This Valentine’s Day, Let’s Take a Break (From Pitching)

Dear Journalist,

February 14th has been a tradition to celebrate Valentine’s Day for as long as we can remember. Although the world has seen hundreds of years and countless technological evolutions since the first valentine was sent via snail mail, there are a few special Valentine’s Day memories that we all have in common.

Whether it was a handmade card you sent to your secret crush as a preteen, cheap candy your mother or father bought for you to pass out to the kids in school, or the overpriced roses and assorted chocolates in a heart-shaped box you gave to your sweetheart, Valentine’s Day has always been a way to show appreciation we have for one another – whatever the gift may be.

Rather than overflowing journalists’ inboxes and voicemails this Valentine’s Day, the HB PR team has put a new meaning to the holiday and proclaimed it #NoPitchDay.

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That’s right – this Valentine’s Day we hope you can feel the love as we switch our gears into other PR priorities. Here’s a taste of the kinds of things we do when we’re not pitching reporters:

  1. C’mon, we aren’t just pitch machines – we also focus on PR strategic planning. Press releases you read today may have been in the works for months. Like any strategic business consultants, we are always living in the moment while thinking ahead.
  2. While we may always have our next pitch in the back of our minds (it’s a habit) we’re also supporting our clients’ events attendance. This means we’re uncovering the latest hot conference that could positively impact their business, and in preparation may even help formulate interesting speaking topics for them.
  3. How do you think we determine if our PR programs are effective? Well…that’s where PR measurement and analytics reporting comes into play. We are always evaluating the effectiveness of our work and making course corrections to maximize our client investment.
  4. Content creation is a critical part of modern PR. Byline writing and uncovering thought leadership opportunities are responsibilities we must master on a daily basis.
  5. Every day we conduct market research in B2B technology, high tech, energy and sustainability, and medical technology. This keeps us abreast of the latest trends and makes us better PR practitioners.

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Valentine’s Bonus: As an added thank you we wanted to share some secrets about PR you might not know.

We don’t like liars or cheaters.

We won’t lie to you just to get a story. Good PR people have integrity and it means everything to us.

OK, we admit it. We’re not perfect.

Have you been wronged by a PR person in the past? Probably. Will it happen again? We hope not, but no one is perfect.

love-actually

CORRECTION: This guy thinks we are perfect.

We impact each other’s personal brands.

PR people talk about journalists. Journalists talk about PR people. Sometimes this happens in a public forum. (That’s what Twitter was invented for, right?!) Our personal brands are at stake and we want to do our best to keep those intact.

PR people enjoy working with journalists.

One of the reasons we work in PR is because we love working with you. We spend much of our time interacting with journalists, so we better. Journalists are truth seekers and while sometimes we may give our slant on a story, we’re hoping you’ll put together all the facts and share something compelling and accurate with the world. Of course, we’ll be crossing our fingers you’ll include our clients and say nice things. Is that too much to ask for?!

jerry_maguire

We hope you enjoy a break from our pitching this Valentine’s Day. Remember, absence makes the heart grow fonder, and don’t worry…we’ll be back Monday!

Jill Abramson Is Launching A Media Startup

image via The Boston Globe

image via The Boston Globe

Jill Abramson and David Carr kicked off WBUR’s new series Fast Forward at Boston University this week. While the pair rarely stayed on-topic, the night was full of candid moments, debate, and Abramson’s latest breaking news — she’s launching a media startup with Steve Brill.

Want to know what else you missed from Carr’s chat with Abramson? Check out our BuzzFeed story.

Who’s to Blame When PR Practitioners Spam?

Screen Shot 2013-12-04 at 3.14.25 PMDavid Segal usually keeps his magnifying glass trained on big consumer brands, frauds, rip-offs, deceptive practices and other complaints from his readers. But two weeks ago, he turned his attention to a very different beast: PR spam.

The Haggler, it seems, had reason to complain himself: he was getting way too many unsolicited and grossly off-target email pitches. As he put it:

The odds of the Haggler writing about any of these topics could safely be described as nil. Yet some company hired a public relations firm to send the Haggler, and presumably countless other reporters, the same information. This seemed like a waste of energy and money, so the Haggler decided to find out what was behind this antiquated attempt to win media attention — who was paying for it, and why?

