Reporters: today, your competition isn’t other journalists, it’s the source itself

Today, the greatest competition for journalists isn’t other journalists. It’s the source itself.

But rather than face the continued loss of revenue to efforts outside of reporting or the looming collision of mission and audience, my industry is still focused as it always has been on besting others in their traditional ecosystem, not on preparing for the growing attention deficit online.

The Onion ran a satirical poke last week, reporting that American Airlines was planning to halt its commercial air travel business to focus on publishing its in-flight magazine.

While corporate periodicals aren’t new, the increasing cost-effectiveness of developing an audience is. So anyone with a mission can focus on growing a community of people around it. That’s why newspaper sports beat writers should be most worried about the growing MLB and NFL content creation arms, and why their TV counterparts are increasingly seeing a cable telecommunications company as a future employer.

In the last 20 years, as investigative reporting teams have dwindled, government oversight nonprofits, trade groups, city and state agencies, foundations and other mission-minded groups have done the heavy lifting on many big trends or investigations and then handed off their findings to newspapers for their context, vetting and, most importantly, their mass market audience.

Does anyone not see that the logical next step in this process is that these direct sources will develop their own audiences and increasingly make reporting-agencies less valuable (particularly as the audience continues to fragment)?

To be sure, I do always expect some level of clearing house for ideas — a fire hose will always play a role in one way or another — but the source is the real competition for the future of news.

Let’s take a local example.

The City of Philadelphia has at least a half dozen inconsistently updated and badly connected WordPress blogs and information channels. Different departments and agencies have taken on their own social media efforts, many have their own communication teams. The Philadelphia Police, for example, have spent considerable effort in growing social media channels for outreach, as part of a broader innovation campaign. The mayor has a robust marketing unit. For any controversial issue, they retain outside public relations consultants. City Council has also spent money on marketing  — in addition to its own lobbyist.

There is no cohesive message, so while the tools are all there, these types of organizations haven’t figured out the hows and whys of this. But what happens when city governments (and other mission-minded groups) get more widely savvy about the important and the ways of cultivating an audience?

In Washington state, one of the biggest drivers of information about their new marijuana laws is the Seattle police department, which recently hired a former alt-weekly reporter to cover that and other efforts for the public.

Aside from the internal culture infighting that must block it, I can’t begin to understand why all of these organizations — including, yes, the City of Philadelphia — don’t recognize why they should probably be hiring more reporters (who are good at finding, telling and spreading information) and fewer communications specialists (who are good at convincing other people to do it). Growing your own direct conversation with an audience is at least as important as interaction with news organizations in this climate.

Yes, social media has been an important first step in this process of audience accrual (for their part, the City of Philadelphia deserves credit). But that’s still a push medium that needs something to push, and nobody wants to read a press release.

Soon, these organizations will start picking up on the idea that they need something to be pushing on social media. So they’ll start hiring people who look and sound like reporters, for their own industries or missions.

If I was a City Hall reporter, I’d see direct communication with the public to be a very real concern for my hegemony on audience. Context is important, and we should fight to make that clear, but we need to find new ways to be providing value, as this future becomes increasingly more clear.

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