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