It’s been said a number of times from “Ghostbusters” in 1984 to a more recent Onion article where there was an obituary under the headline “Print, Dead At 1803.” Now, it’s true — at least for 95 percent of campaigns. Print is, in fact, dead.
Despite its passing, most campaigns from Senate through state House still spend a disproportionate amount of time strategizing about how to deal with newspaper editors and reporters. We would also argue that “earned media” campaign strategy focusing on all media outlets is about to be dead, too.
Before you start ticking off the exceptions, the main point we would submit is that campaigns and candidates have to reassess how much time they put into earned media strategy, versus social media strategy, versus fundraising versus direct-voter contact. We would argue in most races that aren't for president, almost none of the candidate’s time should be spent dealing with the media.
This is bad news and we don’t like it. Between us we’ve worked for print, radio, and TV news outlets. Our company was built on our media relations and crisis management skills, as much as our advertising expertise. Today, there just isn’t a demand from media outlets for local political stories. Why, then, should campaigns burn the midnight oil to supply them with content if it’s akin to pushing a rope?
The Post-Apocolyptic News-scape
Newspapers (in print and online), TV stations and radio stations have it tough. The news business is brutally competitive and unforgiving. Plus, they have the double whammy of being expected to do public good while making a profit.
Any business in a competitive field struggling to thrive researches their customers and knows what they want. Voters and consumers have told media management over and over through their clicks and their focus groups that local political stories are not what they want.
Voters and consumers of all demographics are drawn to “if it bleeds, it leads” stories. Crime, catastrophe and scandal get interest whether it’s from everyday people or celebrities. There’s almost no space in newscasts or local news pages for a positive policy idea or coverage of someone trying to improve the community.
How do you make news? Attack an opponent, announce fundraising results or talk about a poll. These process stories don’t contribute much to the conversation, but they're about the only stories you’ll get other than the obligatory “candidate profile” a couple of weeks before the election.
Some campaigns aspire for a newspaper’s editorial board endorsement. But only a quarter of voters find that credible while surveys show about 60 percent find that endorsements from a police or firefighters group, a teachers organization or a business group are “trusted” or “persuasive.”
The most influence a media outlet can have in a campaign is running a negative editorial on a controversial issue that the other candidate then takes and uses in mass communications. You have an “on-message” attack where a third party has made the charge. That's credible and powerful.
Just Walk Away
In the 2010 cycle, things were going well for Republican candidates. They made the shrewd decision to quit dealing with the news media. You had Republicans in some of the top federal races in the country who decided not to participate in public debates or forums and not to cooperate with local newspapers. In some of our races, candidates even made the decision not to show up for editorial board meetings.
One dynamic driving this decision was the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. These candidates didn’t need to compete for “free media.” Their attitude became, “If we want to say something in your newspaper or on your television station, we’ll buy an ad.” We expected the media outlets to make them pay a price, but few were subjected to scathing editorials.
Presidents since Ronald Reagan have been “going over the head” of media and speaking directly to voters, but this time it was different. If campaigns are not punished for playing a game of “hide the candidate” why change?
A Good Reporter Is Hard to Find
Market economics kick in again because there are few hard-nosed investigative reporters who cover non-presidential races. An endangered species is a local or national reporter who can still land a punch when they decide to do so. Some have moved on to public relations or consulting. Those who have stayed in media are working for organizations that are neutered. There are some exceptions, but this is the rule.
Three Exceptions To The Death of Print
1) Presidential campaigns are still driven by news coverage, but many of the same problems exist. Print is also nearing irrelevance in a national campaign.
2) A candidate facing a crisis will need not only a media relations strategy, but to have built a strong relationship with local news outlets.
3) The news media is more relevant for incumbents than challengers.
Thomas Jefferson once said, “If I had to choose between government without newspapers, and newspapers without government, I wouldn't hesitate to choose the latter." In campaigns, we’ve arrived essentially at campaigns without newspapers playing a meaningful role. Many great Americans are surely turning in their graves.
Bill Fletcher and John Rowley are partners in the Democratic media firm of Fletcher Rowley.