukuru – More of a shift. Companies still need their stories told. My thoughts here: http://ike4.me/o59

  23. RT @ikepigott: @raviduddukuru – More of a shift. Companies still need their stories told. My thoughts here: http://ike4.me/o59

  24. [...] content — specifically, interesting and factual stories. They need to adapt best practices from the journalism field, and bridge the gap between corporate interest and market needs for valuable [...]

  25. [...] Mireya Navarro, Lee Odden, Kate Olson, Jeremiah Owyang, Katie Paine, Randy Paynter, Wendy Piersall Isaac Pigott, Augie Ray, Andrew Redfern, F. John Reh, Laura Ries, Jay Rosen, Jackie [...]

  26. Ike Pigott says:

    PR Daily on the Future of Journalism | http://ike4.me/prd59 (see also http://ike4.me/o59 )

  27. [...] embedded journalism approach gets you to change gears, to switch your focus to truly serving your [...]

  28. [...] had posts that went 2,000 words. (1,988 — close enough.) And I’ve had posts with zero words. (Eleven Words Guaranteed [...]

  29. [...] In the last three years, I have had lunch meetings or drinks with no fewer than two dozen working journalists who want to know the secret to getting out. Often, it is a matter of getting them to understand their value and real skillsets, instead of just focusing on the Product they’ve been tasked with every day. It’s a change in thinking about the function of storytelling. [...]