PR vs Journalism

March 21, 2007

Journ­al­ists rely increas­ingly on PR handouts. Take a paper as pres­ti­gi­ous and high-minded as the New York Times. When research­ers ana­lysed a day’s out­put, they found 147 out of 255 stor­ies came from flacks. An exec­ut­ive from ad agency J.Walter Thompson reck­ons 60% of the NYT’s stor­ies come from PR. The prob­lem is industry wide. One polit­ic­al sci­ent­ist put the fig­ure at 50% across all papers and says report­ers are simply “intel­lec­tu­al men­dic­ants.”

And the kick­er is — the NYT study was done on 29 Decem­ber 1926. The advert­ising exec­ut­ive was talk­ing about the paper in the early 1930s, and the polit­ic­al sci­ent­ist, Peter Odegard, was writ­ing in 1930. [HT: Michael Schud­son.]

So it was ever thus — but is it get­ting worse? Dr Mar­tin Moore who’s a pan­el­list at an event I’m chair­ing tonight thinks so. Mar­tin heads the Media Stand­ards Trust and he blogs on a recent report on UK news­pa­per group Trin­ity Mir­ror:

The over­whelm­ing find­ing is that few­er journ­al­ists are hav­ing to pro­duce more stor­ies in less time. To do this they are repack­aging more agency copy and PR releases. 92% of the respond­ents to Frank­lin & Wil­li­ams’ sur­vey said they use more PR mater­i­al than they used to. 80% said they use more agency copy. Journ­al­ism, in the words of the authors, “has become an office job.”

Well they may be using more, but are they reach­ing any­thing like the levels of use recor­ded in the early 20th cen­tury?

Julia Hobs­bawm is also on the pan­el. She’s argued that increased reg­u­la­tion of busi­ness makes PR pro­fes­sion­als more account­able for the inform­a­tion they gen­er­ate than journ­al­ists. Be inter­est­ing to see if PR exec Scott Lear­mouth from Media Strategy agrees.

Down the ages, journ­al­ists have man­aged to keep a Chinese Wall between their copy and advert­isers wishes (although Simon Jen­kins might not agree). Can PRs man­age the cli­ent rela­tion­ship as uncon­tro­ver­sially as law­yers?

Does a world where PRs simply present the best mes­sage of a com­pany or insti­tu­tion sub­sti­tute for an inde­pend­ent medi­ated inter­pret­a­tion or rep­res­ent­a­tion of that mes­sage? Or journ­al­ism as we call it. Car­ol Lewis, Careers Edit­or at the Times will no doubt have some­thing to say on that score.

So journ­al­ism and PR — frenemies, fel­low pro­fes­sion­als, or healthy mutu­al sus­pi­cion? Work flow and industry reg­u­la­tion may have changed the dynam­ics of that rela­tion­ship. But we have per­haps moved on from Odegard’s line from 1930:

Many report­ers today are little more than intel­lec­tu­al men­dic­ants who go from one pub­li­city agent or press bur­eau to anoth­er seek­ing handouts.”

Match me Sid­ney.

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