Last month, I read a media commentary in Slate that has stuck with me. The article, titled “In Defense of the Trend Piece,” focused on criticisms of trend pieces generally, and one recent New York Times article in particular, “What Happens When Millennials Run the Workplace.” Some critics were upset by the generalizations they felt the story made about millennials, others by the feeling that the story had been over-covered by media. Still others took issue with the fact that attention was paid to the topic at all, deeming it trivial and not newsworthy to begin with.
I happen to be a lover of trend pieces, and like Leon Neyfakh, the author of the Slate piece, think they’re really valuable—not only because they offer readers a lighter, often less-depressing view of the world (something we all need to maintain balance and sanity), but also because they offer PR opportunities that otherwise wouldn’t exist.
More than once when I haven’t been able to get a reporter interested in a feature story, I’ve regrouped and repositioned the same basic details into a trend story with success. Being able to put your institution’s strengths into context with what’s happening on other campuses across the country is appealing to reporters. And with so few initiatives that are truly unique, they are often the only way to get media attention for a particular topic.
Yet I’ve heard similar criticisms about lifestyle trend pieces from faculty and administrators. Some of those who opted out of participation have had to watch as other institutions took their place in some solidly reported and widely circulated—though arguably not groundbreaking—pieces.
Sure, trend reporting isn’t as likely to influence policy or change the world in a significant way, but all journalism doesn’t need to. And yes, trend stories mean others will get some attention too. But, there’s room for a wide variety of media coverage of your institution. Being open to many options and opportunities means a more comprehensive story is being told on the whole, and that the most appropriate messages for your different audiences are being shared in relevant ways. Even though prospective faculty may not be influenced by a story on fashion trends on campus, prospective students could be.
On a broad scale, trend pieces can help enhance name recognition and build reputations for institutions. At a more micro level, they can persuade prospective students to give a lesser-known institution consideration for admissions, or inspire donors to make a gift. So while the content can sometimes seem trivial, the impact can be significant.
If given the choice, I’d choose a full feature story every time. But in most cases, being willing to share the spotlight—particularly when it comes to nationally-focused outlets—is the best (and often only) way to showcase your institution and build goodwill with reporters.
I, for one, hope trend stories never go away. I believe there’s a place for them and am grateful for the purpose they fill. I love how they allow personal experiences and stories to permeate in ways other reporting can’t, and how they seem to bring campuses to life. So bring on the dorm rock walls, the stress relief animals during finals week and the L.L. Bean boot craze. Without these kinds of trend pieces, we wouldn’t have the reporter relationships or the interest in our campuses for bigger, “more important” stories.