The Haggler started by emailing the P.R. reps whose names were attached to these emails, posing a simple question: Where did you get the Haggler’s address? One answer came up time and again: Vocus, a publicly traded company based in Beltsville, Md. Among its products is access to a database of reporters’ email addresses.

So the Haggler set out to get removed from these lists, curated by companies like Vocus, Cision, MyMediaInfo, Meltwater and the popular PR wire services. One less media contact in our databases, but hundreds fewer bits of email spam in his inbox. His gain, but our loss. My loss, to be exact. When other irresponsible PR practitioners make my life more difficult, I take it personally. Or, am I wrong? Perhaps it is his loss, and maybe not as much of a loss for us as I thought?

Does It Work?

The PR world wasted no time in commenting on this. While most trashed the practice of “shotgun PR,” at least one observer noted that [emphasis mine]

as a result of [the agency’s] scattershot, “let’s see what sticks” media outreach tactics, Soireehome [the company called out in The Haggler’s article] and its product received a mention in the New York Times. I’d be curious to see what Google could tell us about upticks in searches for that drinking glass. Something tells me volume is probably up. I admit it: As someone who likes his martinis bone cold, I thought about googling it myself!

While Eric Starkman, the author of those words, quickly goes on to distance himself from the practice, he in turn points to the reason why spray and pray PR might be more effective now than ever before:

Journalism’s “standard operating procedures” have plummeted to such a low level that increasingly what Mr. Segal decries as PR spam finds its way into the blogosphere and ultimately into mainstream newspapers. Gawker in its “PR Dummies” column once decried a PR firm for sending out a staged photo of an actress purchasing some orange juice, but the image – and the Gawker column – actually garnered some pick up…. Granted, not all the mentions were positive, but there is a school of thought (which I don’t subscribe to) that all PR is ultimately good PR. In the client’s eyes, the “buzz” could very well have been a perceived win. (For what it’s worth, I hadn’t heard of that brand of orange juice until I read about it on Gawker, but now I know it has 50 percent less calories than that company’s other orange juice products!)

Opt Out or Blacklist?

So what to do about this quandary?

When I read this story, I hearkened back to the last major flare-up around PR spam: the one that led LifeHacker‘s Gina Trapani to create and curate the PR Spammers Wiki. And my immediate thought was maybe we should reinstate the PR spammer blacklist. After all, surely it has to be better than the alternative — losing valuable contact information from good editorial contacts. But then I remember how relieved I was that my company wasn’t on the list of PR spammers, and how many good companies were on that list, usually because of one or two bad eggs out of dozens or hundreds of PR people and thousands of pitches.

So, torn and indecisive as I was, I tweeted my frustration:

Both Meltwater and Cision got back to me quickly. Perhaps it will be no surprise that I’m a customer of both.

Cision connected me with Heidi Sullivan, who in fact spent a good deal of time speaking with John Cass and Jason Falls back in 2008 when the first flare-up happened. I spent some time getting her perspective on the issue as it reemerges in 2013.

Accidentally on Purpose?

“We do still run into situations where people who are abusing our database,” Heidi said. “If they use our distribution service, we have limits in place to prevent abuse. If they export our data, we have to rely on abuse reports from journalists. Once we get these, we ask people to stop. If they don’t, we shut them off.”

Heidi is convinced that in most cases, it’s a matter of poor training, rather than deliberate abuse. “Spray and pray PR doesn’t work, and we spend a lot of time helping our PR clients better focus their pitches,” she told me. “More often than not, these abuses come from young, poorly-trained, well-intentioned PR practitioners under pressure to get more hits. Correct that and you fix most of the problem areas.”

Training is a big part of Heidi’s job at Cision. She organizes three to four webinars per month focused on topics like pitching the media, content marketing and other areas. The Cision Blog is another resource that offers tips on doing great PR.

Cision has also tweaked the tools and services it offers to help address this. I mentioned earlier the distribution limits it put in place. The product now offers an influencer search to find what journalists are tweeting about, so you can get much more specific with your searches.

Who Needs Who?

Let’s take a moment to explore why Cision and other media databases exist. Like media query services such as HARO and Profnet, they don’t just help the PR professionals; they also help the reporters out. While a reasonable case could be made that David Segal is an exception to this, since his sources are almost exclusively emails from concerned consumers, he is in the minority. Most journalists need PR people as much as PR people need journalists. Today, perhaps more than ever.

