Time for a return to old-school journalism?

Shorthand notebook

Shorthand: old school but still important

Have journalists become too dependent on the PR industry?

It’s said that there are now more PRs than journalists working in the UK. The growth in PR is not, though, the mirror image of a decline in journalism, as the PR’s role is much broader now than even a decade ago (for an excellent analysis on this, see this piece in the Independent by Ian Burrell).

There is a risk for the media in relying too much on PR. Short-staffed publications are often grateful for PR-generated material, but too often it is used uncritically, sometimes almost word for word.

This does not serve readers well; if they want PR material, they can find it on the companies’ own web sites. But the real danger lies in the way pressure to reproduce stories put out by the PR industry robs journalists of the time they need to do their own research. This is especially true in online publishing, where success is more likely to be measured by the quantity of stories, not their quality.

But it is possible to break the cycle. Some PR content can be useful, especially in specialist trade titles. Even so, my own experience is that most material sent out proactively by PR firms is of limited use. It tends to be too focused on products. Or, it is too focused on developments within a company that probably only interest people who work at that company, or at a pinch, its shareholders. (Material sent by PRs in response to a journalist’s query is a different case).

Going through my own inbox, I’d suggest that more than 90 per cent of PR material is irrelevant — by that I mean that less than 10 per cent of material I am sent makes it into a story. Of the 10 per cent that does, only rarely does PR material lead to an idea; mostly it’s material I keep on file that fits into a story idea that either I, or an editor, develops further down the line. For national newspapers, I would say in all honesty that 99 per cent of material isn’t relevant. I can’t think of a single story, save for executive interviews, that I have written for a national in the last 12 months that started life as PR material.

That’s not to say PRs should not put out the material; there are good reasons that they should. Journalists, though, should not rely on it.

The answer: go back to the old school. Pick up the phone, speak to people, work contacts and the stories will come. Several times this week, on stories where PR firms said they could not help with contacts or interviews, I have been able to organise those interviews with just one or two calls. And at the end of the interview, asking the interviewee for their recommendation of other sources for the story often works wonders too.

Maybe in the new year, I will try switching off email for a day or two and see what happens. I reckon I will be more productive, but let me know your thoughts.


About stephenpritchard
Freelance journalist specialising in business and technology, based in London (UK).

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