Monday, March 7, 2016

The sad renaissance of the press release

Is the press release dead? Headlines are supposed to drag you into the story and this one did it for me. After all, I have handled tens of thousands of the little beauties over the years, most of the time receiving them, but more recently sometimes writing them as my job description evolved.

The head appeared over an article from an organisation calling itself the contentgroup (all one word and no capital), written by its Chief Executive, former Australian Broadcasting Corporation journalist David Pembroke.

His theme is that the press release is far from dead and, in fact, has an even bigger role to play as traditional media struggles to adapt to an increasingly online world.

He quotes American entrepreneur Ryan Holiday who says editors and bloggers are increasingly in love with press releases because it does every part of their job for them.

“The material is already written; the angle laid out; the subject newsworthy, and since it comes from an official newswire, they can blame someone else if the story turns out to be wrong,” says Holiday, who has written a book called Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator.

“Media releases make the job of the journalist easier. You are helping them find stories, quotes and material. In marketing terms you are ‘optimising the top of the funnel’."

Sadly, Holiday’s words hold a great deal of truth. A media release has a better chance of appearing verbatim on newspapers’ websites or in print these days than at any other time in history. The reason is not lazy journalism, but journalists harassed and desperate as they do the job that was once done by three or four workers.

The situation is particularly acute in the United Kingdom where literally thousands of reporters, sub-editors and photographers have been laid off in the past five years. The result has been a depressing race to the bottom as remaining workers struggle to fill pages while unable to even think of leaving their desks to engage in traditional news-gathering.

The situation has been recognised by the Pew Research Centre Project for Excellence in Journalism, whose director, Tom Rosenstiel, says the balance of power is shifting from those who collect and process the news to those who make it.

“What we’ve seen in some of our studies is that the press release that’s authored by the news-making agency, the government agency or whoever, is often adapted very briefly, or very hastily and re-posted by a news organisation as a kind of quick story,” Rosenstiel says.

And of course with the newsmakers in charge of the news, the public gets to hear only what they want them to hear and the overworked journalists simply have to go along with it.

Half a century ago, when I began in this craft, I was told to treat the press release with distain. “Follow it up, check every fact, find your own quotes and get the angle that’s actually news, rather than the one they want us to use,” was a distillation of my instructions.

There was a time when experienced Western news people were sent to journalism schools in what was then the third world to show young journalists how to write. Now some of the most aggressive journalism is conducted in parts of Asia.

I cannot help a touch of nostalgia when I see the media chasing stories around Delhi these days. Sure it’s a bit like the Wild West at times, but so preferable to meekly accepting government and corporate propaganda at face value.         

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