Who Killed Journalism? You Did

We're easy targets, those of us in the PR field. It's easy to say that we're slimy, dumb and get in the way of good journalism. Over my PR career I've worked with my share of morons and liars.

But not all of those were in PR, many were also in journalism. Many were also in technology. Many were in printing. Many were in auto repair or many were investors.

Yes, morons and liars are everywhere.

So when an unnamed PR pro writes that many PR folks really aren't that good, he's right. But he's also just enjoying the fact that PR people are an easy target. Why? Because really, we shouldn't exist.

Let me explain: the theory goes that if you have a good product or a good story, then you'll get exposure. People who report the news will find you, they'll do the digging and the work to grab the important nuggets of information and present those to you.

You believe that? Really? Are you sure?

I've had reporters tell me that they believed a certain topic was very important to their readers, but they couldn't report on it because they just didn't have time. I've gone to others with a story and been asked "can you just send the release?" Then a story would appear without any interview or additional reporting. Is this the fault of the PR pro?

Yesterday I attended a forum on the First Amendment at Suffolk Law School that included Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Eileen McNamara, Media Critic an all-around-good-guy Dan Kennedy, leader of the Nieman Foundation Ann Marie Lapinski and Linda Greenhouse, whose long list of accomplishments doesn't begin to sum her up.

All agreed that truth is a major casualty of modern reporting. McNamara lamented the fact that today's reporters don't seem to do research in their own archives. They lamented the use of Beltway Insiders who regularly offer up quotes just to provide a story with "the other side" of an issue.

But Dan Kennedy made the point that sometimes sources have one key selling point: they return calls when you're on deadline.

This is a real problem in political reporting. It's also a problem in technology PR. Too often reporters take on the easy story. Audrey Watters, in writing why she left Read Write Web, noted that no one seems to care about Education Technology. This is a huge story overall, something that impacts not just parents and students, but our future as a nation. She writes:

What I learned -- and what I continue to be reminded of with unfortunate frequency: the tech blogosphere really doesn't notice education stories. Not really. Not unless teachers do something untoward on a blog. Not unless a tech CEO, past or present, makes a major education-oriented donation. Not unless there's an rumored iPhone 5 angle involved.

Back at the forum, when I stood up to ask a question, I mentioned that I work in PR. A woman laughed. Yes, she LAUGHED. Yet, everyone in that room had been subject to PR at that moment and didn't know it. The forum itself was an attempt to raise the visibility and importance of Suffolk Law School, especially among its alumni. That's because Suffolk operates in a competitive environment that includes Harvard, BU and BC, all with law schools that have strong alumni networks. As a proof point, consider that Greg Gatlin, a former Boston Herald staffer and current PR flack for the school, was on the panel.

So who is at fault for the lousy and lazy journalism? Is it the journalists? Is it their editors? Is it the PR people who feed them crap?

No. It's us, the media consumers.

You see, reporters write stories that get them noticed, stories that will satisfy their editors. Editors are under pressure to satisfy their bosses, the publishers. They need to drive traffic to the website, grab clicks, gain conversation, build "mindshare" and all those other marketing things. They do this by writing stories that are attractive to an audience.

If you write about the iPad, your clicks go up. If you write about education technology, you can hear the crickets. Write about large constitutional issues, no one cares. Write about Rush Limbaugh and you're front and center.

So, do you want to blame PR folks for being stupid? Sure, go ahead. Want to blame reporters for being lazy? Feel free.

But next time you click on a headline, think about why you're doing it and what really matters to you. Then consider if you really want to click there.

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6 comments to Who Killed Journalism? You Did

  • So, the Audience did it in the Study with the Internet. Those murderous savages…

    I often talk about the “responsibility of the audience” to be more discerning and I think this speaks, in part to a similar line of thinking, a similar series of circumstances.

    Is it just the consumers? Are publishers in the mix too? ?We can all find blame everywhere, and in the end simply work hard – as writers, editors, publishers, publicists, newsmakers, and readers- to make our little corner of this ecosystem as good as we can (or in reality, want to).

  • Having spent 20 years in newspapers, I agreed with most of what you say here. Are some reporters lazy? Sure. I’ve seen Are some PR folks hacks? Sure. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten press releases on subjects I’ve never covered in my life. Or the mail that would come to the newsroom from PR firms, addressed to reporters who had left the paper YEARS before.

    But readers were always telling us how we had no important news in the newspaper. And when we’d point it out, “Oh. I missed that story.” And they’d tell us we had too much negative news. But put a juicy murder on the front page? That issue would fly off the newsstands. Put an “important” government or education story there? Pfft. Single-copy sales weren’t too great that day.

    There’s plenty of blame to go around, but it reminds me of that old saying, “The people get the government they deserve.” They get the journalism they deserve, too.

  • As I read this post I was thinking about how I enjoy reading both The New Yorker and the Huffington Post (among other media).

  • My son, (who works in politics) and I are constantly amazed at how the media all move in a herd to cover stories. No one is doing any really great investigative journalism anymore. And it makes “conventional wisdom” be much less wise, because there isn’t a whole lot of thinking…not sure who decides what the “talking points” for the talking heads will be each day. And it is far too easy to just buy into what the media is saying. Fascinating how often a meme gets started and we know it is just false. How much of America really cares that some question President Obama’s country of birth? Not many. But you would never guess that by the number of media outlets that covered that story. Heavily.

    I am a big fan of moderation in most discussions…this one included. There are hacks in every business. I just wish that those hacks in journalism and the media didn’t play such a significant role in how we all think…but then, the citizenry has its fair share of hacks as well.

    Thanks for a post that has me thinking…

  • […] It's easy to say that we're slimy, dumb and get in the way of good journalism. Over my PR career I've worked with my share of morons and liars. Who Killed Journalism? You Did « Fresh Ground […]

  • This is a great post and there is so much truth in it. I remember one of the first things we were taught in Journalism class was, “that if it bleeds it leads”. I’ve struggled with this before with my blogs as well. They have nothing to do with celebrities, iPhones, etc. but it’s amazing how many clicks you get just adding a few words to your posts.