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ROBB AUSTIN'S TURN

The Media’s Missing the Message

May 4, 2009

There is much talk in the media these days about how far the Republican party has fallen and the need for the Grand Old Party (GOP) to rebuild its image.

Funny that this talk should come from members of the media (print and broadcast) because if there was ever a need for an entity to rebuild its image - it would be the media.

Public confidence in journalism is at an all-time low with a majority of people holding the media in nothing less than disdain. The public does not believe they are getting the straight news - instead being told what the media wants them to hear.

The result is newspapers and broadcast outlets are losing money, circulation, and viewers daily; reporters and journalists are being laid off in droves; news bureaus across the country are being shut down; and viewers by the millions can no longer rely on the evening network newscasts for honest information in their broadcasts.

Cable news is not fairing much better - as CNN, MSNBC, and CNBC viewer ratings are on the verge of irrelevancy. Only FOX News (fair and balanced) has increased its viewership.

There is little secret as to what the problem is - the mainstream media no longer reports the news - it reports an agenda through something called news analysis. Yet the vast majority of the public wants its news to be factual - and that means sticking to the five adages of a news story - who, what, when, where, and why.

The lynchpin in reporting the news is connecting to your customers - the people who buy the paper - or listen and watch the broadcast program. The news should always reflect what’s going on in the community - it should not be used to change the community.

I was a reporter for The McKessport Daily News in Pennsylvania. Our publisher, Thomas D. Mansfield, had a very hard and fast rule when local readers contacted the newsroom with a news tip or story idea - if you can’t take the call right away never ask them to call back.

He wanted us to stay close to the people in the community and it was our Publisher’s point-of-view that the reader had already tried to reach us once - thus out of respect and appreciation for them - we should not ask the caller to get back with us a second time - it was our duty to return the call - as quickly as possible.

This policy would be passe today as reporters and editors put no priority on engaging with the general public - in fact, reporters are inclined to only talk to each other - or those in high positions of government or business.

Yet the best leads and news tips always come from people outside the traditional news business - and when readers or viewers feel connected - the media outlet will thrive. The theory is a simple - when a customer feels part of the process - they buy your product. When they don’t - they go elsewhere.

There’s a prevailing attitude in the newsroom that the customer doesn’t know very much - in fact the public is regarded as nothing more than a bother by most in the media.

Trying to contact someone in the media is an exhausting experience. The maze of answering machines and voice mails are designed to shut the customer out and visiting a newsroom is out of the question. Without an appointment one cannot get past the burly security guard posted in the lobby.

The media message conveyed to the consumer is clear: Keep out!

It’s no wonder newspapers are a dying business - and the network and cable news departments are not far behind. Technology now allows us to gather our own news from a variety of Internet sources - unfiltered and on our own schedule.

There continues to be little evidence that mainstream reporters and editors understand their problem - connect with your readers and viewers - or go out of business.

They can start by opening up the newsroom.