Go Ahead, Journalists, Pick Apart My Experts

A few days ago, Andrew Nusca, a journalist and editor primarily for ZDnet and SmartPlanet whom I respect and follow, shared the following on Twitter:

"I'm inclined to think that by increasing the quantity of published stories, journalists have devalued their own information."

Nusca's tweet summed up in 18 words the conundrum that Dean Starkman had just let examined 3,500 in the Columbia Journalism Review.  His article, "The Hamster Wheel: Why running as rast as we can is getting us nowhere," suggests that the scramble of media outlets to produce more content – any content – faster is leading to the media industry's undoing.  It's an insightful analysis of the current state of news reporting, and, despite Nusca's succinct summary, I'd recommend it to anyone who cares about the quality of the news they read, whether in a media-related profession or not.

The interaction of quality, quantity, production time and value of news stories is an issue that was on my mind long before I saw these two recent examples of journalists questioning the process they're caught up in.  I've hesitated to blog about it though, because the questions that arise don't necessarily shed positive light on either PR or the journalists on whom our success depends.  But I'll take a risk here, because I believe the future of both industries depends on asking these tough questions.

More stories equal more opportunities for coverage, right?  More headlines ought to mean more opportunities for clients to be in them, even if they're refreshed out of the top spot in moments.  (I'll leave the challenges of keeping up with an incessantly accelerating news cycle to another post.)  In his article, Starkman suggests what he calls "The Wheel" gives undue leverage to PR.

The Wheel infantilizes reporters, strengthens P.R. This is just logic. If reporters lack the time to gather, analyze, and reflect on information, then they will have less leverage to confront the institutions on their beat. And make no mistake, we are living in a time of P.R. ascendance. 

It's not easy for me to include that excerpt here, but I've seen this firsthand.  Yet while it occasionally makes my job easier (yes, sometimes it makes it harder, too), I don't think it's a good thing.

For example, the Help-A-Reporter-Out (HARO) newsletters that connect journalists in need of sources with experts and PR reps, has become an essential part of the PR practitioner's toolbox.  I love HARO.  I think it's a brilliant idea, and I've heard that journalists love it too.  However, I increasingly see queries from stretched-thin reporters who request that respondents simply include a pre-fabricated quotation and the expert's name, title and company.  No interview required.  No questions asked.  No risk of being misquoted.

A PR pro's dream, right?

Maybe.  It's a wonderful gift to be able to control the message, to be able to respond quickly without the hassle of coordinating schedules and dial-in numbers.

Yet as a consumer of news, as a citizen who believes that freedom of the press is not only a right, but also a responsibility – I'm concerned.  The same hallmarks of great journalism I sometimes fear in PR – probing questions, deep due diligence research, aggressive pursuit of countering opinions – I desire and appreciate as a consumer.

In no way do I mean this as an attack on journalists.  What professional in any industry has not felt the pinch of the "do more with less" mantra of the recession and found it necessary to sacrifice going the extra mile in some small (or large) area in order to survive?

Rather, my concern is with journalism as a whole, with how the ethos of reporting has changed and is changing.  

Starkman writes:

News organizations must change with the times, but nowhere is it written in Newsonomics (or whatever thrown-together, authoritative-sounding book is being read like Torah by news managers these days) that news organizations should drift away from core values, starting with the corest of core—investigations and reporting in the public interest. These are not just “part of the mix.” They are a mindset, a doctrine, an organizing value around which healthy news cultures are created, the point.

And while I outlined my concern as a consumer above, and though what Starkman aptly calls a "recalibration of the news calculus" may put more power in the hands of PR, I'm concerned for PR, too.  Letting the value, quality, and truthfulness of news degrade in favor of high click-rates and more content also demeans the quality of results we get for our clients.  Sure, I'll have to work harder to get a good story working with more scrutinizing reporters.  But if it means better news, not just for my clients but for the general public, that's extra work I'm eager to do.   

- Contributed by Catherine Morgan. Follow her @c_morgan.