Why an Information Ice Age Is on Its Way

Sometime around the late 1970s, with the advent of the personal computer, the industrial era morphed into the information age. Marked by a free and speedy flow of news stories, data, personal communications and business documents, the information age gave us a surge in journalism and an abundance of news sources to satisfy the most demanding of news junkies. This 25-year period represented a perfect collision of the old media with the new (Internet) delivery systems.

Now the devices that ushered in the information age—the computer and the Internet are about to send us spiraling into an information ice age. And public relations professionals had best prepare themselves for an environment that will make their jobs as difficult as they have ever been.

Months before the Rocky Mountain News closed its doors, I spoke with frightened ex-colleagues at that newspaper about prospects for their futures. I assured them that they had a unique skill (news gathering) that will always be in demand, and that they just needed to figure out how to market that skill to the people who want assurances of news accuracy, who want a professional “filtration” of the most important news, and who want the news presented in the most easy-to-absorb manner. My encouragement provided them some relief.

But I lied.

I didn’t do it on purpose, but I have since concluded that the demand for those news gathering skills no longer exists to the extent that it did just 10 years ago. A generation of young people, now in their mid-20s, has grown up on news-via-Internet, where they have concluded that the news just kind of “appears,” and it’s always free, almost like water from a tap. If you don’t believe me, ask the nearest random 24-year-old where that Internet news comes from, and what are the economics behind it.

Here’s what that 24-year-old typically doesn’t understand. For about 10 years, newspapers (and other media) have experimented with this alternate delivery system called the Internet, putting content on Web sites at no charge because the cost to the media was so negligible. Media executives believed they would find a way to make this thing economical eventually. It never happened. In the meantime, a generation of people got hooked on the Internet alternative, and they have no intention of ever going back to the paid model.

Sadly, many people who grew up on this news-via-Internet system have failed to expose themselves to the kinds of news they would have received with a newspaper on their laps. The short headlines on an Internet home page often fail to motivate these folks into committing to the “click” that might or might not pull up the next Web page in a reasonable amount of time.

Now that newspapers are disappearing, so are the journalists. We will have fewer boots on the streets, fewer eyes monitoring our government, and less urgency to be “first” with a story. The drop-off in news quantity and quality will be subtle at first, but I predict within about 10 years it will begin to be noticeable, with people asking, “How did that obvious story go uncovered?” As in, “Shouldn’t some journalist have asked those guys at AIG when they received their bailout what they planned to do about their traditional bonuses?”

As people begin to get frustrated with the lack of news, demand will rise, and a viable economic model will emerge (perhaps with prepaid cards for micro-purchases).  In the meantime, PR professionals will have to rely less and less upon the availability of trained journalists to broadcast news about their clients. And don’t think that for a minute that those clients are going to content themselves with “appearances” on poorly constructed, poorly vetted blogs that attract little attention.

The PR industry is going to have to find ways to put to their advantage the very technology that killed the newspaper industry; and PR professionals are going to have to diversify their talents, using creativity to make the public aware of the best places to find the messages that the public needs to see. And “diversification” will not include a shift toward social networking—not as long as credibility remains any kind of priority in message presentation.

The bottom line: The PR industry is on the road to a difficult few years, and PR professionals who can’t adapt are likely to suffer as much as their newspaper colleagues.

Steve Caulk is president of ProConnect Public Relations in Westminster, Colo. He was a reporter and editor at the Rocky Mountain News for 19 years. Contact him at info@proconnectpr.com, or visit www.proconnectpr.com.