Understanding Newspapers – Watch The Wire, Season 5

If you haven’t heard about HBO’s The Wire, I would suspect you might have been living as a hermit a little over a year ago. The critically acclaimed show ended last March, with a final season that examined the news media.

Now, since it is the final season, if you really want to know what’s going on, you’ll have to watch the other four seasons. Do it. It’s a great show. (And to those who have watched the show, were you as thrilled as I was to see Stringer Bell putting his business acumen to work for Dunder-Mifflin?)

The show’s creator and head-writer, David Simon, spent 12 years as reporter for The Baltimore Sun. He also wrote Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, which later became the basis for the NBC show Homicide: Life on the Streets. Season 5 of The Wire focuses on The Baltimore Sun, examining the effects of budget cuts – an understaffed newsroom, the loss of institutional knowledge when seasoned reporters are laid-off – as well as the effects of corporate ownership and a focus on winning awards.

I worked on an interesting book a couple years ago that tackled this very issue: Knightfall: Knight Ridder and How the Erosion of Newspaper Journalism is Putting Democracy at Risk, written by Buzz Merritt, a former Knight Ridder employee and retired editor of The Wichita Eagle. Listen to an interview with Buzz on NPR’s On the Media here.

This past year, I received update after update reporting 20 layoffs at one paper, 40 buyouts at another, 30 more at another paper, etc. Recently, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer ceased print publication and is now online only. The Ann Arbor News will cease publication in July.  Many newspapers have cut publication days and home delivery. As someone who studied journalism in college and really enjoyed classes like Newswriting, Feature Writing, and Magazine Editing & Production, the current state of newspapers saddens and concerns me.

As a publicist, I understand this means reporters are now covering beats that a colleague used to cover. Or those beats just aren’t a part of the paper’s coverage anymore, and the paper may be relying more and more on wire services and syndicated writers. This in turn means that scoring ink and arranging face-to-face interviews has become harder than ever (not to mention just getting a reporter on the phone. They’ve always been busy, but are even more so now.)

All of this underscores the importance of online promotion. It’s here to stay, even if efforts like  The Huffington Post Initiative Fund (read an analysis of it as a business model here) take off and are duplicated. So here are some things you can do to promote yourself online:

  • Set up that RSS Reader (I use Google professionally, with LOLCats thrown in just to break up the day, and Bloglines for most of my fun stuff or hobbies), add blogs that you find engaging, insightful, and relate to your area of expertise. You will save a TON of time with an RSS reader.
  • Set up a news alert so you can follow the latest news in your industry/area of expertise (I use Google News Alerts). Pick key words, and you’ll receive a daily e-mail of news articles. This will help you follow trends, see who is covering your subject area, etc. Make sure you share any relevant articles with your publicist.
  • Participate in the discussion. Leave thoughtful comments on blogs or news sites that add to the conversation (don’t be overly promotional).
  • Set up a profile on Twitter, search for people in your industry, follow them, and just watch for a couple of weeks. Start to participate once you have a sense of what the community is like.
  • Consider setting-up a blog. If you’re passionate about something, you should have plenty to say that someone will be interested in. You don’t have to post every day. Once a week is alright, twice is better. If you’re an author, posting once a month after the initial push for your book is done is fine. I’ve heard from authors that post once a month that they’ve received queries from major media after finding their blog. This is a very good thing! I can speak from my own experience, and I know it seems intimidating at first, but you can literally have a free blog on Blogger or WordPress in minutes. It’s just an investment in a bit of time to set it up. After that, well, you do have to write something interesting.
  • Consider the social networking sites. Maybe you already have a Facebook profile. What about GoodReads? LibraryThing? LinkedIn? MySpace? I’m not suggesting maintaining a profile on all of these (you wanted to turn off your computer at some point, right?), but having a presence on one or two is doable. Just keep in mind the focus of the networks. LinkedIn is for professional networking, but Athlinks is for endurance athletes.

And remember, you don’t have to do it all. Just do what makes sense for you, your audience, and what you can reasonably handle.

Here’s some resources to get you started:

And finally, don’t forget to put The Wire on your NetFlix Queue.

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