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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