As an illustration of this fact, I asked Heidi how many journalists took up The Haggler’s mantle and removed themselves from Cision’s databases. The answer? “We had fewer than five removal requests after the Haggler’s article. We spoke with each of them, and ultimately removed fewer than half of them from our database. In fact, we got way more emails from conscientious clients than reporters.”

Oh, and yes, David Segal was among the one or two media contacts that the PR world lost. But was it much of a loss?

Skeptics or Believers?

David Segal is a skeptic not only of PR, but social media as well — I can’t find a Twitter handle for him or his pseudonym. In both social media and email, he appears to be among a dwindling number of professional journalists able to exist without these channels of communication.

Heidi gave me a preview of some research conducted by Cision on trends in journalists’ use of social media. The number of journalists who classify themselves as social media skeptics dropped from 31% in 2012 to 9% in 2013 according to the company’s soon-to-be-released survey data.

socialjournalism

What Next?

Back in 2008, Jason and John put the onus of responsibility on the media database companies, urging them to develop an industry protocol for gathering and managing contact information, tracking the history of contact changes, fact checking and permission seeking with each contact, the creation of a media hotline for each database company, and the creation of a “community taskforce to stop bad pitches.”

Progress has been made toward those goals, but more progress must be made. My final thoughts go to the parties involved:

To David Segal, I say: “While I think removing yourself from the list was an overreaction, it’s one I entirely understand. But every once in a while, a journalist is thankful for a PR person ignoring the ‘not a media contact’ warning that I think would have been a better solution for all.”

To the surprised CEO who had no idea what his agency was doing with the $1500 a month they were being paid, I say: “Sorry, but you get what you pay for. Spend more money on PR, but demand accountability from your (no doubt new) agency as a consequence, as David rightly suggests.”

To the agency involved in this, I say: “Sorry you lost that client. Train your younger associates better. Find better ways to measure your efforts than the number of pitches sent. And avoid phrases like ’email blast’ around the office.”

And to my fellow PR professionals, I say: “The biggest lessons here may be about setting expectations and learning to say no to smaller budgets. The sweet spot for effective and profitable PR will be different for every agency, but make sure you know what that number is and try not to go under it. Smaller budgets lead to lower margins and unhappy (and surprised) clients.”

Balancing Eyeballs, Wrecking Balls and Hardballs: Journalistic Integrity and Native Advertising

wallNewsrooms always put up a solid wall between the business and journalistic sides of publishing. This wasn’t something imposed by readers, viewers or listeners, but by the newsrooms themselves. For journalists it was a point of ethics, and they spent many hours discussing the ethics of influence. Being a journalist means that people trust you to tell them what they can’t see; if they can’t trust you do that, then you lose your ability to speak.

To see these ethical standards at work, just look at the ethics sections on places like AllThingsD or TechCrunch. Writing on the Huffington Post, Associated Press Standards Editor Thomas Kent points out that a key way to identify a journalist is asking “Does the person or his organization guard against conflicts of interest that could affect the product? If conflicts are unavoidable, are they publicly acknowledged?”

This barrier between journalist and business interest is becoming increasingly muddled thanks to native advertising. These strategies are very interesting for those of us who need to reach the audience of a given publication, but there is also worry about eroding the very integrity that public relations is designed to harness, thereby hurting just about everything we do.

Back in the 90s as a young news producer I tried launching a business segment. My ultimate boss, the station general manager, the woman who approved my paycheck each week, walked into the newsroom and handed me a company to profile. Of course it was a potential advertiser, something I didn’t realize until after running the story. We killed the segment not long thereafter.

Still, in small-town New York State, this semi-permeable wall was the norm; commerce influenced coverage. Big cities and big newsrooms had the luxury of building a far more solid barrier, and it was a regular topic in journalism school. We’d spend hours every Friday discussing the role of influence, what constituted influence and its impact on reporting. One of my favorite professors exhorted us to not eat the food put out at press events, lest we be influenced by some really great smoked fish.

In This Town, Mark Leibovich points to all the ways in which politicians and journalists become influenced by the money and access that flows freely around the former swamp on the Potomac. In this world, parties, fame, cash, food and access are all commodities, as long as no one openly admits to being influenced. In this world, Hardball host Chris Mathews can move from the political world to the “journalistic” world without missing a beat. The whole thing makes turning down a spread of bagels laughable.

