PR Industry Fills Vacuum Left by Shrinking Newsrooms

Vulture getting ready to strike a dying prey. Photo: Dmitri Markine (CC)

Vulture getting ready to strike a dying prey. Photo: Dmitri Markine (CC)

John Sullivan writes on ProPublica:

The Gulf oil spill was 2010’s biggest story, so when David Barstow walked into a Houston hotel for last December’s hearings on the disaster, he wasn’t surprised to see that the conference room was packed. Calling the hearing to order, Coast Guard Captain Hung Nguyen cautioned the throng, “We will continue to allow full media coverage as long as it does not interfere with the rights of the parties to a fair hearing and does not unduly distract from the solemnity, decorum, and dignity of the proceedings.” It’s a stock warning that every judge gives before an important trial, intended to protect witnesses from a hounding press. But Nguyen might have been worrying too much. Because as Barstow realized as he glanced across the crowd, most of the people busily scribbling notes in the room were not there to ask questions. They were there to answer them.

“You would go into these hearings and there would be more PR people representing these big players than there were reporters, sometimes by a factor of two or three,” Barstow said. “There were platoons of PR people.”

An investigative reporter for The New York Times, Barstow has written several big stories about the shoving match between the media and public relations in what eventually becomes the national dialogue. As the crowd at the hearing clearly showed, the game has been changing.

“The muscles of journalism are weakening and the muscles of public relations are bulking up — as if they were on steroids,” he says.

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  • Esther

    Shouldn’t we question at the same time, how this vacuum could occur? Freedom of opinion and economic independence are valuable virtual goods. Thus consumers/newspaper readers should be aware of their own responsibility by enforcing independent and high-quality journalism. Result: accept higher prices for print media.

  • Esther

    Shouldn’t we question at the same time, how this vacuum could occur? Freedom of opinion and economic independence are valuable virtual goods. Thus consumers/newspaper readers should be aware of their own responsibility by enforcing independent and high-quality journalism. Result: accept higher prices for print media.

    • quartz99

      That’s part of the problem. They’re not valuable goods, in that most people think if it’s online it should be free. Hell, I _work_ in the web industry and used to work at a newspaper and _I_ am as much to blame for that as anyone else — I bypass anything that’s got a toll gate and go for free content. Why should I pay for what I can get elsewhere for free? But then, subscriptions have never brought in enough to cover printing costs. That’s why all newspapers and magazines have ads. The ads are what pay to make the paper/mag. I’m not sure why anyone in the media would think that model would somehow change online.

      Another part of the problem is also that real news doesn’t bring in readers and viewers. So the real journalists get phased out and fired in favor of whoever can spin the most attention-grabbing stories. To do that, you don’t need to do things like go to a courtroom so you can report on the case. You just take a couple of the PR reports you get over the fax an hour later and mash them together to present as your own work, along with a little meaningless filler. It’s all about the meaningless filler when you’re getting paid by the word or by the inch. And if that’s all your reporters are doing, you don’t need a whole stable of them. Time to save a little money in the budget by “cutting loose” half the staff!

    • Hadrian999

      the problem is most people don’t want high quality journalism, most people want to be told they are right and everyone else is stupid

  • Anonymous

    That’s part of the problem. They’re not valuable goods, in that most people think if it’s online it should be free. Hell, I _work_ in the web industry and used to work at a newspaper and _I_ am as much to blame for that as anyone else — I bypass anything that’s got a toll gate and go for free content. Why should I pay for what I can get elsewhere for free? But then, subscriptions have never brought in enough to cover printing costs. That’s why all newspapers and magazines have ads. The ads are what pay to make the paper/mag. I’m not sure why anyone in the media would think that model would somehow change online.

    Another part of the problem is also that real news doesn’t bring in readers and viewers. So the real journalists get phased out and fired in favor of whoever can spin the most attention-grabbing stories. To do that, you don’t need to do things like go to a courtroom so you can report on the case. You just take a couple of the PR reports you get over the fax an hour later and mash them together to present as your own work, along with a little meaningless filler. It’s all about the meaningless filler when you’re getting paid by the word or by the inch. And if that’s all your reporters are doing, you don’t need a whole stable of them. Time to save a little money in the budget by “cutting loose” half the staff!

  • Hadrian999

    the problem is most people don’t want high quality journalism, most people want to be told they are right and everyone else is stupid

  • msdisenchanted

    So does this mean that(in addition to the few employment opportunities limited to the military, prisons and police, the PR firms are hiring now?   

  • msdisenchanted

    So does this mean that(in addition to the few employment opportunities limited to the military, prisons and police, the PR firms are hiring now?   

  • Robertchewter

    in same cases even newspapers hands are tiled by vested interest  ie  advertisers and ceo’s eg murdoch..but its  pattern as this deluded belief of business knows best culture carries on..

  • Robertchewter

    in same cases even newspapers hands are tiled by vested interest  ie  advertisers and ceo’s eg murdoch..but its  pattern as this deluded belief of business knows best culture carries on..

  • Robertchewter

    business wants to own it all and run it all…

  • Robertchewter

    business wants to own it all and run it all…

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