How Much Of That All Important Journalism Is Really PR?

from the more-than-half,-apparently dept

We get pitched stories from PR people all the time, and probably 99.9% of them end up getting ignored and trashed — mostly because they’re not even close to relevant, but often because we have no interest in being someone’s free promotional team. What’s amusing, however, is that invariably, days after we get pitched on certain stories, I end up seeing them appear in all sorts of mainstream publications, including some of the biggest and “most trusted” names in journalism.

And yet we keep getting told that we need to “support” this all important newspaper industry so they can carry on with the important democracy-saving task of journalism?

Last year, we noted that some attempts to count how many stories a newspaper actually reported on each day showed that the numbers were woefully low — just a handful per day, with the rest all filled in with fluff and wire service copy. But it gets even more ridiculous once you realize that many of the “stories” that reporters worked on were really little more than gussied up press releases turned into “articles.”

Boing Boing points us to a recent study in Australia that looked at a week’s worth of newspaper stories, and found that more than half were placed by PR people, though there was definitely a pretty wide range depending on the newspaper.

This seems like a pretty important finding to be included in any debate about “saving” newspapers — especially when the government is talking about stepping in to tax others to prop up newspapers. If all they’re really doing is propping up efforts to run wire copy and run thinly veiled advertisements-as-news, is that really what the government should be supporting? It seems we have this mental “ideal” of journalism, represented by Woodward and Bernstein, holding politicians accountable for their actions — but that rarely happens in practice. Instead, too much of traditional journalism has become notetaking — writing down what politicians and PR people say and repeating it back to an audience that could find that information themselves if they wanted it.

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Comments on “How Much Of That All Important Journalism Is Really PR?”

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Marcus Carab (profile) says:

Re: Media Today

It still happens, though usually on a smaller scale. Here in Toronto we’ve had a few big investigative exposes — poor conditions in community housing, minor gov’t sex scandals, that kind of thing.

I wouldn’t say it’s dead. I still know a lot of journalists who are honestly passionate about the idea of playing an important role in society, and it does happen — but because they are so passionate and actually have real integrity, they tend to believe that investigative journalism is what newspapers are all about, even though it’s actually a tiny portion of the industry.

Marcus Carab (profile) says:

Re: Where does wire copy come from?

Believe it or not, that’s not the point.

Yes, newspapers contribute to the AP, but the majority of the wire material comes from AP staff journalists nowadays. But nobody is saying that content sharing and distributed reporting are bad things — the point is that the average newspaper contributes very little original reporting.

In the past, that didn’t matter, because if you could start up a newspaper in a market with low or no competition, fill it with cheap copy and pack it with ads and classifieds, then distribute it with retail flyers and catalogues, you could make a killing. But the internet has taken a massive chunk out of that industry, and now in a lot of markets there are a way more newspapers than there need to be. Many of them doing almost nothing to elevate the public knowledge and conversation about current events — but that’s what they are always touting as the reason they must survive.

Anonymous Coward says:

the government is talking about stepping in to tax others to prop up newspapers.

It seems we have this mental “ideal” of journalism, represented by Woodward and Bernstein, holding politicians accountable for their actions — but that rarely happens in practice.

Right, politicians are really worried about the continued existence of something that holds them accountable, no dice. The obvious dichotomy is that if the government desires it, then it is beneficial(or at the very least not harmful) to incumbents.

This is a group that does absolutely everything to put in place policies that make it more difficult to replace existing Congressmen. And anybody that’s read a newpaper recently knows that the vast majority of articles merely regurgitate the talking points provided by the politicians themselves; they basically serve as free publicity, and if anybody thinks that government subsidies would not be used to coerce pro-government writing then I have a piece of land to sell you.

Marcus Carab (profile) says:

Re: Re:

If we trot down your in-my-opinion-slightly-over-pessimistic line of thinking for a minute, we see that if most journalism has already become politically benign it would absolutely be in the best interest of Congress to prop it up in its current form, while calling it a dedication to the investigative forces that keep government in check — no need for coercion. Why break it if it’s already broke? 😀

weneedhelp (profile) says:

and they wonder why

“It’s very difficult I think, given the way resources have drifted from journalism to public relations over the past 30 years, to break away as much as you really want to … I guess I’m implying, the number of people who go to communications school and go into PR over the years has increased and the number in journalism has shrunk even more dramatically.”
-Chris Mitchell, editor in chief of The Australian

No s**t Chris; Really? It has been obvious for a while now that news, is “news entertainment”, and nothing more. Start providing real journalism, something which if done correctly would have tremendous value. **SMACK** sorry I am daydreaming again. “Real journalism” Who am I kidding? LOL.

