As the publishing industry collapses, it’s becoming clear that both journalists and public relations people need to change the way they work.
Amazingly, it’s still possible to find journalists throwing hissy fits about email blasts or blacklisting PR people for showing insufficient deference. This kind of behavior might have been understandable a few years ago when journalists were still the exclusive gatekeepers of access to free publicity, but it’s ridiculous and self-harming now.
We live in a world where the businesses that have supported journalism for decades are in the process of active collapse. I expect the profession of journalism to survive, but we will have to find new ways of making a business out of it.
While the industry struggles with that enormous problem, individual writers (like myself) need to think about the real value that we provide — to figure out what that value is, and to get very savvy and very scrappy about delivering it. It’s an environment that demands hard work, humility and a degree of realism about the state of the business.
For a couple of years I have been saying that if all the newspapers in the world disappeared tonight, tomorrow morning dozens — if not hundreds — of entrepreneurs would start companies aimed at delivering timely, accurate, reliable news on a regular basis.
I see again and again in my day job at Wired.com that there is real value in the news: Readers will flock to stories that have new information, that are well-sourced and well-written. Yes, occasionally some dumb off-the-cuff post (aka “fluffy piece of Digg bait“) or a post that is little more than a link to some other blog post will get crazy amounts of traffic. But what keeps people returning to a site like Wired.com is that it consistently provides new information.
This information — the news — also drives the information economy of the blogosphere. Journalists (including newspaper reporters and some bloggers) provide the news that aggregators (most bloggers) filter, select, comment on, and distribute. It is a rare blogger who can discover and publish an original, never-before-reported bit of information — in journalistic parlance, a scoop. When she or he does so, I’d say that counts as journalistic blogging, as opposed to aggregation.
Where I work, we are actively breaking down the barrier between blogging and journalism. We hire writers based on their journalistic chops. We encourage them to develop sources, to verify facts, to pick up the phone and get the news. Even as we expect our writers to do some aggregation blogging (i.e. linking to other sites), our emphasis is on developing original stories — scoops — because that is what drives the lasting traffic. But we also embrace a bloglike speed of publishing, often posting information as soon as we have it rather than waiting for the fully-baked feature story to be done. We encourage and pay attention to comments. And we are constantly looking for ways to incorporate crowdsourced information and new media tools into our reporting.
In short, we are using a bloggy approach to publishing, but our approach to getting and reporting the news is traditionally journalistic.
This is no longer particularly novel and it would not be that relevant, except for two things. One: We are about to see what happens when all the newspapers disappear overnight, and it seems likely that blog-journalists are going to play a critical role in that process. And two: The traditional relationship between journalists and PR people is in flux because PR people are no longer as dependent upon journalists as they used to be.
When a company can deliver its press release directly to the public via PR Newswire and a wide network of rebloggers, the press no longer have exclusive control over the channels of public communication.
When reporters at traditional media outlets compete with hundreds of bloggers for PR people’s attention, the press can’t count on getting the time and attention they used to get from flacks. Never mind that 90 percent of those bloggers may never even heard of journalistic ethics or even know what a “scoop” is — they have audiences, and audiences carry weight.
That said, when journalists — by dint of the quality of their work — have managed to attract and retain an audience, that audience carries weight too.
Because things are so much in flux I think that both journalists and PR people can easily get confused about what their respective priorities are. So in the interests of disclosure — and hoping that it helps others — here are a few principles I have been working by:
- The journalist’s job is to find, filter, and deliver new information.
- Making information interesting (and occasionally even entertaining) is as much a part of the journalist’s job as making it accurate. If it’s not readable and doesn’t catch people’s interest, it won’t matter how accurate it is, because no one will read it.
- There are many ways to publish interesting, accurate, new information (aka “the story”): Newsprint. Glossy magazine paper. Big-media websites. Small, independent blogs. Podcasts. Video. Photos. The medium (and what you call it) matters less than the effort to find, filter, and deliver the story.
- Savvy journalists should be aggressive experimenters, embracing new media (audio, video, Twitter, Facebook, Zeemaps, polls, etc) and trying them out. Some things will not work. Others will, and can be added to the storytelling toolkit.
- Developing sources is key. Whether those sources are people, government information repositories, RSS feeds, online forums, blogs or what have you is less important than learning what sources are reliable, and which are the most productive.
- For the working journalist, managing the flow of information is a constant struggle. It’s tempting to unsubscribe from RSS feeds or blacklist PR people whose information seems particularly inapt. To a certain extent, such pruning and reorganizing is a constant necessity, as we try to highlight and focus on the feeds that are most useful to us. But it’s also important to cast a wide net, and not block out potential sources of future information, however irrelevant they may seem most of the time. I would welcome better tools for filtering and searching RSS feeds and email, and I’m constantly experimenting with such tools, but I haven’t found the killer app yet.
- PR people are potential allies in the search for news. They are also adversaries in that they have their client’s agenda in mind, and will want the story told (or not told) in a certain way. But they can be useful sources of information, and in some areas, such as new product announcements, they are indispensible.
- For new product announcements, the embargo (a gentleman’s agreement to hold the news until a certain date and time) is fast becoming obsolete as bloggers — untrained in the journalistic ethics of yore and having no incentive to respect those ethics anyway — routinely break such agreements. That’s unfortunate, because it means a) PR people have to scramble to notify trusted/preferred journalists when an embargo is broken, and b) journalists have to be ready to leap on a story at any moment, at any time of day, depending on when the news breaks and/or an embargo is broken.
- I predict that for this reason, embargoes will come back into use once we pass through the current business crisis and a new model for journalism emerges, one that includes its own code of ethics and which understands that people aren’t able to work around the clock indefinitely without burning out.
- PR people should understand that most journalists — those of us who still have our jobs — are under massive time pressure because of the quantity of information we need to digest and the quantity of stories we are expected to produce. As a result, most of us do not welcome phone calls of any kind — especially the “did you get the email I just sent?” variety. Phone calls interrupt our workflow and are more time-consuming to deal with than emails; plus they don’t allow the PR person to convey as much information as an email message. Personally, I prefer a followup email (or 2 or 3, if necessary) far more than a call.
- A journalist does not just speak for him or herself, but represents the interests of his or her readers. Journalists who understand this will act with humility, but also with integrity and (where necessary) forcefulness to ensure that those readers get the news they expect.
The PR-savvy journalist Rafe Needleman has a bunch more tips for PR people on his site, ProPRTips.com. He has a knack for making these points much more concisely than I. For instance, on the topic of unsolicited bulk emails, he said in a comment on Veronica Belmont’s site, “Sure, it’s annoying to read all the crap that comes in. But you know what? *It’s my job.*”