Occasionally someone will ask me if we do news conferences. Yes and no, I answer. We’ll set up news conferences for clients when they’re appropriate, but those circumstances have become increasingly rare. It might still be possible to fill a room with reporters in Toronto or New York, but it’s not easy in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
It wasn’t always this way. Only a decade ago, local news conferences were much more common. Public relations people would dutifully set up rows of chairs, podiums with urns of coffee at the back of the room. Displays and demonstrations and other things of visual interest were set up and media kits full of information assembled. And the rooms would fill with radio, television and print reporters.
That was at a time when news people were more plentiful. Today, there are scarcely more than half a dozen newsrooms of any size and energy in Winnipeg. For radio, you have CBC Radio One, Radio Canada (CBC French) and CJOB, all of which are staffed with more on-air hosts than reporters. For television, there’s CBC, Global and CTV (easily the most important of the three based on ratings). There’s also CITY TV which still airs local news on its Breakfast Television broadcast. In print, there’s the Winnipeg Sun and the Winnipeg Free Press. It’s instructive that even The Free Press, which has the largest and most active newsroom, is a tough sell to get out to news events.
All these newsrooms have been shrinking in recent years and many radio stations have given up the idea of generating their own news entirely. So there just aren’t that many reporters around to show up to a news conference.
As a result we tell our clients that the traditional news conference isn’t the way to go except in circumstances where you have intense public interest in a subject and limited time to satisfy multiple interview requests. For example, you might have a genuine crisis on your hands that is of great public interest and you need to release information to a broad audience all at once. (The police still do this on a regular basis as do many other emergency services organizations, though they characterize these events as briefings rather than the more formal ‘news conference.’) On the other hand, you may also have a visiting celebrity to whom you need to restrict access (due to his or her popularity and limited availability).
In the main, except for special events, media relations efforts in Winnipeg and Manitoba are more commonly one-on-one efforts. We tend to pitch our stories more actively and directly than we did before to individual reporters, editors, news directors and on-air hosts. There’s just too much competition for the attention of a dwindling pool of news people.
This scenario is even more pronounced outside of Winnipeg. Brandon has the Brandon Sun, CKX TV and a couple of local radio newsrooms. There are small weekly papers and rural radio stations across Manitoba who are even more strained for resources than their big city counterparts. In Saskatchewan, where we regularly reach out to both urban (Saskatoon, Regina, Moose Jaw, Yorkton, Prince Albert) and rural audiences, the problem is even more pronounced with even smaller newsrooms. The same goes for Northwestern Ontario where geography and a battered regional economy combine to reduce the local news pool (it’s a five hour drive from Thunder Bay to Kenora and I’d be surprised if there are even two dozen local reporters to cover the whole area).
Notwithstanding the challenge it places on our democracy where the media have long formed an ‘unofficial opposition’, it also makes our job of media relations that much more challenging.
It’s interesting to note that where traditional newsrooms have fallen away from covering some stories, hyper-local news websites have begun to pick up the slack. In Winnipeg, for example, you should check out www.ChrisD.ca. ChrisD.ca is one of many local bloggers we reach out to on behalf of clients. In fact we spend as much time using social media – Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Picasa – and talking to bloggers on any particular topic as we do talking to reporters.
Get used to it. The days of multiple, large newsrooms are over.