This obviously has great implications for someone in PR, which is, after all, about “influencer relations.” Our goal is to be ethical even as we position our clients to be part of journalists’ stories. It can be a tough balance. An extreme case in point is Miley Cyrus. Sure, her antics gain lots of attention and selling albums, but is the attention she’s receiving helpful for the long-term viability of her brand? Sinead O’Connor seems to think not, though Cyrus acknowledges that her antics sell music. Why should she stop?

Here at HB we operate in the business-to-business world and don’t often encounter cases as extreme as a foam-finger-waving, hyper-sexualized, barely-of-age twerker on national television. Well, not yet, anyway. I haven’t had a client CEO publicly swing naked on a wrecking ball (at least not our client).

With this balance in mind, news organizations continually face a tough decision: how far do they go in trying to make money while also informing the public? What do they give up when placing one above the other?

The other day I sat in a meeting of people participating on a hyper-local blog and the subject of hiring came up. Given the troubles facing hyper-local news, including cutbacks at AOL’s Patch and layoffs at the Boston Globe hyper-local sections we broached the idea of hiring a full-time reporter to do the daily work of collecting news and information. To do so, of course, means having some sort of budget and among the ideas were display ads and native advertising. Display ads got shot down as impractical and native advertising had an “ick” factor that seemed to turn off nearly everyone in the room.

Still, local publications have begun embracing the concept. In a Digiday article, one editor noted that asking local organizations to pay for press release placements isn’t all that far afield from what they had been doing. “Preston Gibson, director of development at the Cape May County Herald said, ‘The content is the exact same content we’ve published [in print], but now we’re getting paid for it.'”

The fear, according to the purists, is a blurring of the lines between content that is paid and that which is editorially independent. Over on Business Insider, Henry Blodget points out that entertainment has always paid the news bills and sites like Buzzfeed have simply built on that concept.

Journalism snoots love to snicker about Buzzfeed’s cat pictures. What they’re missing is that Buzzfeed’s formula takes a page right of the playbook of traditional media: Successful publications and networks in print and TV have always funded expensive journalism and news with feature content with broad appeal.

The best course of action here is to clearly let readers know when they are reading “sponsored” content. As an example, traditionally we’ve understood when an ad is on TV, it interrupts the flow. Now, however, many shows are selling the content itself. Watch Hawaii Five-0 and see the good guys drive GM vehicles (the model names carefully written into the script) while the team uses Microsoft products. That’s advertising, but a lot less overt.

On the digital side my fear is that even with clear notification readers won’t really notice.

Years ago as a freelance writer I did a story about a local tea store for a beverage magazine. The shop’s owner loved the piece, but kept calling it an “ad” and even offered me free tea (I turned it down, see above). The idea that she confused a paid advertisement with an editorially independent article bugged me. She wasn’t the only one. How often do we hear people quoting something they heard about on a TV advertisement as “fact”? When a person argues a point and references something “they read,” do we question the source of the information?

While the stakes may be low when reading a car review and one may go easy on an advertiser, they rise considerably when that same level of influence is put behind more government-driven news, like a local article sponsored by a developer touting a change in zoning laws. This is already happening in the business-to-business tech media, in which many sites freely mix independent editorial content with paid submissions. The flags acknowledging paid content are often so obscured as to become irrelevant.

The bigger question may be “what’s lost?” If people don’t really notice or care when something is sponsored as opposed to editorially independent, then what happens to the quality, breadth and depth of the news they receive? How can they make informed decisions if the information itself comes from paid sources?

Media Relationships Don't Matter, and Other PR Fairy Tales

CatCountless times I’ve sat in the office of a potential client. We’re having a great conversation, exploring strategies and messaging. We’re talking about where their company is headed and how PR can help get them there.

And then it happens: “Do you have connections?”

The inference is immediate – “Do you have connections that can quickly get me onto the front page of <CEOs favorite publication>?”

Have you ever sat on either side of that table before? If you have, then you know that this part of the conversation gets, well – weird. So, how do you answer the question?

