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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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Newspapers still essential to universities' media mix

For years, public relations managers from rural universities have relied on newspapers to reach the public through the publication and broadcasting of their press releases. However, with the boom of the Internet in recent years, it's difficult to determine how relevant the newspaper's role is in the field today.

J. Sean McCleneghan, interim department head of Journalism and Mass Communications, studies the relevance of newspapers in getting out university news. (NMSU photo)

New Mexico State University Interim Department Head of Journalism and Mass Communications J. Sean McCleneghan sought out the answer to this question in a 2010 study. McCleneghan's article, "Community newspapers, rural universities and monitoring services: Who's in, who's out," published in the latest issue of the "Grassroots Editor" journal, examines the role today's newspapers play in getting out university news and what specific monitoring services each rural university's public relations divisions are using to track these results.

"Some PR managers guess 'younger publics' are using their online information while others think 'older publics' follow the university's storytelling in newspapers," McCleneghan said.

McCleneghan sent an email survey to public relations managers at 90 pre-selected universities. All the universities were located in rural areas and within 50 miles of a community newspaper with fewer than 15,000 papers in circulation. The surveys contained two open-ended questions to which 67 of the 90 managers responded.

The first question asked if PR managers, now capable of posting stories up on their university's Web page and bypassing print, felt they did or did not have a need for newspapers like they used to. All but three of the 67 respondents continue to e-mail their university stories to local, regional and state media, proving that the newspaper still plays a vital role in the PR world.

"There is still something to be said about seeing a story in print. Newspapers have credibility," McCleneghan said. "Newspaper reporting carries a premium for its local news content. University public relations managers understand this."

The news release is the most commonly used tool in getting a client's information out to the public and the "third-party endorsement" from a newspaper, provides the verification of the release's newsworthiness.

The second question inquired as to whether managers quantify the successfulness of their media placement and what kind of monitoring services are utilized.

"The majority of the rural university PR offices use a mix of free and paid electronic monitoring services to track their online placements," McCleneghan said. "It isn't easy. Administrators want documented results."

Multiple monitoring services including Google News Alerts, Lexis-Nexus and electronic news clipping services are being used by managers to quantify the placement of news stories and other web-driven content. However, this task is labor intensive and expensive for some public universities.

While these monitoring services can give information on a story's number of placements and where they get published, they cannot track who specifically is reading what university story, a concern among those surveyed.

"It all comes down to accountability," McCleneghan said. "The PR managers in this small group survey are trying their best to deal with information technology that is doubling in unbelievable short spurts of time. In 2010, community newspapers are still important in the rural university's media mix."