Hollowed out news organizations less able to report in thoughtful manner on supplements industry

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

The final cover for the Rocky Mountain News. Schultz was an employee of the paper for 23 years, until its end.
The final cover for the Rocky Mountain News. Schultz was an employee of the paper for 23 years, until its end.

Related tags Dietary supplement industry Advertising

Fundamental changes in the media landscape are affecting how reporters cover the natural products and dietary supplement industries.  Employment at media outlets has fallen steeply, meaning reporters have less time to do their jobs than ever.

At the recent Botanical Congress hosted by the American Herbal Products Association in Las Vegas, NV, I gave a talk on the changes in the newspaper and broadcast industries. I have some skin in this game as I had a 30-year career in the newspaper business prior to beginning my time reporting on the dietary supplement industry. I’m sure this comes as no surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention, but many within the supplements industry may not realize just how bad the situation has become, and how that affects how reporters might interact with industry.

Newspaper focus

I’ll focus on newspapers here, as I’m more familiar with them, and I still believe them to be highly influential within the media landscape. Many of the stories that gain currency within the media start first as a report in one of the major newspapers. Also, the changes within the media are a little easier to quantify for newspapers as they can be thought of as vertically integrated manufacturers; they gather their own raw material and distribute it to their end users. In the broadcast realm, especially in TV, things are much more fragmented with creators of content, brokers and distributors all overlapping. Some of these segments make lot of money, while others struggle. From a reporting power standpoint, however, the picture has been one of overall decline.

Newspaper circulation, daily and Sunday, held steady in the US for many decades at about 60 million to 62 million. This long run, which started in the late 1960s and continued into the early to mid ‘90s, concealed within it an erosion; the population of the country was rising, while newspaper market penetration fell. By the mid-90s changes were beginning to make themselves felt, and circulation began a steep decline to today’s figure of 40 million to 42 million. That decline continues, though there are signs that the fall is slowing.

This decline was driven by a number of factors. Changes in the American family, with more two earner families and more single parent households, played a role as there was less time for things like reading a newspaper. Also new technologies came to the fore, with people choosing more and more to get their news first from TV, then from the Internet on desktops and laptops and now from mobile devices.

Ad revenue decline

Nevertheless, even while these changes were eroding market share, newspaper ad revenues continued to rise at the same time, driven primarily by classified ad revenues. Classified ads were a very unsexy part of the business, but enormously profitable.  Decline in ad revenues overall were first seen in the year 2000, with the dot.com  bust.  Classified revenue fell steeply, and by the time the market started to recover after that drop and the shock of the 9-11 attacks it was too late; Internet platforms such as eBay and Craigslist had matured in the meantime and classifieds disappeared rapidly and almost entirely from print publications.

Thus began a calamitous revenue decline that continues unabated. Newspaper ad revenue peaked in 2000 at about $66 billion; it has declined to less than $20 billion today. Online revenue for newspapers has grown, but it is a drop in the bucket compared to what print ads used to bring in. In the most recent measure newspapers were selling about $3 billion of online advertising annually.

This has driven a concomitant decline in employment.  Newspaper publishers tried to hold the line even as revenues fell, with overall employment hovering at about 55,000 into the mid 2000s.  But when it became obvious the salad days were gone for good, layoffs and buyouts began and brought us to today with once powerful news gathering organizations hollowed out to a shadow of their former selves.  Newspaper employment, which now stands at about 33,000, continues to plummet.

Changes in how reporters operate

What does this mean for how newspapers gather news? For one thing, there’s less quality control. Copy editors, a function within newsrooms where stories were checked for accuracy as well as punctuation, spelling and style, are almost extinct. And the beat system, in which a reporter would focus on a coverage area such as health and wellness, is almost entirely gone, too.  With ever fewer bodies to cover the bases, reporters are being asked to do more and more. Technological advances such as Internet fact gathering and garnering tips from services such as Twitter have helped, but don’t come close to bridging that gap.

With fewer reporters intimately familiar with their coverage areas, this decline can be expected to accelerate a trend toward pack journalism, in which a story reported in one venue gets picked up and repeated more or less verbatim by others. It also will mean that many reporters who end up writing about the dietary supplement industry will not know much about it, as they will have less time to educate themselves.

Tips for a positive interaction

How can supplement companies help?  Below are some tips for having a positive interaction with a reporter who might be stretched thin:

  • Be available and respect deadlines
  • Make simplified, quotable statements
  • If qualifying information is necessary, offer it as ancillary information.  Lengthy qualifiers offered to reporters as part of a quote makes it more likely the reporter will pull out their own seven- or eight-word version of your statement
  • Be open to followup questions
  • Contact the assigning editor (a city editor if a newspaper, a producer if a TV or radio station) to offer additional perspective if you feel you got off on the wrong foot with the reporter.

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1 comment

Thank you

Posted by Brent Apgar,

It's great to see people within the industry bringing up topics like this.
As a health care provider it can get frustrating fighting the uphill battle against the vast amount of (mis)information available to the public.

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