Another veteran music journalist is joining the parade of longtime newspaper scribes leaving their posts, but this one actually has an exit strategy. Brian Mansfield, a mainstay at USA Today for 18 years, is exiting this week to join one of the music world’s top PR firms, Shore Fire Media, in the newly created senior post of content director.
“Part of what I’ll do will be geared toward the professional media,” Mansfield tells Billboard, “but we’ll also be wanting to communicate information directly to fans and consumers. A lot of what I’ve been doing at USA Today for the last several years has been not only writing stories for the website and the newspaper but also directly addressing the fans of the people I was writing about. That’s something that won’t change. We’ve got to figure out the best way to do it within the Shore Fire framework, but the idea is exactly the same.”
“Brian is going to be in charge of creating and unifying all of our written materials and creating a stream of text and images and music for us,” Shore Fire founder Marilyn Laverty elaborated in an interview. “He’s also going to be contributing media strategies for campaigns. And as someone who I think is so widely respected and so knowledgeable in the music business, he’ll be a great ambassador for us as well. We’ve invested a lot of effort in our staff writing this year, and feel that providing a stream of text and images is really the future for us. And it’ll be helpful not only to our friends in the media but reach fans directly.”
Can a PR firm actually produce something that resembles music journalism? They might as well, if no one else is going to — or so might go the joke after a couple of weeks that have seen newspapers perfectly willing to eliminate the middle man. New York Daily News critic Jim Farber was laid off after a 25-year run, on the heels of cuts at the New Orleans Times-Picayune that had one longtime music writer let go and another reassigned to the metro beat. Mansfield was the last full-time music writer left at USA Today after the dismissal of critic Edna Gundersen last fall, and although he wasn’t pushed out, he found the overall climate seemed full of portent.
“I had seen all those things happening, and I wanted to make sure that I got out on my own terms,” Mansfield says. “I’ve seen other people in other jobs that are just kind of hanging on to see what happens, and I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want to find myself down the road in a situation where I was waiting to see what somebody else was going to do. I love what I’ve done at USA Today… and I’m looking forward to a job that doesn’t always involve 14-hour days each week.” (Over the past year, Mansfield says he’d racked up 750 bylines for the daily — which was actually down from the thousand-plus a year he generated when he was still running the paper’s American Idol blog.)
Mansfield’s last day at USA Today is Thursday — his birthday — and he’ll take up his Shore Fire position Oct. 13. The idea to create a position for him came together only over the last couple of weeks, he and Laverty say. His USA Today bosses knew he was leaving, but he managed to keep the new position under wraps until today. “It happened really fast. I had started putting out word through a few people that I was actively looking at the possibility of changing jobs. And Marilyn found out about that, called me almost immediately, and we had some conversations that very quickly became a job offer.” It’s a role they say doesn’t exist at any other music PR firms: “When we did talk, we immediately realized that what we wanted to do was something revolutionary and without precedent,” Laverty maintains.
It wasn’t that many years ago that journalists referred to shifting to PR jobs as “going over to the dark side,” but given the mistrust many newspaper journalists have of their bosses, Laverty thinks you could make the opposite argument.
“How about the idea of PR going over to the light side?” she asks. “I think it may be more the case that journalism may be considered the dark side now, because of the pressures of the marketplace. And while PRs in some ways get considered the dark side, I think we have the opportunity to create something that rises above the promo chatter and really is interesting, valuable, and entertaining. Perhaps this will be a direction other journalists may want to consider, as a way of producing something of quality that is reaching a desired audience, on different terms than in the competitive media world. Not at Shore Fire — our department is full right now — but I think other journalists are going to be very appealing staff (for agencies) in the future.”
Gentlemen, start your resumes.
Mansfield, a highly visible figure in the Nashville rock and country communities, will work out of the Music City branch Shore Fire set up two years ago, while overseeing two junior staffers in the New York office. The firm represents over 50 acts and recently had success out of Nashville with the Zac Brown Band, Lee Brice, and Aaron Watson, on top of mainstays like Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello and Lana Del Rey.