By Tom Stienstra
To survive as an outdoors writer, you may have to re-invent yourself in the coming year. If you work for a newspaper, going multimedia can be the only way to keep your job.
What you cannot say is: “But I’ve always done it this way.”
Going multimedia is one of the best ways to survive in dire economic times. You also have to know exactly how to select your material.
A handful of us have already done this to survive so far, with a mix of staff newspaper columns, books, radio shows, TV shows, blogs, Internet streaming, sports show appearances and a personal Web site – sometimes all at once.
To understand why this multimedia approach is now necessary, you have to understand the realities now shaping the media. So this column is broken into three sections: 1. How we got here. 2. How to do multimedia. 3. How to pick your material.
How we got here
The transformation started when the Generation Xers stopped paying for information and chose to engage in video games instead of the great outdoors, among other factors.
• In the past 15 years, about 30 percent of high school students have not graduated, so 30 percent of Americans age 18 to 35 are functional idiots. They watch TV for an average of 142 hours per month, eight times more than 15 years ago. They do not seem to have the attention span to invest the time and persistence required to master outdoor skills.
• The average American weighs 30 pounds more than they did in 1968. The average teenager eats 30 pounds of french fries per year, and the number of overweight children has increased 36 percent in 20 years. So many outdoors activities are beyond the physical capacity of many Americans.
• Rip-offs: Only 50 percent of today’s youths buy a single CD in a year and almost none buy books or outdoors magazines, or read newspapers. They are unlikely to pay to read, listen or watch material about the great outdoors. They are accustomed to getting information for free on the Internet and do not recognize copyright law for music, print material and photos.
• Today’s youths are six times more likely to play video games than ride a bike. That is why bike sales are down 42 percent, with the decline directly attributable to a collapse in the sale of entry-level bicycles.
• The average newspaper subscriber is a 55-year-old college graduate who is a career professional, what has become a scant minority in the public demographic. So virtually every major newspaper, magazine and book publisher has downsized in the past year.
• The stock price of Borders, once a lucrative market for books, magazines and newspapers, has crashed in the past year from a high of $14 to a low of 83 cents in late November, and has been wallowing around $1.60 ever since (any business with stock under $5 per share is at risk of going out of business).
How to do multimedia
These demographics are why OWAA members who have said, “But I’ve always done it this way,” can be devastated. In the past two years, many newspaper outdoors writers who kept doing the same thing have lost their jobs.
In addition, book markets have crashed. Sales of outdoors-style DVDs have become a small niche market. It’s become very difficult to find an “elephant” to sponsor a high-dollar national TV show or network radio feature.
That is why the key is to work on the local level to integrate print, electronic, radio, TV and books (or another product).
Many OWAA members have integrated media for years. It’s always been the smart move to get double or triple bounce from the same story. Now it’s required.
Always start with an outdoors feature with a news peg. Here’s a personal example from last year:
The business cycle started when I published a news feature in the San Francisco Chronicle and on the paper’s Internet site. That inspired CBS radio to do a phone interview, which it chopped up into pieces and played over the course of a 24-hour news cycle. I then recorded a 1-minute, 15-second radio feature that aired at the end of the week. Knowing a good story, the local CBS TV affiliate worked out a deal in which I recorded a 2-minute action-driven news special from a local park. At the end of several of these appearances, I was able to plug one of my books.
So the end result from one idea was that I was paid for a newspaper feature/Internet story, radio interviews, radio feature, TV feature and eventual book sales. This is why it is called multimedia.
Each appearance must be integrated to provide support for the other. In the newspaper, always put a tag line at the end of your story about when you are appearing on radio and TV. At the end of radio and TV appearances, plug your newspaper column. Everything must be cross-promoted.
To survive as an outdoors writer, this type of integration is the future of the business.
How to pick material
If you look on Page 69 of the 2008-09 OWAA Directory, you will see there are 15 skill sets that can be integrated and 20 subject areas you can work with. Over the course of a year, you should try to hit as many as possible on both lists.
But first you must connect with the audience, otherwise nobody will care.
Before you choose a story, ask yourself three questions: 1. How big is the target audience? 2. Am I providing this audience a story that appeals directly to them? 3. Is the story unique, verified and crafted to appeal? Fail to address any of these three and few people will pay attention and you will get no additional opportunities.
First, you must know the size and scope of your audience. In California for instance, roughly 24 million people out of 37 million residents take part in wildlife watching, hiking and camping, yet only 60,000 go duck hunting. That’s a ratio of 400-to-1. I love duck hunting, am going three times in the next 10 days, but what do you think my business prospects are if I were to try and multi-media a standard duck hunt story in this market? Answer: zero chance. So study your market where you live.
There’s also a way to craft a story so it appeals to huge mainstream audiences. This can be done by following a code I’ve followed my whole career, and have shared previously at OWAA seminars. The best stories always have these five elements:
3. Local impact.
4. National ramifications.
5. Human interest.
This is the future: Multi-media stories designed to capture huge audiences.
I hope it helps you keep your job. ◊
Tom Stienstra is the outdoors writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, produces a weekly radio feature on CBS radio, appears on the CBS and CW TV networks and has sold more than 1 million guidebooks.
By Tom Stienstra