The Huffington Post

Neo Journalism is the Name of the Game

If you find it increasingly harder to make any significant impact on the news media these days, you are not alone. PR practitioners are increasingly frustrated because the new product and the worthy community project that used to be dependable stories just aren't making it through the media channel the way they used to.

Why? Primarily because the media has gone through a significant seismic shift in recent years, and the look of the new landscape is Neo-Journalism to which the old objective, just-the-facts principles of Walter Lippman and Edward R. Morrow that prevailed for over 60 years are now in second position. Knowing what Neo-Journalism is, how it's played, and how you can leverage the principles effectively is essential in our fiercely competitive market place.

Navigating the Neo

The first thing to know about Neo-Journalism is that it is fundamentally market driven. Media organizations, whether New York Times or High Times, have a bottom line like yours: to increase market share and brand recognition.

Like most American business, the media has gone through dramatic market implosions, fragmentation and down-sizing since the 80's. In most large cities, there are over forty hours per week of prime-time news, features and pseudo-news shows. Add the morning, noon and nightly local tv broadcasts, plus radio news and the ubiquitous talk shows, and you are looking at a market place fairly atomized.

News managers need to deliver good reasons for customers to come to their products. In the corporate world, those reasons usually revolve around price, convenience, quality or customer service. In Neo-Journalism, what sets the product apart from the competition are stylistic choices: the way a story is told, the connection it makes with an audience.

Tell A Story. Put A Face on It

Tell A Story. Put A Face on It Neo-Journalism is a return to the good old days of subjective story telling, the kind of narrative reporting that started with the tabloid abrasiveness of Yellow Journalists like Pulitzer and Hearst and evolved into the stylish, subjective reporting of Ernest Hemingway, Stephen Crane, Jack London and H.L. Mencken. It is back. And it is how news, even business news, is covered today.

"The only way we can connect with an audience is to go beyond the mere facts of a story," says Bill Nigut, anchor and Political Editor, WSB-TV, Atlanta. Nigut and editors around the country have adjusted easily to the notion that their stories must now interpret the meaning of events instead of just deliver the he-said/she-said facts. It is precisely the reporters "meaning" and "interpretation" that stylistically sets the piece apart from anyone else's coverage. In addition, every news room's Neo-Journalism mantra is "Put a Face on it." Find the character, the human connection, the face, that an audience can relate to, can make an emotional connection with. One-hundred sixty-eight dead in the Oklahoma City bombing is staggering, but it is conceptual. It reaches us on a cognitive, rational level. The front page picture of a fireman holding an injured baby hits us on a profoundly intuitive, emotional level. It is the face that tells the larger story.

Yes, Virginia, There is a Bias, but it's Not What You Think

Ideological bias is still around in Neo-Journalism. Institutional bias, cynicism against government and business, is also in the mix. But "the real bias amongst Neo-Journalism managers is toward a compelling literary story" writes Washington Post media reporter, Howard Kurtz, in his thoughtful book Media Circus. If it doesn't have the age-old narrative components of tension, conflict, heart, sharp characters or a strong plot, it is not going to make it through the media chain to your market. This explains why journalists often focus so much on the process of a story, the horse race part. To help bring out the conflict, reporters often take on the accuser role in an interview, becoming surrogates for the challenging position. In other words, if David isn't there in person to challenge Goliath, the reporter will often unconsciously do it for him.

Even Goliath Has A Story to Tell

Whether you face an existing narrative -- "Brave Little David Takes On Indifferent Goliath," or whether you frame the story yourself -- "Popular Goliath Faces Attack From Radical Dave," Neo-Journalism demands that the story have character, tension or heart. A press release about your company's recent soaring sales is not going to have much of an impact. That's what profit driven companies are suppose to do. But if it looks like this recent L.A. Times story about the pager business by Karen Kaplan, you're in the neo mode.

"The Cutting Edge"

"Lynn O'Rourke Hayes is in the market for a pager. Not for herself, but for her 12 year-old son, Ben.

The five members of the Hayes family already share three pagers. The children use them to reach their parents whether they're at the office or at the movies. The parents lend them to the baby sitter before she takes the kids to the mall."

After a paragraph detailing the specific ways the Hayes family uses their pagers, and another one on the background of pagers, the story continues....

"Now wait a minute. Weren't pagers supposed to be an interim technology, awaiting quick obsolescence in a world of cellular telephones and other advanced wireless communications devices? Well, yes. But the robust health of the pager business......"

Pagers, like blacksmiths, faced extinction with the onslaught of new technology -- that is the story's tension.

The Hayes family, who show us why pagers are so necessary, are the story's face. It's not until the fourth paragraph the reader is led to the larger thrust of the piece: pagers are booming. And it's not until the fifth paragraph that we find out this story is primarily about the success of the Motorola company. This is Neo-Journalism at work. PR practitioners who understand this process are beginning to re-think what a good story is and how to frame it in ways that connect with an audience on an emotional, literary level. Most every story can be re-framed as long as the re-framing also has strong literary elements. In the O.J. Simpson case, the prosecution's narrative read "Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde." The defense re-framed it to "Rush To Judgment by a Racist Police." In this case, the re-framing was demonstrably effective

It's Not What You Say, but How You Say It

On a corporate level, executives are increasingly becoming a primary focus in their own company's stories as the old medium-is-the-message notion upgrades to a Neo- Journalism's you-are-the-message. Examples are Lee Iaccoca for Chrysler, Bill Gates for Microsoft, Bill DeVilla for Vons. If you are working with a reluctant executive who can't, or won't, use his/her own face, look within the organization for the personalities that can be used. At that point, corporate managers should not hesitate to allow the audience to experience their executive's unique humanity. After all, executives are also consumers, wives, fathers, taxpayers, etc. As a UCLA survey demonstrates, 93% of what an audience receives from a speaker is the story-teller himself, which means, as Mae West says, "It's not what you say, but how you say it." In other words, executives can no longer find cover behind detached corporate demeanors in the era of Neo-Journalism.

There is often a reluctance on the part of some managers to embrace Neo-Journalism concepts because the media requires more dramatic story-telling techniques and more user-friendly language than cognitive thinking executives are used to delivering. It's easier to be direct and to the point in "business-speak." Bottom line communication works in the board room. But in Neo-Journalism, a more narrative vocabulary is required. Images, metaphors, analogies and illustrations make strong connections with an audience and help draw them into the story.

In the age of Neo-Journalism, controversy, conflict and tension are king. To manage a successful media campaign today and deliver results that go beyond reasonable expectations, you need to be skillful at recognizing how these characteristics are used to shape news coverage and then use them to your advantage. The media needs to report stories that inform, entertain and compel an audience to either continue reading the publication, continue listening to the radio station or stay on the same channel.

As the cable and satellite industries continue expanding and offering consumers more program selections and as the computer on-line services extend their reach to more Americans, capturing the public's attention via standard methods will be nearly impossible. It's safe to say that the gap between the news and entertainment media will continue to diminish -- the O.J. Simpson case is a perfect example of this trend.

So when you move forth in your next media relations project, remember to put a "face" on your story; look for the compelling angle that has strong narrative components, and keep in mind that a little Michael Crichton mixed in with some Edward R. Morrow can do a lot to enhance your media success.

 

Tom Alderman is founder of MediaPrep, a west coast media and presentation training firm. He is also a UCLA media analyst.
 
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