Steve R. (profile) says:

A Sorry State of Affairs

On March 15th the New York Times ran this rather pointless article: Tracking Electric Use Could Allow Utilities to Track You, Too. While this article doesn’t appear to be a regurgitated press release, it does serve as an example of a non-story published for the purposes of throwing gasoline on the “privacy” war fire.

If the reporter new what he was talking about and was after a real story, I would have expected a “big” article on how the fight against piracy is taking away our privacy (internet filtering) and making us all criminals. Instead of tackling this real issue, the Times simply takes a poor utility meter and makes it a poster child for how our privacy could be abused. And this is news! How absurd.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Sometimes I really do not get where Techdirt is coming from. One day its ‘Content is advertising and advertising is content’ and another day its ‘thinly veiled advertisements-as-news’. At what point does advertising as content work? Apparently when its not printed on paper.

I’m sorry if I’m not explaining this clearly, but if the “advertising” is “veiled” then it’s missing the point. The point of advertising is content, content is advertising is that everything is out in the open. It’s not PR pretending to be news.

You seem to be interpreting ads as content;content as ads as tricking people. But that’s not what it’s about at all.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Fair enough. I don’t see much difference. I would not watch an infomercial and I don’t see a product placement in the middle of my favorite show as much different or different than a ‘veiled’ ‘article’. Its all crap and its not ‘content’ that I care to waste my time on, much less pay for.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Fair enough. I don’t see much difference. I would not watch an infomercial and I don’t see a product placement in the middle of my favorite show as much different or different than a ‘veiled’ ‘article’. Its all crap and its not ‘content’ that I care to waste my time on, much less pay for.

Indeed. But again, you seem to think that the *annoying* ads are what we’re talking about. We’re not. We’re talking about creating content people WANT to see. You keep pointing to examples of content people don’t want. Which is what’s known as bad advertising.

We’re talking about creating *good* content. The type of content people seek out, not try to avoid.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

What is an example of good content that is also advertising? I honestly cannot think of one.

Techdirt (tooting our own horn a bit, but the TD content advertises our other services).
Superbowl ads (recent study showed more people watch for the ads than the game)
Music (advertising concerts and such)
Honda cog commercial.
the old spice body wash commercial with millions of YouTube views.

I mean the list goes on and on and on.

greg.fenton (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:5 Re:

But you watched. You thought they were cool. In your mind, the BMW brand became worthy of your attention. And that is the point.

You may not buy a BMW today, possibly never. But you will share those videos and (possibly unconsciously) elude your appreciation of the BMW brand. People you influence may, in turn, buy a BMW (or continue the influence chain).

The fact is, if you went out of your way to watch and ad…then it worked.

Marcus Carab (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

Good advertising-content doesn’t have to be entertaining either: it can be useful (or both). There can be sponsored content — clearly labeled as such — that isn’t just worthless “advertorial” and is in fact actually valuable.

This works well in business realms — If a news website publishes, say, a sponsored federal budget analysis by the Chief Economist of a major bank, what’s wrong with that? Anyone in the industry will find that information interesting and will know how to interpret it under the circumstances, and if seeing some ads for the bank and some links to their investment services alongside the article means they get to read it for free, that seems like a pretty good deal. They might even actually want some of those investment services, and be grateful for the ads.

That’s such a tough thing to really imagine, given how accustomed we are to being irritated by advertising. But the fact is that there are products and services out there that everyone wants, and advertising can be useful.

Technopolitical (profile) says:

information is out there online for any person who wants to intelligently research any topic

“Last year, we noted that some attempts to count how many stories a newspaper actually reported on each day showed that the numbers were woefully low …..”

This has really been bothering me for a while now. Most newspapers are mostly wire service words.

If not for AP , Reuters et al , there would be no news in newspapers ,,( except the real biggies like the NY times, and Wash. Post etc,)

But information is out there online for any person who wants to intelligently research any topic , news or otherwise. So hopefully as a whole , we know more about what is going on,

There are so many Think Tanks , lobbys , and PIRGs out there , well Citizen , if you do not know who your Congressman is , well , do not blame the media.

Special Extra credit Question : The Name of the State Assembly-person who reps your district ? … where you live ? in 5 seconds.

