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Are News Exclusives the Meatball Sundaes of Web-Based Media?

This content originally appeared on my former Chicagosphere online-media blog, hosted on the Chicago Tribune‘s ChicagoNow network.

Last week, local dining-industry PR shop Restaurant Intelligence Agency wrote a blog post telling clients to concentrate on exclusive media pitches or risk being blackballed by angry reporters. As long as three years ago, however, media watchers began warning that exclusives can actually do more harm than good in a highly interactive, Web 2.0 media world. Who’s right?

Last Friday, in a blog post entitled, “One story, one journalist, no exceptions,” RIA told its audience of chefs and restaurateurs:

“But one thing that chefs need to understand is a key ingredient to successful relations with the media: They like exclusivity.  What that means is: They like to be the only person writing a certain angle of a story…Be aware and safe and you’ll have long-term relationships that pay dividends.  Or I guess you can just go ahead and be sorry, get your one pop in the media in several publications and then NEVER BE TRUSTED AGAIN. [emphasis original] And by trusted, I mean written about.”

In other words, don’t pitch the same story or story angle to more than one reporter at a time, for fear of reporters becoming angry and never writing about your restaurant again.

That used to be good media-relations advice–about 10 years ago, before the rise of the blogosphere and the shift of newspapers from print to virtual publications, back when faxes and snail mail were still the primary means of distributing press releases. However, today’s online media world revolves around interactive debate and the ability to be nimble with a story.

Two years ago, marketing guru Seth Godin coined the concept of the “meatball sundae” in his eponymously titled book. Using a pause-inducing gastronomic metaphor, Godin warned that improperly merging old but familiar media practices (symbolized by meatballs) with sexy new web-based  bells and whistles (sweet and yummy ice cream toppings) had the potential to end in disaster. Who wants to eat a meatball covered in hot fudge and maraschino cherries?

In 2009, the hoary, old meatball of media exclusives does not meld well with the sundae of interactive social media. These days, business reputations fall and rise in real-time on Twitter, Facebook, and the comment threads of major niche blogs and national news websites. The time you take waiting for a single (usually print) reporter to bless your story with coverage could be better spent building a leverageable conversation community across multiple websites that, when properly stewarded, will disseminate your news for you–and widely so.

As early as 2006, Robert Scoble was already warning that exclusives no longer matter because scoops are no longer possible in an instantaneous electronic news environment. A minute after that major paper writes about you, some other interested reporter or blogger will write about you, too–so is it really worth sitting on your story for sixty seconds of fame in USA Today?

Those who say yes are afraid, as Peter Himler also noted in 2006 on his Flack blog, of A-list reporters who historically have refused to consider stories pitched to anyone else but them. Of course, thousands of reporters across the country from the A-list on down have lost their jobs in the intervening three years of print-media shrinkage caused by a phenomenally growing Internet that puts the ability to run an exclusive in the hands of just about everyone. Journalists who still have their jobs today know they can be bypassed no matter what list they’re on–and none of them wants to be the one to reject a hot, potentially advertiser-friendly story.

Moreover, much virtual ink has been spilled this year about the death of the news embargo. PR Week UK noted over the summer (see here and here) the Wall Street Journal‘s new practice of ignoring the embargo date on news releases and covering stories as soon as they receive them–unless they’re the ones being offered the exclusive. As other mastheads follow suit, that means the very newspapers demanding you give them exclusive access to your news won’t respect the temporary news blackouts created by their own industry to ensure that exclusive stories have a chance to actually be exclusive.

How much of any of this sounds fair to you or supportive of your media-based business aims?

My experience in media relations tells me if you’re hot, you’re hot. The media will write about you if you’ve got a good story, regardless. If you’re not so hot, following the age-old admonition to tell reporters that you are pitching them as a group ensures that no one can claim you burned them out of an exclusive story.

That especially applies to Chicago’s limited universe of food and drink reporters, whether print, broadcast, or online. I fail to see the worth of a Windy City food exclusive when frequently (a better word here might be incessantly), the same restaurant story you read about yesterday in the Time Out Chicago food blog will pop up today on Gapers Block Drive-Thru, next week reappear again in the Sun-Times, get a mention the following week by Steve Dolinsky on ABC 7, and finally lurch to a halt next month in a front-of-book Chicago Magazine blurb, all the while being analyzed in detail on LTH Forum. And if you don’t believe me, Google any story involving Rick Bayless, the latest Lettuce Entertain You opening, or deep-dish pizza and get back to me.

Restaurateur or not, no matter who agrees to cover your stories, you should be telling your own news on your own news blog, first and foremost. The Internet gives every business owner the ability–and, I believe, responsibility–to become their own news source. If you’re a business owner offering anyone else exclusives without taking the time to boast on your own behalf, the real entity getting scooped here is you.

Not for nothing, but If you aren’t your own biggest fan, why should anyone else write about you? Exclusively or otherwise?

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Mike Doyle

I’m an #OpenlyAutistic gay, Hispanic, urbanist, Disney World fan, New York native, politically independent, Jewish blogger in Chicago. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I write words and raise money for nonprofits. I’ve written this blog since 2005. And counting...

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