Change and experimentation are coming to the Washington Post, according to Chris Jenkins, who spoke the Independent Public Relations Alliance (IPRA) in January 2014. The October 2013 announcement of the Post’s sale to Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com, sent shock waves through the DC PR community – and now that our initial surprise has worn off – many want to know what the sale means for the future of the Washington Post.
For those fearing that the sale means heads will roll – that’s not the case. “You will not see a bunch of 22 year olds come in and throw us out,” said Jenkins, who is an assistant local editor at the Post. The first year after the sale is a grace period and news editorial will not be changing.
At the same time, the Post is not a charity case, and Bezos definitely wants to make the DC area’s flagship newspaper successful financially, said Jenkins. As we all know, newspapers have struggled financially in the information age and been under increasing monetary pressures as readers have flocked online and cancelled paper subscriptions.
According to Jenkins, Bezos wants to take a changing institution and make it successful. He is trying to take the long view and create what the 21st century newspaper look like. “There will be change and disruption. This is not all milk and cookies,” said Jenkins, in one of his more memorable quotes.
One of the ways the newspaper is changing is through creation of “nodes” that facilitate conversations between journalists and readers. In place for the last five to six years, these individualized verticals, such as Wonkblog, focus on special topics and offer specialized content that allows the reader to get informed and discuss a topic. Jenkins said there are going to be more of these individual nodes, and if you have a client that is relevant and has something interesting to say, these verticals present new opportunities for public relations pros eager to score digital ink.
A vertical is structured more like a blog, with some analysis of a defined subject matter. So it offers opinion and is observational. The curator of the vertical may write 3-4 times a day. The tone may be a little less formal than traditional print reporting. And the curator may pose questions, ask for comments, make lists or share content. It is designed to foster conversation.
These verticals and social media have opened up new ways to have conversations with readers. Jenkins discussed the education blog (The Answer Sheet) produced by Valerie Strauss and how a particular post about a teacher wanting to quit teaching went viral. While Strauss wrote only a few sentences to introduce the teacher’s original words – the story netted 8 million views.
Giving others opportunities to write something that can be shared is a key part of these verticals and builds their participatory nature. “We want to be the curators. They want more stuff, more content. It has to be useful, conversational, that people want to read and want to share,” said Jenkins.
Jenkins offered advice to help PR pros too. “Have a cheat sheet for yourself and update it. Know who runs each section. I can’t stress too much how dynamic things are going to be in the future for the Post. There will be surprises. Make sure you stay in touch with the changes we are making.”
In this new more entrepreneurial/experimental version of the Washington Post, things may be tried and then abandoned if they don’t take off or succeed. “We are experimenting. When one thing doesn’t work, they will change it. We should expect change. The spirit is that as we move forward as a news organization, we are trying to create a new thing that has never been invented before. There is going to be a lot of disruption in all of our lives,” said Jenkins.
It’s more important than ever, for PR pros to know who they are pitching when they are trying to suggest a story about a client. Is it a traditional reporter or a blogger? What does he or she write about the most? When dealing with bloggers, you may have to change your approach, advises Jenkins. They are often writing opinions, and not reporting, in the traditional sense. Bloggers are quick and speedy, but everyone at the Washington Post is operating under increasing deadlines to create copy for online dissemination. All reporters are being asked to post at least one story online every day, even if it is just a short piece.
Cultivating relationships with reporters will be even more important as changes disrupt work flows and content creation and dissemination become king. “Try to find the right reporter and strategically engage. Those personal relationships are invaluable even more now,” said Jenkins.
It’s also important for PR pros to realize that photos may carry more currency than a story. “A photo gallery of an event you are promoting is more shareable than an article. It may not be a story but photos would be shareable,” said Jenkins.
When asked if reporters are getting story pitches from Twitter, Jenkins said yes, they do take pitches via Twitter, and he pointed out that reporters troll Twitter for story ideas at times. However, he added that not all reporters are Twitter-oriented (so if you are trying to pitch a story to a reporter who isn’t into Twitter, you need to try something else).
The audience also asked if reporters read all of the comments posted online for a particular story. Jenkins said that writers managing verticals do read their comments and that sometimes new stories result from comments. But some reporters don’t read them, even though they are encouraged to do so. Comments today are monitored more closely now than they were five years ago, and comments are removed if they are hurtful to the reporter or the subject.
IPRA is part of the Public Relations Society of America – National Capital Chapter. Our next IPRA lunch will be held May 1 and discuss the secrets to writing a winning proposal. Thanks to Rob Udowitz for sharing his photo.
Ami Neiberger-Miller is a public relations strategist and writer. She is the founder of Steppingstone LLC, a virtual and independent public relations practice near Washington, D.C. that provides public relations counsel, social media advice, writing services, and creative design work for publications and websites. Ami blogs frequently about media relations, social media, public relations and other issues. She also reviews books on her blog about public relations, nonprofit life, work-family balance and social media practice. Follow her on Twitter @AmazingPRMaven.