My short answer: Of course connections with journalists and other influencers matter. But it’s not just about the relationships. The reality is a little more complicated than that. Connections matter, but so does context. As a client, it’s important to understand why you are interested in a PR professional’s influencer network. You may be using it as a yardstick to help gauge her ability and track record. Perhaps you want to leverage her connections for greater visibility on social media. Or maybe you are hoping that her connections will bust open a door to a huge media hit.

There are a million reasons why you want to know if a PR person has connections. While connections are useful, most of the time there are many other more important factors that will determine the success of your campaign. If a PR person selling your services tries to convince you that relationships don’t matter, it’s probably because she doesn’t have any to brag about, and she probably isn’t the right PR person for you.

Where’s Waldo?

Relationships do matter, and I’ll explain more on that later. But let’s tackle the three biggest arguments typically made for why relationships don’t matter. The first one is the shrinking newsroom: how important is it to try to maintain relationships with journalists when they might be gone six months from now? The answer, of course, is that it is doubly important to maintain strong relationships with the media in today’s market, because they’ll remember you (and all the help you gave them) at the next outlet they go to. And if they end up on their own? Then they can still be a great resource for you and your clients, for writing, sanity checks, etc. And the fact that you maintained your relationship through thick and thin will mean a lot to them down the road.

The Story Sells It

The next argument typically made against the value of relationships is the importance of having a great story. Great stories are, after all, what interest reporters, readers and other influencers. If there’s no news, no trend, nothing of interest to the greater community – then it doesn’t matter how many connections a PR person has. The result will be the same. And let’s get real, a stale story like that sounds like a bad advertorial. But a good story that lands in the inbox of an editor from an email address she doesn’t recognize may never see the light of day (or of her computer screen at least).

Hard Work Pays Off

The final argument is that an aggressive PR pro, regardless of the story or the connections, can sell anything. It is certainly true that there are many capable, talented PR professionals who don’t have a stellar book of A-list tech celebrities on speed dial. That doesn’t mean their success rate for generating coverage on behalf of clients isn’t high. They have the secret PR sauce: diligence, and most likely a talent for storytelling.

These people work hard for their clients. They may not be the person to spend a ton of time networking outside of office hours, but it doesn’t mean they’re not generating ink for their clients. I know many of PR professionals that fit into this category. So what if they don’t have a huge social graph? If you’re a company with news to share, these PR people can usually get the job done well.

Can You Handle the (Nuanced) Truth?

Yes, a good story matters. No reputable influencer will want to cover something that has no apparent value to her audience. She will lose credibility, and consequently her network and clout. Before looking at whether a PR person has connections, the company hiring a PR firm first needs to examine their own stories. Do they have something interesting to say? Are they even ready for PR?

But the story isn’t everything. Having the right connections might make the difference between an opened email and a discarded one, regardless of how compelling the subject line was. Diligent professionals will follow up appropriately when they don’t hear back – and this can pay off in droves.

For Clients – Connections are a Nice to Have, Not a Need to Have

“Do you have connections?” is a loaded question. Sure you don’t necessarily need connections to successfully execute a solid PR campaign. But they can certainly help.

Connections, and particularly a PR person’s online social graph, can prove useful to her client. And there are many reasons why they help. Let me share a few scenarios.

Let’s say a company wants to be covered in a specific publication. Even with a great story, sometimes other factors beyond the control of PR can impact whether it ever gets the ink. This is when having a connection on the inside helps. You can’t guarantee ink, but you do have a much better shot at some feedback. This can be invaluable in helping deliver the story that publication needs to finally cover your client.

Or perhaps your client is trying to reach a certain group of influencers online. If the PR professional already has a solid network in place, it shouldn’t take long to further cultivate those specific connections with whom the client is trying to engage. Additionally, having this tight social graph helps when sharing client news with the goal of getting it to the right people via social media.

Connections can also help the PR team keep lines of communication open when they might have otherwise been damaged by a client. Imagine the client decides last-minute to back out of the news you were pitching under embargo. Unfortunately for you, it is the first piece of news you ever pitched for that client. Reporters who already know you will know that they can still trust you, so the next time you approach them with news from that company they are much more likely to respond to your pitch.

For PR Professionals – Connections are a Must

Clients come and go, much more often than not completely independent of the PR firm’s results. What does remain are the PR person’s connections – her social graph.

Let’s go back to that scenario in the office. Can I favorably answer the question “Do you have connections?”

