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Charles on… anything that comes along

Tuesday 3 May 2005

Filed under: — Charles @ 12:56 pm

On PR and journalism: which one’s in “structural decline”?

If you haven’t been alerted to it by the Fullrunner, then you really should read Paul Graham’s excellent article on his website about the PR business and the media.

Some sample quotes:

I was talking recently to a friend who works for a big newspaper. He thought the print media were in serious trouble, and that they were still mostly in denial about it. “They think the decline is cyclic,” he said. “Actually it’s structural.”

I doubt PR firms realize it yet, but the Web makes it possible to track them at work. If you search for the obvious phrases, you turn up several efforts over the years to place stories about the return of the suit. For example, the Reuters article that got picked up by USA Today in September 2004. “The suit is back,” it begins.

Trend articles like [the one noted in his article] are almost always the work of PR firms. Once you know how to read them, it’s straightforward to figure out who the client is. With trend stories, PR firms usually line up one or more “experts” to talk about the industry generally. In this case we get three: the NPD Group, the creative director of GQ, and a research director at Smith Barney. [5] When you get to the end of the experts, look for the client. And bingo, there it is: The Men’s Wearhouse.

It’s a very insightful look at something that PRs and journalists have known themselves for a long time: the stuff that appears in newspapers and magaazines increasingly is just supply to meet the demand, words to fill blank space. It’s not real and it’s not what’s happening. Graham’s argument is that what people write online is “true”. I’m not so sure; just this morning I was thinking how what people blog about ebbs and flows with the stuff they hear on the news or are told is important, rather like fronds of anenomes in the ocean current.

Even so, there is something going on which I think print publications need to get engaged with. The Guardian’s election blog is a fantastic example of a print publication really engaging with its readership in the way the readers want to do it, rather than dictating how they should receive information.

However one must admit that he neatly skewers national hacks (even though he’s writing about American ones, I’m sure the same applies here) with this observation:

The weak point of the top reporters is not laziness, but vanity. You don’t pitch stories to them. You have to approach them as if you were a specimen under their all-seeing microscope, and make it seem as if the story you want them to run is something they thought of themselves.

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