Alex Singleton: The media may be changing - but it certainly isn't dying

Author, TV commentator and PR expert Alex Singleton on how newspapers are staying relevant in a digital age

Alex Singleton, PR and TV commentator
Alex Singleton, PR and TV commentator

Cast your mind back to the summer of 2011. You’ll recall that mindless riots erupted elsewhere in England, in cities such as London, Nottingham and Manchester.

Looters smashed shop windows, stole consumer goods and committed arson. Criminals shared their plans on social media, as did more civic-minded people who wanted to help clean up the damage.

But, when the public wanted authoritatively to know what was happening, conventional media played a massive role. At the height of the riots, 13.1 million people turned to the BBC News Channel and a 15-minute segment on Sky News pulled in 9.28 million. Local and regional newspapers experienced significant sales and website readership boosts.

There is a damaging myth that the mainstream media is dying and that it’s no longer relevant. Social media gurus point to the declining print circulations of newspapers as proof.

Yet what is really happening is much of the media – television and newspapers alike – is moving online, and also facing increased competition from around the world. Indeed, many media outlets, including this newspaper, reach more readers than ever before.

Social media, far from acting as a competitor, brings in readers to the mainstream media. As Martin Clarke, publisher of The Daily Mail’s website, says: “Facebook isn’t a threat or a parasite but a gigantic free marketing engine.” In fact, it’s a great symbiotic relationship: social media thrives on good old-fashioned journalism and vice-versa.

But social media would become a ghost ship without people writing decent articles. Thankfully, the traditional media is in no danger of dying off. The BBC now enjoys a global audience of 265m people a week – its highest in history.

Television, just like the newspaper business, benefits massively from social media: programmes from Question Time to The X-Factor have fostered interaction with Twitter, which ensures they’re being talked about. Some of our national newspapers are now global players, with The Guardian publishing special editions of its websites for American and Australian audiences.

Yet, it is certainly true that, despite increasing online circulations, the switch to online has been painful. At least 242 local newspapers closed between 2005 and 2011, and there have been countless journalist job losses.

Newspaper groups have at times struggled to work out how to make online news pay, but there is evidence that they are getting better at securing what they call ‘digital revenues’.

There are still challenges. Those media which will survive best are those which genuinely understand their audience and deliver what they want. And success relies upon long-term owners who are prepared to invest while they develop successful business models, rather than just worry about this week’s figures.

As an ex-newspaperman now in public relations, I can see just how vital the success of the mainstream media is to business more generally. Getting a few retweets for a message is great, but it doesn’t necessarily mean many people have actually seen a message.

Meanwhile, a favourable article in a media outlet with a strong brand acts as a powerful third-party endorsement.

Indeed, the desire by business to get media coverage remains strong, and research from by the Chartered Institute of Public Relations has found that, despite the rise of social media, 78% of those working inside PR agencies still deal with the mainstream media.

Good PR people and savvy businesses know that they will never get a view to spread on social media without backing it up with some mainstream media coverage. Indeed, an academic paper on how social media works by Microsoft Research and Stanford University found that even internet products such as Gmail and Facebook, which are often cited as spreading through word of mouth, “benefitted from extensive media coverage.”

So, mainstream media coverage remains important to businesses wanting to get their messages across. Meanwhile, journalist redundancies have, arguably, raised the influence of public relations practitioners.

Media outlets have always relied heavily on PR people for stories – and, as happened with the rise of political spin doctors in the Nineties, they’ve sometimes been burned by unethical practitioners pitching seriously skewed or false stories, even before social media became an issue.

What’s important is that PR practitioners are held to account, tempered by a membership of a professional body that requires them to behave honestly – or face being struck off.

Anyway, I remain unashamedly an optimist about the future of the media, because where readers find something interesting, they’ll keep on reading. There are now more than a billion websites and, in an internet that big, having a strong media brand is a huge advantage.

Journalists, who are naturally cynical, may feel pessimistic about their future. But good newspaper brands, which have built reputations over decades, have a distinct advantage in the new media world.

Alex Singleton is associate director at The Whitehouse Consultancy and has appeared on the Today programme, The Moral Maze and Channel Four comedy show 10 O’Clock Live. He was founder of the Globalisation Institute, that promoted enterprise-based solutions to poverty in poor countries, and his work has been referenced by David Cameron and the Archbishop of Canterbury.

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