Public Relations v. Journalism

Anyone familiar with a proper newspaper should be able to tell the difference between public relations and journalism: the former advances a corporate or government perspective, the latter reports and assesses that perspective. There are public relations outfits (often called media relations) in big and small communities, with this obvious difference: small communities have few or no journalists, and so public relations (even if styled as news) dominates the few publications in those smaller communities.

Josh Sternberg, writing at The Media Nut, describes his experiences in a large public relations outfit:

So one day, the CEO walks into my area and says, “Josh. You’re up. I need you to get this client a media hit by the end of the week, or you’re gone.”

Fortunately, dear reader, I had a plan for this exact moment. Seeing that my colleagues were continually on the whipping post, and that my time was coming, I created a spreadsheet of all the radio stations in the country. My thinking: a press hit is a press hit. The CEO (and the client) didn’t care where they got press.

Knowing that no “mainstream” publication would bite, I sent out a paragraph pitch to the thousands of local radio stations across the nation, thinking that KFBC in Wyoming doesn’t get pitched all that often. I was right. I saved my job for that week.

The point of this story: media relations, at scale, is a Pyrrhic victory. Sure, you get your name in ink or on air, but to what end? If there’s no strategy behind it, it’s empty calories.

In a small community, these empty calories are bulk of a locally-sourced diet.

News, in this way, becomes what business and government say it is. Local newspapers were supposed to provide a more detached viewpoint, but that viewpoint is now merely aspirational. As editors & publishers wanted to be movers and shakers, so they became boosters of supposedly prominent residents, while ordinary readers abandoned these newspapers as compromised, and as the few remaining advertisers asserted ever-greater demands over content, local news became a mere guise for public relations.

In this way, small towns that worried over a same-ten-people problem have descended into something closer to a same-six-people problem.

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