Of course I can. But will I sacrifice them by trying to sell something that’s not newsworthy with the hope of possibly getting the front page of <CEO’s favorite publication>? No way.

Where’s the long-term ROI for anybody in that?

Hyper-Everything Video

Last Wednesday, the Social Media Club Boston met out in Framingham for the latest in a series of programs we’ve run touching on the intersection of journalism and social media. My business partner Chuck Tanowitz has been very passionate about the subject, so it was only natural to invite him to moderate the program. Here is the video of the program:

Social Media Club Boston June 2011 Journalism Panel: “Hyper Everything”

From the front line to the local coffee shop to the courthouse, journalism faces pressure not only to remain profitable, but to remain relevant. This panel of journalists gives an in-depth discussion of the pressures and possibilities facing the journalism profession today.

Our panelists included:

* Ed Medina (@surfermedina), Director of Multimedia Development, Boston Globe and Boston.com
* Kristin Burnham (@kmburnham), Staff Writer, CIO.com
* Tom Langford (@tom_langford), Reporter, NECN
* Adam Kaufman (@AdamMKaufman), New Media Contributor, NESN.com

The event was sponsored by IDG and Business Wire. Thank you to both for their continued support of the Social Media Club Boston!

What did you think?

ADDED JUNE 27:
After the event, IDG’s Colin Browning interviewed Chuck to dive a little deeper in a few areas. Here is a recording of that interview:

Stephen Baker on Life, Journalism, Numbers and His New Book

Thanks to event sponsor and, I’m happy to disclose, Fresh Ground client Netezza, members of the Boston Social Media Club were fortunate to be able to enjoy an intimate evening with author and former BusinessWeek Senior Editor Stephen Baker. Steve’s most recent book, The Numerati, looks “at how a global math elite is predicting and altering our behavior — at work, at the mall, and in bed.” He was invited to present a keynote at the company’s Enzee Universe 2010 User Conference, and was gracious enough to take time out of his schedule to meet with the group and share his thoughts on life, journalism, numbers and the new book, expected out next year. You can listen to his session (just under a half hour) below.

I’m also pleased to announce that we’ll have an exclusive interview with Steve for next week’s Fresh Ground Podcast. (We did not include this interview in our podcast feed this week — stay tuned for a great interview with a creative young PR pro in this week’s podcast episode.)

Listen Now:

Update 23 June 2010: Tim Allik captured some video of Steve talking specifically about his BusinessWeek experience. You can read Tim’s thoughts on the Tech PR Gems blog, and have a look at the video below:

Christina Warren on Geek Chic: Fresh Ground #12

Christina Warren has never had to interview for a job, yet serves as a full-time writer for Mashable, one of the largest blogs on the web, as well as a contributor to AMC Entertainment’s Script-to-Screen blog, where she cover the latest movie news.

Fresh Ground Principal Chuck Tanowitz caught up with Christina at DEMO Spring 2010, where they talked about how she got to where she is today at the age of 27, and what’s next for her and for journalism and blogging in general.

Some of the more interesting excerpts:

“I wanted to write for as long as I can remember … but it’s funny how I got into [blogging]. I was a frequent contributor on USA TODAY’s music blog, and the music editor … liked my comments and reached out to me….”

“I want to make sure that … when people are Google stalking me … that I’m worthy of stalkage….”

“I’m geek chic…. I’m into technology, I’m into film, I’m into fashion. I can talk the talk, genuinely, but I can also go and be excited about pretty shoes.”

“The place that I’m working … is less important than [my] doing valuable work….”

“[The] old style journalism that existed even 10 years ago doesn’t exist anymore.”

About the Fresh Ground Podcast: Each week, we feature 10 minutes of insights from people driving change in today’s competitive business and media landscape. We talk about the evolving worlds of media, public relations, marketing and business, with a special focus on creating more social organizations.

Photo credit: Grant_Robertson

Listen Now:

icon for podbean  Standard Podcasts: Play Now | Play in Popup | Download | Embeddable Player | Hits (0)

Our opening music is “D.I.Y.” by A Band Called Quinn from the album “Sun Moon Stars” and is available from Music Alley, the Podsafe Music Network.

