Public Relations is Helping/Killing Journalism

Modern newspaper economics offers the confounding conundrum. Most newspapers are struggling mightily to maintain both their readership and the advertisers who follow those readers. But not all newspapers hew to that troubling trend. The danger appears most pronounced for virtually all newspapers in the middle.

At the very top of the readership demographic, some large metropolitan newspapers are finding new causes for optimism. The New York Times and now the Washington Post are innovating at an accelerated pace, hoping to reach a new stability that The Wall Street Journal already has found.

Sophisticated readers in large numbers, unbound by limits of location, are giving these companies reason to hope that their on-line presence can one day be rewarded with the same loyal following — among readers and advertisers — that their newsprint editions have earned in the past.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, small newspapers seem to be weathering the storm of the Internet pretty well. Some put their content online for free. Some charge for it. Others keep it out of the Internet’s maw altogether.

Warren Buffett, no slouch at forecasting economic trends, raised more than a few eyebrows when he went on a spending spree, buying up dozens of small-town newspapers. The relative health of community newspapers has gone largely unnoticed because their mastheads have names that no one would recognize.

We’re transfixed by the terrible plight of almost all the newspapers in the middle — too small to garner a national audience, but too large to run photos of every softball league champion. The Internet may not be to blame.

I worked for daily newspapers when they became overrun with efficiency-minded consumer product managers. I was in the neighborhood when the Los Angeles Times was eviscerated by Mark Willes, a manager who learned his craft at General Mills selling Cheerios. He earned his nickname, the “cereal killer,” by laying off hundreds in the largest newsroom on the West Coast.

In my last six months working for a group of daily newspapers on the eastern edge of Los Angeles County, we had chocolate cake on eight different Fridays. Chocolate cake meant somebody was leaving — retiring, taking a buy-out, heading in a new direction, leaving to find themselves. (It was southern California, after all.)

Every one of those chocolate cakes was for a journalist leaving the profession. Six had taken jobs in public relations. Five of those were going to work for an agency or company that had been part of their beat as a reporter.

Meanwhile, our newsroom fax machine was replaced by three fax machines. More than half our ex-reporters were writing their stories for new bosses and faxing them to the newsroom as press releases. We hadn’t lost reporting talent. We had outsourced it.

But we didn’t explain any of this to the public. Since a newspaper’s first product is trust, this was not a small oversight. It may be what is quietly killing newspapers everywhere. There’s now an extra layer between much of what happens in a town and the stories we publish. There’s still proverbial shoe-leather involved, but it’s no longer on the foot of the newspaper.

People notice when there’s a reporter in the room, so it shouldn’t be surprising that they also notice when there’s no reporter in the room. And yet a story appears in the newspaper offering quotes and as-if-you-were-there details. If they were there and they know the newspaper wasn’t, they’re right to wonder who was.

They may question the newspaper’s veracity then about other things that are described on its pages. They can read about the same events from other sources, sometimes carrying the exact same quotes. A blogger may have an unusual perspective on the event, but at least he or she was in the room.

Very small newspapers have not learned to rely on press releases,. The largest newspapers have staff to pursue stories on their own or readers sophisticated enough to understand the role public relations plays in newsgathering.

Public relations gave newspapers efficient access to the skilled labor of storytelling, but at a terribly high price.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs