COVID-19 Forced Local News Media to Change, Have Your Tactics Kept Pace?

Now is the time for public relations professionals to check-in with their local news media partners and reporters. 

This was my biggest takeaway while moderating last month’s Media FAM Tour with The Oregonian. For an hour, Therese Bottomly and John Maher gave us an in-depth tour of the reckoning local journalists and newspapers encountered in 2020

Amidst a year of reporting on complex, never-ending stories, reporters and journalists have had to risk their lives and confront new threats like never before. Bottomly recounted a first in her nearly 40-year career: researching ballistic vests for reporters. She then contrasted the physical threat of covering protests around Portland with the psychological challenge of gaining a source’s trust over a video call.

Tacked onto all of that is an exponential demand for news and information. With so many crises unfolding, news outlets—including those operated by Oregonian Media Group—broke records for site visits, readership and viewership. Yet, ad revenues plummeted as COVID-19 shuttered businesses across Portland and the U.S. Maher lamented about having to cut reporting when comprehensive coverage was needed most.

By now, these stories seem commonplace because the decline of traditional news media in the digital age is ironically well reported on. But each added setback has had a compounding effect. Joshua Benton at Nieman Labs said it plainly when he called the pandemic an “extinction-level event” for local news media. Needless to say, everyone—especially those working in communications and public relations—should be concerned. 

SOURCE International Journalists’ Network, How has the pandemic affected journalism? New report offers a sobering snapshot.

Fewer reporters are fielding more stories than ever while under increasing distress. This presents a huge challenge for people whose jobs rely on delivering timely, relevant information on behalf of our clients or organizations. Getting a release or pitch reported on has turned into a proverbial uphill battle. Bottomly herself said she receives up to 400 emails a day, and always appreciates when a communications officer or spokesperson shoots her a reminder, or two. 

This strained environment is why we as professionals should be checking in with and supporting our media partners. It’s also exactly the reason PRSA Oregon is organizing these Media FAM Tours. 

And, while they’ve shifted online with everything else, these Zoom calls are worth the added fatigue. Our session with The Oregonian dove into tactics and trends that were of the moment and immediately applicable. Bottomly and Maher certainly didn’t sugar-coat anything, but they also offered hope for the future. 

The Oregonian is building out new marketing and monetization strategies and investing in content like podcasts and video. Thinking about these local options when planning paid media strategies is a great way to invest in robust local reporting while also building awareness for your brand. 

This month’s event with Oregon Public Broadcasting is sure to bring additional opportunities and tips to consider, not to mention even more optimism. That’s because public media is experiencing a renaissance amidst the chaos, and our local station has become a model amongst its peers. One pillar of their approach valued by many Portlanders is an increasing focus on local news coverage

We’ll be sure to ask Morgan Holm and Rob Manning what makes a great pitch and how the pandemic has changed reporting. But we’ll also consider the role we play in supporting a strong media landscape.

No matter where the conversation takes us, I guarantee that these insiders’ perspectives will keep public relations professionals on pace with the rapid change we’re all experiencing.

Join us from noon to 1 p.m. on Thursday, April 15.

Maury Harris is the Senior Communications Officer at the Community Foundation for Southwest Washington, where he oversees strategic communications and marketing. He is passionate about telling stories that inspire people to leverage their strengths and resources for the common good. When he’s not working, you can find him exploring local trails, wrangling two toddlers, sampling craft beers and tackling house projects that are far beyond his skillset. 

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