Has the Medical News Beat Flatlined?

May 13

Newsrooms across the country have seen 20-25% reductions in their staffs over the last decade and that has meant in many cases the elimination of the health and medical beat reporters. So what’s happening to those journalists who use to cover our social marketing stories?

Going to the recent annual conference of the Association of Health Care Journalists (AHCJ) in Chicago provided some clues. And while I have attended many of these since the organization’s inception in 1997, this year was different.

“John Smith and I’m a freelancer, my question is…”

“I’m Jane Johnson and I’m an independent journalist and I’d like to know…”

This was the familiar refrain during the Q&A section of all the presentations. In the past, the attendees from mainstream or legacy media dominated.

Now, Len Bruzzese, the director of AHCJ, says nearly a third (30%) of the membership identifies as freelance. This is up from 25% last year and 21% the year before. He cites as possible causes the “layoffs, early retirement, or buyouts” rampant in the industry over the last three years.

Among this group is Carol Ann Campbell formerly from The Star-Ledger and Susan Brink previously with the Los Angeles Times. Now Campbell does freelance through the NewJerseyNewsroom.com and Brink gets writing gigs through The Journalism Workshop.

And there are hundreds more like them. But while they might have lost their day to day schedule, a steady paycheck and a distinguished masthead to write under these top notch, award winning reporters – seasoned and experienced on the health and medical beat – are still at it, writing and getting published for a variety of news outlets.

So bully for them – right?

Yes, good for them and good for us too because we all benefit from having talented well-informed professionals covering our issues. But – and there’s always a “but” – this dramatic change in the news profession does make our jobs much more difficult and we too must change in response.

Relationships are now more important than ever. Keeping in touch and up to date on your favorite reporter will require diligence and persistence. Knowing what they are writing and for whom they are writing it will take more effort and some skill.

Here are a few ideas on how we must change in response to the changes in the news business:

– Don’t’ rely on databanks and search software such as Cision, Factiva, and Vocus because it’s hard for them to keep pace. Freelancers and independents are moving targets many with multiple email addresses that they may or may not check on a regular basis. 

– Consume as much news as possible across all platforms – print, broadcast, Internet – because the best freelancers are writing for them all and you’ll need to know how to “pitch” them story for each medium. 

– Create your own system or mechanism for following key reporters and writers. Check in with them on a regular basis, let them know you still follow their work and keep informed about your work. If they are busy, they will tell you. If they aren’t they might appreciate a good lead on a story they can then write and “sell.” 

– Distinguish between long lead and harder news stories. (1) The long leads will take even more time to develop when you are working with freelancers. They will need more time to pitch the story to multiple outlets until they get interest. (2) Hard news is still being covered by staff reporters. Most will be general assignment reporters with less background and less experienced. Be prepared to do some educating. 

While the health and medical beat might have flatlined in many newsrooms, there are still many experienced and knowledgeable beat reporters alive and well outside the newsroom looking for good stories to write and to pitch for publication. The trick is finding and following them.


This entry was posted on Thursday, May 13th, 2010 at 5:24 pm and is filed under Best Practices, Social Marketing. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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