Journalism’s decline is more threatening than PR’s power

Seven years ago today, I left newspapers and became one of a seemingly growing number of journalists to ‘jump the ship’ into PR. As someone who loved news (and still does), it was a tough decision. But with no similar jobs available in Manchester, where I was moving to, it made sense to follow the work.

So I read with interest today research from the USA written jointly by ProPublica and Columbia Journalism Review, which reports that there are three times more PR professionals than journalists in the States.  The article, called ‘PR industry fills vacuum left by shrinking newsrooms,’ warns the decline of journalism makes it easier for Governments and corporations to get own message out.

Writer John Sullivan adds: “As PR becomes ascendant, private and government interests become more able to generate, filter, distort, and dominate the public debate, and to do so without the public knowing it.”

This echoes the findings of the Media Standards Trust‘s brilliantly executed (and, yes, PR-driven) Churnalism website in this country February. The site allows readers to paste press releases into a ‘churn engine’ to find out what proportion of a news article has been reproduced from this material.

Although any thought of the PR hordes outnumbering journalists in my part of the world is some way off, I recognise the growth of my current industry into areas where it barely existed even a decade ago. Social housing is a good example of a sector that clearly now sees the value of having specialist support on hand to deal with media queries and build relationships with journalists. Is this a bad thing?

In a ‘multi-skilled’ newsroom that struggles to fill the paper and provide online content every day, having such a (trusted) contact who can produce timely material could boost your organisation’s profile significantly over time. This is not to be complacent about the pitfalls: of course it’s a worry for both sides of the fence if this were to result in the publication of relentless and underwhelming spin or – worse – false material. But I don’t know of any PR practitioners or journalists who would stand for that, even in these times.

My take, based on my (limited) experience from both sides of the industry divide, is that for more than 20 years newspapers have been in decline which has been quickened by the rise in social media (which has taken readers in their droves) and the recession (which has battered advertising revenue). This makes it difficult for them to serve their readers in the way that journalists (or organisations like the Media Standards Trust) would like – even though the rot had set in long before these seismic shifts which have hit the industry. That risks making many newspapers a bad product which fewer people will want to read, and will only hasten the decline further.

The question of why this matters for PR is best answered by asking; why would you want to place material about your organisation in a newspaper that people do not want to read, much less believe? We need a decent press; but the fact that we have a good relationship with it should not always be seen as a threat.

An interesting counter-viewpoint to the debate was made by PR academic Heather Yaxley following the Churnalism episode when she wrote on her blog“…the Churnalism website…ignores the fact that a well written, well researched press release should be used pretty much verbatim. Knowing what journalists want in terms of what is an appropriate story for their audiences, writing in a style that reflects their publications and providing relevant facts, background information, quotes and so forth is at the heart of effective media relations. 

“This is what journalists frequently rant about in respect of how PR practitioners fail to meet their needs.  So if we get it right, why shouldn’t they use our words instead of rewriting them?” 

As Yaxley says, Churnalism is not PR’s fault, and neither are the changes that journalism is going through. Who knows where the next seven years will take the industry, or whether I will even be working in it then?

But I’m sure we can expect a few similar articles to these during that time.

2 thoughts on “Journalism’s decline is more threatening than PR’s power

  1. Thanks for the link and your interesting reflection on this topic. One other thought is that PR is much broader than simply media relations and today offers a strategic role within organizations, not simply existing to facilitate or indeed, replace journalists. So those journalists who see PR as an easy switch as their job opportunities decrease may well find themselves out of the depth in terms of the other competencies required to be successful in managing reputation, stakeholder relationships and the myriad management responsibilities that now increasingly come with the PR job title.

    BTW, I read recently that applications to study journalism at Universities are increasing – makes you wonder where they will all find rewarding employment on graduating.

    1. Thanks for the comment – having learned the hard way since joining the industry, I can only say I agree with you!

      Re the university question, if you want to get into journalism, it is one of the best ways to go about it – although whether it is worth getting into £27k worth of debt for is another matter entirely.

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