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Media savvy PRs are ‘real opposition’ says news chief

Public bodies who post news updates direct to social media are the “real opposition” to newspapers, a regional deputy editor has claimed.

John Wilson, deputy editor of the Worcester News, argued in a blog post that the rise of public relations, not the internet, was really to blame for the decline in the industry.

He said many public authorities were now trying to “cut out the middle man” by posting news updates direct to social media.

John argued that unless newspapers could provide added value through more comprehensive coverage and deeper analysis, they would “surely founder.”

In his blog, John warned that while many journalists lament the rise of ‘free news’ online, they seem to be overlooking the threat that increased use of social media, e-mail bulletins and liveblogs by organisations such as the police, fire service and Environment Agency pose to the industry.

He claims the social media activity of authorities – while of value to them – poses a real danger as, while the information is distributed quickly to their followers, it lacks the polish that reporters add to a story and also the scrutiny trained journalists will give an announcement from a public body.

John told HTFP he was driven to write the post after noticing the way people on social media sites interact with authorities.

“For example, during extreme weather such as that we had earlier this year, many newspapers ask readers to send in photographs,” he said.

“Around here, the council has started asking people to do that as well. They are competing with us online in a far more direct manner than they might do in the outside world.

“A lot of us, when we think of ‘the opposition’, think of rival newspapers or broadcasters – but they don’t really consider the organisations that the news is coming from. We need to be aware of the face of the competition – our rivals are not necessarily who we think they are.”

The solution, he said, is providing readers with added value with their content – deeper analysis, further investigation and additional features which cannot be gained from a simple press release.

“It is about giving readers value for money – making sure that we are using our skills and expertise to give them quality that is worth paying for,” he said.

“You can sit on your computer at home and look at Facebook and Twitter and basically have your own breaking news service without ever even looking at a newspaper or other media outlet. So we have to make sure we can give them the extra detail they want.”

In the blog, he writes: “The organisations that used to rely on us to tell their news are now publishers in their own right. They are growing audiences for their own websites, and marketing their content via social media with a deftness that leaves the efforts of some newspapers looking clumsy.

“They are cutting out the middleman (us) and building a direct, and to them extremely valuable, relationship with the people who used to be our readers.

“Their reporting lacks our polish and, more worryingly, any scrutiny of the source.”

He claims this is a more pressing danger to regional and local newspapers, despite fears that operating an ‘online-first’ policy with free access to digital readers might encourage people away from buying the print product.

“[Journalists] despair when they are told that because their competitors publish online first they must too,” he added.

“After all, rivals to the daily or weekly newspaper in most of the country’s small to medium-sized towns and cities sometimes seem non-existent.

“Local BBC radio stations, for instance, rarely break exclusive stories and their output is limited to about a dozen stories a day.

“There may be the odd blogger and listings site around, but papers are still the only serious game in town when it comes to news… But who frequently breaks many of the big stories first: the fires, crimes, environmental disasters and major local council decisions, for instance?

“Not newspapers, but the fire brigade, the police, the Environment Agency and council press offices.

“Gone is the comfortable old arrangement where press releases were issued but their contents only made known to the public when newspapers had rewritten and developed them into their own news stories.

“Make no mistake, they are our real competition and if we do not tackle them head on we will surely founder.”