360DigitalInfluence

Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide

This may be a slightly controversial post with many different opinions floating around. Let me know what you think and whether this is a global trend.

Nick Davies, an investigative journalist of 30 years’ standing who works mainly for England’s Guardian newspaper, has put the spotlight rather savagely on his own industry and questioned what he sees as a deeply disturbing decline in journalistic standards. He also cites PR as a contributor. These assertions were recently aired in a TV interview in Australia on the ABC.

Davies says that journalistic standards are declining the world over as cost cutting and government pressures take toll on the industry. In his book, Flat Earth News, which focuses mainly on the state of UK quality newspapers, he argues that the combination of manipulation by government and the PR industry on a media industry under endless cost-cutting pressures and an expanding workload is a pattern repeated the world over. An irony of timing with big staff cuts just announced at Australia’s oldest newspaper group, Fairfax Media.

In the interview Davies says, “Big corporations have taken over newspapers, which used to be owned by small family firms, and injected the logic of commercialism into newsrooms and that logic has overwhelmed the logic of journalism.

“The big structural sign of that is that all across the developed world these new corporate owners of the newsrooms have cut editorial staff at the same time as they’ve increased the output of those staff.  And the result of that is, crudely put… in the UK we did a big calculation on this, your average Fleet Street reporter now has only a third of the time to spend on each story that he or she used to have 20 years ago. If you take away time from reporters, you are taking away their most important working asset. So they can’t do their jobs properly any more.

“In this commercialised world, you have journalists who instead of being active gatherers of news – going out and finding stories and making contacts and doing funny old-fashioned things like checking facts, they’ve become instead passive processors of second-hand information, stuff that come up on the wire Reuters or AP, stuff that comes from the PR industry. And they churn it out. I use this word “churnalism” instead of journalism.”

Davies clearly feels journalists are led along, particularly by the PR industry. His examples are not so much in the technology sector, although he does talk about the millennium bug, but more mainstream. He also notes a pattern of many journalists who have lost their job moving across to PR.

Davies says the impact of electronic technology is very complex on this whole problem.

Whilst he admits journalists can do more research from the desktop and stories remain online permanently, the second implication is that they’ve lost their deadlines.  He says the pressure is immense, always there five minutes ahead of your nose every day. Not only that, but journalists now have to write the story, do an audio version, a vodcast, a podcast, and so it goes on. The end result is the quality of the work is going down even though the amount and the variation of the product is increasing.

And his thoughts on bloggers is also quite depressing.

“I don’t agree with the view that we will be saved by the operation of citizen journalists and bloggers…..an awful lot of what bloggers put out is false, is crazy ideas and crazy facts, to the extent that bloggers have reliable information very often that’s because they’re feeding off the small extent to which the mainstream media are coming up with reliable information. If the mainstream is going to carry on getting weaker, as I fear, then the proportion of reliable information which the bloggers come up with will also decline,” he says.

And his prognosis for TV and radio is no different. “It’s in the same kind of mess that the print media are in. There’s no difference, I’m afraid, because news is expensive and unless we find a new financial model we won’t be able to deliver it and I don’t quite see where that new financial model is coming from and I don’t know any media proprietor who can see it either. They’re all very worried.”

Oh dear.

Personally, whilst there are some points in this article that I concur with, I think the accusation of PR being a big contributor to the quality of journalism is a bit of a stretch. Like many industries in this modern era, publishers have to change their business models and this will impact their operations. This is changing the way in which journalists spend their working day. But technology can also help and I don’t think Davies looks at that side much either in this interview. I haven’t read the book, but my hunch is that it will be overlooked.

I think the technology press are adapting well, blending online and print, or dropping print and going totally online. We have seen the size of editorial teams decline and technology journalists are getting younger. But the young ones seem very adaptable, taking content for print, shooting a video and posting fast. Many of them are also generalists rather than specialists. But despite those circumstances, they are smart, savvy people and it is no different trying to get a story up with them now than it was three years ago. In fact, with some smaller books due to the decline in advertising spend, in many instances it is getting harder.

Go figure!

Yeah, as in Wonka. Remember the scene? Charlie at the gates? Thousands upon thousands of fans standing in eager amazement as the gates were about to open. Would we see oompa-loompas for the first time? Gorge on chocolates to our hearts content? Just what would we do with the gates open?

And that’s a bit of the sensation I had as a tech PR professional upon reading that some mainstream media (MSM) are responding to the surge in growth and buzz (there’s a difference) in and about social media. They want some too (yes, get me some of that social media, but as a means to growth and buzz) so they’re opening the gates. Call it readership community! Collaboration! Co-creation! Whatever you call it, BusinessWeek and others want to let readers guide story topic selection; heck sometimes they’ll let them write the next sentence! They want to engage with readers, and in doing so cede the ‘we are the experts, we’ll decide what to analyze and then do the analysis’ mantel.

So like I said, at first the PR pro in me gets giddy. What an opportunity! More ways to suggest topics! More ways to influence! More ways to get the experts I want to see espousing with more air-time than your experts! Alas my clients will be heard!

But wait. Then the New Englander in me speaks up. The New Englander automatically furrows the brow and looks for ‘the angle’ in anything that looks good at first. There must be a downside dammit. And then it hits me. The thousands of fans at the gate. Some of them are maybe not evil, but certainly not upstanding. Let’s just say, they won’t be operating with transparency. They might just dupe those MSM. They might steer, influence and suggest too far. Why, with the news staffs shrinking, who will ensure that some bot doesn’t just keep changing names and suggesting similar topics that mislead a tag cloud of story ideas! Those poor unsuspecting MSM!

Then I decide, maybe the change actually lands somewhere in the middle. Of course BusinessWeek needs to socialize itself. They must innovate or shrink. They’ll succeed in places, fail in others. And after all, this is about conversations and relationships, and that’s why I got into this field 20 years ago. It’s a good thing, right? As long as those of us acting transparently traffic the rest of the crowd. After all, someone has to protect the Ever-lasting Gobbstoppers.

It’s a good thing. Right?

Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide