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I should quit PR and be a journalist

September 29, 2010

Now that’s a line I’m guessing not a lot of people are thinking these days. Journalism students themselves are graduating with all of the qualifications to be the next beat reporter and a whopping number are deciding of their own volition that today’s newspaper or broadcast journalism business is not where they want to be.

Media is undergoing a transformation. And I hesitate to regurgitate another article about the changing landscape of journalism but if you’re in public relations, you have to take a moment pretty regularly to look at how drastically the news scene has changed.

Many are ready to throw a funeral for reporting as it used to be – the Columbia Journalism Review isn’t putting it on its death-bed, but it is accusing it of being stuck in a cage. Read “The Hamster Wheel” (just skim the first page or two, you’ll get the idea) and hear journalist on journalist criticism of a news world that’s focused on volume and speed rather than quality reporting.

The article included two points that I thought were worth unpacking here: 1. The rather off-hand comment that given the busy world we live in and the myriad news sources available, it seems counterintuitive that journalism’s response has been to give us more news, faster and more unfiltered than ever. 2. The statistic that in contrast to 1980 where the numbers were relatively close, today PR flaks such as myself outnumber journalists .90 per 100,000 versus .25.

Starting with the latter, it’s no surprise that the PR world has ballooned in recent years. But I wouldn’t blame PR for contributing too much to the media hamster wheel. It’s true that the more public relations agents out there the more a reporter is likely to be harassed (trying to garner that coveted “earned” media). But a significant number of the growth in public relations has gone to bought or targeted media. It takes nothing more than a gulf oil spill to have PR firms throwing out their multi-million dollar solutions in the form of ad campaigns and “targeted messaging.”

In my experience the drastic split between the number of PR flaks versus reporters has had the most significant and unfortunate effect on relationships. Remember those? They’re the things folks like me had with reporters when a journalist was actually assigned a beat and given proper time to pursue it. It’s what we had when a journalist could actually respond to a few of the hundreds or thousands of e-mails pummeling his or her inbox each day.

Relationships produce good reporting. And not just to the benefit of the organization being reported on, but to the benefit of the media outlet. I love working with reporters who understand and appreciate the importance of relationships, and who seem to enjoy that aspect of their work. When I look to today’s J-school grads, I simply hope they build some understanding of that quality that I find so integral in the more “seasoned” reporters I work with.

The other point I found interesting was the notion that the new media cycle of churning out as much copy and content as possible flies in the face of the notion that the average reader has less time than ever. I found this to actually be one of the most insightful observations, and it points to an issue that is important for both good PR flaks and journalists – know your audience.

Today’s media rat race truly fails in one significant and very important area – it doesn’t take into account the needs of its audience. On the surface it might seem that the spike in social media, online media and blogging are signs that people want more information, faster. I’d argue that they’re not necessarily looking for more information at a quicker pace – they want targeted information that speaks to them.

Today’s media is largely self-serve. Young people have more choices in media consumption and they’re getting information from more places than ever. And they increasingly have the ability to select media channels that speak to them – whether they’re television, Internet, or social media sources. Social media taps into the power of peer networks but news agencies forget that people can also build relationships with news outlets. CNN and Fox News are two news outlets that epitomize this – cable news watchers generally identify themselves with one outlet or another. In the days when a town had more than one newspaper you adhered to the paper that wrote your kind of news.

I’m certainly not arguing that I want more biased or infotainment media. But I do want media with an editorial vision and the calibre of reporters who can execute that vision – through quality, timely investigative journalism with a focus on the kind of news and information an audience wants and needs.

It has taken us over a decade to get to today’s current state of affairs in mainstream media. And change is not always good. Any time change effects relationships or your understanding of your audience, I think you’ve got a problem – whether you’re a PR flak, like me, or a journalist trying to stay ahead of the curve.

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