This month we had the wonderful opportunity to pick the brain of business journalist, Tony Wanless. Check out Tony’s insightful thoughts on the changing media landscape, journalism today, and how PR professionals fit in to it all.

Which publications do you contribute to at the moment?

Financial Post. They recently killed my BC Business and CanadaWide columns. It looks like my journalism days are nearly over.

What topics or stories are especially appealing to you?

For my column, anything related to entrepreneurship and business operation in general, i.e. processes, marketing, product development, etc.

For general business reporting, I’m looking for anything to do with business startup (which can go on for some time) and franchises.

What are your thoughts on the changing media landscape? Has it affected the way you work? How so?

I am extremely affected, so much so that I’m probably getting out of the business soon. There doesn’t seem to be much appetite for my type of journalism today.

But here’s my essay, taken from my view as a management consultant:

Everything in media today is driven by the dispersal of advertising to so many different media outlets. Most traditional outlets are also online now, but advertising revenue has fallen severely, and they’re not quite sure how to deal with it (except attempting to cut costs, which isn’t as easy as it sounds).

This is true of newspapers and magazines and television. In a new world where eyeballs are everything, most traditional media are trying to save their advertising-based business models by featuring short, snappy or sensational (i.e. “Headless Body Found In Topless Bar”, a famous New York Post headline), and usually trite mini-articles that they hope will attract the new, inattentive reader or viewer. This means writers have been turned into a new form of the old wire-service cogs who just pump out these supposedly attractive bits. The jury’s still out on whether this is working. (I personally don’t think it is). Some newspapers are attempting to stake out territory as thoughtful and position-based, but they are often hampered by their need to feed on a shrinking advertising dollar.

Large online media are based on volume, and so pay their writers very little, which, in turn, usually attracts only the very young and eager, but inexperienced. Then, of course, there are the thousands of amateur journalists out there who will do it for free, just so they can say they did.

Also, content, which is a new entry in the media landscape, is rapidly displacing news and/or reporting. I don’t worry about whether the content is sponsored by some company – so what, and I write it myself – but I am upset that often it is posted by smaller companies and so is banal, hackneyed, and jejune. Witness any large world story – instantly there are hundreds of tweets saying the same thing, and dozens of instant blogs about it. They’re not contributing anything except more noise. It’s like everybody rushing out into the street and shouting the same thing. Who is supposed to be listening?

Also, because most content is focused on SEO (which supposedly lead to sales) it is often stolen or cribbed from somebody else’s content. This “sharing” is Twitter’s reason for being, of course, and is especially true with blogs.

Eventually, this will shake out and methodology to control the fire hose will emerge. But right now, it’s extremely difficult to discern whether a piece of content is real, accurate and worthwhile, or whether it’s just free “advice” posted to attract people into the buyer funnel.

How would you like PR people to get in touch with you about relevant news and story topics?

Email mostly, but sometimes a phone call works if we’re familiar with each other. I usually work with PR people to shape the story – it’s not always useful as presented.

Generally, I think the operative word here is relevant. I know it’s tough to customize, but story pitches should really be geared to the individual reporter’s needs.

What can PR professionals do to optimize their chances of getting your attention?

Well, the old journo saying was make it picturable and about puppies or nice-looking young women. But that has changed – now it’s about the Canucks, or real estate, or family and kids. Christy Clark wasn’t being stupid when she endlessly talked about how she was working for “BC families.” It’s all anyone has left.

But, to go deeper, one should understand the reporter’s needs (and likes) and customize for them. Find an angle that will attract them (I’m a big angle guy: It’s how you make a so-what story different and interesting. It’s also my bread and butter because I consult on it.)

What are your PR pet peeves?

People who send me stuff that’s completely irrelevant and absolutely useless to me – often because they work for machine-like (usually very large) companies that just blast out the same old thing to everyone and expect them to run it. Those days are over. But they persist.

I routinely am sent stuff, usually out of the States, because I’m on some huge reporter list. It’s crap. On the other hand, I was recently pitched a business story in Vancouver by a PR person in New York who took the time and trouble to search through the local media for someone who might be interested. It was sent to me because of my now defunct column in BC Business, but I turned it into a Financial Post column because it was focused on a relevant issue and angled very well.

What things are PR people doing well and should do more of?

Understanding the journalism game, understanding the people in it, and getting to know the relevant people. Talking to an editor might get you in the door, but you’ll get a lot farther if you can get to an individual reporter with whom you have a relationship.

Most reporters have traplines – a list of people who regularly supply story ideas to them (involving their own clients, or just good stories in general) — and check it regularly.

The best thing a PR person can do is get on that trapline. That’s done by supplying a couple of good ones, or working with the reporter that will give him or her a good angle that stands out, and repeating the process. It helps if you can actually meet them in person, but that’s hard to do in today’s world.

Tony Wanless is a Certified Management Consultant and an award-winning former journalist. Tony has been creating content in books, newspapers, magazines, television, and online for more than 30 years. He currently writes a business column for the Financial Post.