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.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Rebecca Caroe March 24, 2007 at 11:28

it was a good event, and well-chaired by you! BUT the thing the panel failed to acknowledge was that PR is such a tiny part of the overall picture of communications from a company’s point of view. The ‘tiny world’ inhabited by too many so called communications professionals has very little relevance to their clients!
How can PR professionals get out of their worlds and start to see the reality from the ‘other side’?
Rebecca Caroe


Adrian Monck March 24, 2007 at 14:30

I agree – there are many kinds of communication in companies, and PR ought to be a fractional element. In fact potentially now there are ways to simply bypass that and engage directly. The problem for a lot of corporates is they haven’t learned to manage debate constructively (cf. the controlled explosions of the internal combustion engine) instead they still want to communicate like it was 1984.


Adam Haigh April 6, 2007 at 09:10

Adrian – is the increasing reliance on PR material in newspapers just a necessary result of cost cutting measures which, at the national paper in Wales in Cardiff where I am, has seen a 31% cut in editorial and production staff?

This is the crux of the problem isn’t it? Or Is this too simple an analysis?


Adrian Monck April 6, 2007 at 10:00

Editorial cuts are going to be an unpleasant fact of life going forward (see ITN), sorry you’re on the end of them Adam.

My personal view is that you’ll go out of business in local news just recycling PR. Reporters need to be out reporting, meeting people and kicking some life into the communities they serve. In news I’d rather have lower headcount and more coverage spend, because local papers have to create “localities” – and that means taking a risk on having people out of the office.


Paul Seaman April 1, 2009 at 13:23

If you ask journalists what they think of PRs the response is likely to be colourful. Yet I know (and so do my PR colleagues) just how much they rely on us. The hostility is snobbish, but it is also phony. Time to kiss and make up? I put the case here:


Nicholas Joseph October 9, 2010 at 18:35

What do you feel about PR vs Journalism? Are both codependent on each other existing in a symbiosis relationship or are their relations can be described as parasitic?


Abel May 27, 2014 at 20:56

Wow that was odd. I just wrote an very long comment but after
I clicked submit my comment didn’t show up. Grrrr…
well I’m not writing all that over again. Anyway, just wanted to say fantastic blog!


Ronn Torossian CEO of 5W Public Relations May 29, 2014 at 20:23

I’d like to find out more? I’d love to find out more details.


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