Newspapers as Agenda Setters. Who Follows in Their Wake?

For this guest blog I asked Dick Jones of Dick Jones Communications for his thoughts on newspapers as the agenda setters and who sets the agenda as they continue to lose circulation. Here’s Dick’s response:

While most people no longer get their news directly from newspapers, the papers retain an important role as the agenda setters of the news.  That’s why it’s still essential for college and university publicists to get their stories into the newspapers.

At the local level, your TV assignment editors are taking many of their cues for the day’s news coverage from the stories in the morning newspaper—at least the stories that they think have some “visual” potential.  The stories that do not have video appeal turn up in text on the station’s website.  Zoning ordinance changes make bad television.

Too few local radio stations retain independent news operations anymore.   Where local radio news still exists they are reading wire stories (many of which were re-written from newspapers) and cribbing shamelessly from the local newspaper for others.  Sometimes this is done with attribution.  Not always.

Bloggers commenting on the foibles of the school board may have attended last night’s board meeting.  More likely, however, they read about it in the morning newspaper.  Or if they are commenting on a national issue, such as the relief efforts in the China earthquake, they got their info from a Google search which turned up a host of stories from newspapers and wire services.

It’s not much different at the national level.  The producers of the network television and cable news programs are scanning their agenda-setting newspapers for story ideas.  These include The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and USA TODAY.

More often than I can count in my career, a big broadcast score has resulted after the story was covered by a national agenda-setting newspaper or a major wire service.   One of the more recent examples is a professor who wrote an op/ed for The Chicago Tribune about Presidents Day in February.  After it appeared he was interviewed on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation.”

So newspapers still matter even though fewer and fewer people read them.  That’s one reason why the collapsing economics of the newspaper business is  a concern.  If the newspapers go belly up who will be the agenda setters?

Something will fill the vacuum, of course.  Something will serve as the agenda setter for the news.  Something always has; always will.

As media relations professionals we will have to find whatever it is and successfully pitch them.


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