5 ,,, 4,,, 3,,, 2,,, 1,,,,, Buzzzzzzz

robin (profile) says:

Re: I refere to them as -

press release parrots it is 🙂 :

actually, this is a good one for you to deconstruct mike (the whole thing is actually a hagiography for the ceo’s of time-warner and comcast), for instance the gentleman who runs the amc channel is glowingly quoted as saying:

Why would I license my channel to someone and give them Mad Men the day after it shows up on AMC?

uhm….because your fans/customers want it, and if you don’t deliver then they/we/i will look, and very quickly find it, elsewhere.

BearGriz72 (profile) says:

Re: Like This Drivel?

Try linking to the original article…

Planning For Windows 7 Migration
Clearly States her affiliation right at the top.
“Talking Tech By Liz Eversoll, vice president, Microsoft Practice, CDW Corporation, Network World March 16, 2010 05:44 PM ET”

What is the problem?
Oh I forgot Microsoft = Evil Right?
I use both Linux & Windows. I should be Shot?

Anonymous Coward says:


If the story isn’t a recent crime or disaster, then there’s a very good chance it’s in the paper because someone has a buck to gain through “informing the public” by planting some news. I’ve done it myself, and I’ve watched competitors do it also.

So read the paper… It goes good with a cup of coffee, but know that just because it’s in print doesn’t mean it’s gospel. On the other hand, just because the source for an article has some bias doesn’t necessarily make it false either.

Basic rule — any “facts” from the news media that really make a difference to you had better be cross-checked from multiple sources.

Lou says:


Golly, I’m really not sure what the point of this article is, except maybe to denigrate “mainstream media” and to satisfy the writer’s own overblown ego and sense of self-importance. The article is woefully lacking in facts and examples in its presentation of a distorted sense of reality. But the writer somehow wants to assure us he knows what he’s talking about: Read me — not the useless “traditional journalism.” Uh-huh…right.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Huh?

Read me — not the useless “traditional journalism.

Oh, goodness no. I’m not a journalist and I link to traditional press in most of my posts. I want people reading journalists. I’m not saying that traditional journalists are worthless at all, and I’m sorry if you interpreted it that way. I’m saying that the claims of the all importance of traditional newspapers is highly exaggerated, given the amount of actual reporting they do.

I’m sorry if you felt I implied something different.

Sue (profile) says:

How Much Of That All Important Journalism Is Really PR?

Thoughtful article, thanks for that. One of the major journalism texts decades ago stated that most news outlets use only 10 per cent of the copy that comes flowing in from wire services, PR pitches and its own reporters’ copy. So to some extent it follows that if PR pitches make the news it is partly because of the sheer volume of them received by media outlets. Still, news outlets have the luxury of choosing, from among the vast number of pitches, the stories most likely to be interesting to their readers. Then if they have the staff they can apply a b.s. filter to the pitch, interview some third party observers and so on. Let’s face it, Viagra was one hell of a story when it came out, even though it was a pitch from the drug company that owned it. (I remember thinking, “oh, great, just what we need, a bunch of horny old gaffers, it’s bad enough when they’re young.” The thing is, it did signal a permanent shift in our culture.) At the same time, investigative journalism isn’t totally dead. About 8 years ago a journalist with the Kitchener-Waterloo Record started looking into what he considered a rather iffy lease-back deal on a recreation centre that local politicians were being lured into (innocently, I think). He kept pecking away at it and eventually it blew up into what became known as the MFP scandal in the City of Toronto, which exposed a lot of corruption at Toronto City Hall and brought about a great deal of positive change. I just read what may be the final chapter in the news this week. No criminal charges, but numerous careers have been derailed, apparently for good cause. Sadly, the K-W Record reporter never got the credit he deserved, and I don’t even remember his name. However, his work lives on, and I guess it sold a lot of advertising. That, of course, is now the difficulty for newspapers. Is it worth putting some public funding into print journalism just to preserve some variety in the organizations that apply the b.s. filter to PR pitches? Why not, when we see excellent journalism result from partly or fully funding broadcast outlets such as the BBC, or the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation or public broadcasting in the U.S.?

Robin Stevens Payes (user link) says:

"Syndicated" content

Attended a really horrifying social media conference recently in which it became clear that even “earned” media will soon be a thing of the past. Forget about journalists uncovering corruption, or even PR flacks pointing the way to stories – the news will soon be pay-to-play, with corporations and other advertisers buying syndication rights online to repurpose their sales copy and customer “testimonials”. As a onetime journalist and longtime purveyor of media relations who has learned how trust and truthfulness are the key to getting reporters’ attention (a good reputation can go a long way) this seems the death knell of news gathering and pitching stories. As paid journalists continue the stream towards freelance work due to layoffs, reorgs, and media consolidation, expect more surviving media organizations to move towards paid placement – if that’s what it takes to survive!

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