Gini Dietrich

Journalism and the Cluster Theory: What it Means for PR Pros

By: Gini Dietrich | March 29, 2016 | 

Journalism and the Cluster Theory What it Means for PR ProsBy Gini Dietrich

What do you know about cluster theory?

It’s the idea that industries “cluster” to one or two locations—cars in Detroit, tech in San Francisco, oil in Houston, senior living in Florida and Arizona, mobs in Chicago.

In the early days of the Internet—particularly of us becoming our own publishers—we really thought things would flatten out the world and we could do anything from anywhere at anytime.

And that is true…in some cases.

But in many other cases, the web has actually done the opposite. It has pushed industries more closely together and some such as the news business have become confined to New York, D.C., and Los Angeles.

(Which totally bums me out, being in the middle of the country.)

Of course, before the Internet, news was distributed everywhere because you needed local news.

But today, as more and more organizations, such as Narrative Science, use algorithms to tell local news, journalism is leaving the rest of the country for New York and the coasts.

The world, as it turns out, is spiky, not flat.

Journalism and Power is Clustered

What does this mean for communicators, particularly those who place a focus on earned media?

It means the innovation, the trends, the world in which you live is happening in only three or four cities.

I’m a big, big believer that you can use social media to build relationships with anyone, anywhere, and that should apply to journalists.

But does this mean we’ll see a large shift toward PR firms gravitating in the same places?

Of course, many of us work virtually and tools such as Slack and Zoom make the in-person experience nearly attainable, but I think we can all agree it’s just not quite the same.

In a Nieman Lab article, Joshua Benton explores this phenomenon:

There’s little reason to believe news jobs will ever again be distributed as evenly around the country as they were a decade ago—the market forces are too strong.

You see this pattern over and over again in digital news: What was once pitched as opening up a space has led instead to greater concentration of power in the hands of a few. The web and linking were supposed to expand routes of distribution, but over time, we’ve seen that power become clustered in Facebook, Google, Twitter, and a handful of other tech companies.

Online advertising was supposed to let a thousand media flowers bloom, supporting independents and small, high-quality publishers. Instead, it’s led to a generation of digital publishers—all those guys in New York—chasing scale and racing to be as big as possible.

PR and the Cluster Theory

I’d like to think we can still do our jobs from Chicago or Louisville or Boston or Cincinnati or South Bend, but if this is the shift the industry sees—and it doesn’t look like it will even back out—it might be time to consider how this works out for you.

Certainly, I think about it, but I have a very clear advantage: My team is virtual so it’s fairly easy for me to hire people in New York, D.C., and Los Angeles.

I can place people where the industry hangs out and not have to worry about the overhead of office space and overly-inflated expenses.

They can be at the center of the innovation and still report in to a Chicago-headquartered business.

So, perhaps we think not about moving our businesses to one of the media epi-centers. Instead, we think about how to build organizations that allow for this kind of flexibility.

It’s no longer a world of brick and mortar and everyone sitting in the same office together.

We can be dispersed to meet the industry clusters and still have a unique advantage over our competitors (you know, the ones who are so large and have such long leases, they won’t be moving to this model anytime soon).

That is the trend we should watch and be prepared to match.

image credit: shutterstock

About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

  • I’m so glad to hear about your firm’s virtual success. When I set up Strive PR as virtual agency in early 2006 my vision was to build what you have today. I was a little too ahead if my time because I couldn’t get the labour costs to work and ended up hiring an office-based team. Let’s discuss how you fixed this problem over a glass of wine some day. 🙂

    • I mean, if you insist. You + wine = Gini’s happy place!

  • I’m wondering what journalism and the cluster theory means for Local News? Should we contract with freelancers in the state’s largest cluster of news outlets? Should we reach out to the larger news outlets—print, digital and TV? Should we become part of their operations? Let them pay the big bills, but promote our brand?

    • From everything I’m reading, it means local news goes away. A friend and I just had this conversation. There are companies (like Narrative Science) who have created an algorithm to tell the local news without humans. Scary, but it’s very real and it’s happening now. Of course, there still will be “on-the-ground” journalists, but it doesn’t sound like they will be in every city, every town in the country. The next generation of journalists will have to move to one of the cluster cities.

      Either that or build a new business/industry and get people to come to you. That Nieman Lab article I linked to in the blog post talks about a guy who wanted to do that in Puerto Rico. Imagine reporting the world’s news in your flip-flops on a beach. Sounds pretty compelling to me, but it doesn’t sound like it’ll ever happen.

      • mam

        But all news IS LOCAL. Local news cannot go away. It will just be diluted by the big guys, who don’t really know what people in small towns and rural areas want to read, in addition to the big national and international stories.

        I choose not to believe that local news will go away. If it’s going away, why do the number of uniques and the pageviews on my local news site continue to go up year after year?

        I’ll check out Narrative Science and and the Nieman Lab story.

        It may go away temporarily or it may dilute local news. But EVERY story, especially the BIG ones, happens in a location, and not always in big cities.

        For instance the Malheur Wildlife Refuge story happened outside a tiny town in Oregon. Yes, all the BIG news guys showed up, but I bet the local paper had a much more realistic take on the story, and actually got the facts right. The BIG guys just want sensationalism. They don’t really want facts, and that greatly disturbs me.

        I want facts, not someone’s biased opinion about what’s happening! I’ll make up my own mind, thank you.

        Thanks for the reply.
        Mary Alice

        • I’m certainly not disagreeing with you. I just find it fascinating that everyone is moving to these large cities…and what the implications are for the very examples you give. I also live in a large city so my “local” news is really national news. I look at it through a different lens. I also find the algorithmic reporting fascinating. I don’t like it, but it is really interesting that it’s happening.