Steve Wildstrom on the New Journalism: Fresh Ground #10

Steve Wildstrom wrote BusinessWeek’s “Technology & You” column from its creation in 1994 until BusinessWeek’s acquisition by Bloomberg in December, 2009. Fresh Ground Principal Chuck Tanowitz caught up with him at DEMO Spring 2010 where they discussed his current projects and thoughts on the future of journalism (not to mention a few business models that might work for newly independent journalists).

Some of the more interesting excerpts:

“Journalistic freelancing is very very difficult these days because, basically, pricing has gone to hell. You’ve got thousands of people out there willing to do something — I can’t say it’s really the same thing that professional journalists do, but it seems to be good enough for a lot of people — and they’re doing it for nothing.”

“It’s kind of an ethical wasteland… It’s very situational. You have to figure out the rules as you go along. One thing I have been doing is some blogging for [a company] — what amount to feature pieces… I’m not writing specifically about [their] products, but I’m writing about a field that’s of interest to them.”

“I [thought] I’d get a lot of pushback from my journalistic colleagues. I didn’t.”

“I’m also writing product reviews … that would not be published anywhere, so they can anticipate what they can expect to see when they launch.”

“I think it’s becoming important for companies to promote themselves in new ways. [Sam Whitmore] has been promoting this idea for some time: that companies, because of the changes in journalism, can’t really count on journalists to cover their products in the way they used to, and they have to get more sophisticated about basically doing internal journalism to promote their own products.”

“I am not looking to build an empire at this point in my career. I’m not looking to retire either….”

“I think that Om [Malik] has done a fabulous job [with] GigaOm Pro…. Basically he’s providing analyst-type reports really competitive with what Gartner and Forrester [do] at substantially lower prices.”

“The fact is what analysts do and what journalists do is not particularly different, they just do it for different audiences.”

“In my years with BusinessWeek, I don’t think I ever quoted an analyst…. I found quoting an analyst was a lot like quoting another journalist, which … I wouldn’t do.”

“I wish I had a copy editor [as a blogger]. Good copy editors are invaluable [and] hard to find. It drives me crazy every time I get a blog comment pointing out a grammar error, a spelling error…. I’d be a lot happier if that editing got done before it got posted.”

About the Fresh Ground Podcast: Each week, we feature 10 minutes of insights from people driving change in today’s competitive business and media landscape. We talk about the evolving worlds of media, public relations, marketing and business, with a special focus on creating more social organizations.

Listen Now:

icon for podbean  Standard Podcasts: Play Now | Play in Popup | Download | Embeddable Player | Hits (0)

Our opening music is “D.I.Y.” by A Band Called Quinn from the album “Sun Moon Stars” and is available from Music Alley, the Podsafe Music Network.

Scientology, Journalism and Money in a New Media World

The age of new media means that anyone can publish. That much we know. But the full implications of this switch are just becoming clear.

Take the situation in Tampa Bay, Florida, in which the St. Petersburg Times has a long history of investigative stories about the locally-based Church of Scientology. From a traditional journalistic standpoint this is good work. The Times has an extensive record of ethical reporting and its standards are some of the best in the industry. No one questions the work they do.

Well, except for the Church of Scientology, which took exception to the whole idea. Twenty years ago the church probably would have fought any allegations in the Times through legal means or by undertaking a media-relations campaign aimed at other publications. Maybe they would have opened up their doors to a local TV news program or asked their members to bring friends as a grass roots effort.

But in today’s world they did something very interesting: they turned the Times reporting tactics on the Times. First reported by Howard Kurtz at the Washington Post, the news has spread quickly, with most stories asking whether this is a good idea.  It’s not like the church is a neophyte in the journalistic world. They’ve had a publication called Freedom for some time.

It seems that the Church of Scientology knew what it was doing when it picked its reporters. It didn’t pick just anyone, but people with great credentials including a reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize, the former executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors and a former producer for the venerable TV program “60 Minutes.”

The St. Petersburg Times didn’t answer questions and pretty much stonewalled the whole process. Their defense was pretty simple: this wasn’t journalism it was a hatchet job from a biased party. Of course, the church has made similar allegations against the Times. But is this particular piece a hatchet job? The reporters themselves took the job pretty seriously. Steve Weinberg, the executive director mentioned above, told Kurtz that he put $5000 in his bank account to play the role of editor and “tried to make sure it’s a good piece of journalism criticism, just like I’ve written a gazillion times. . . . For me it’s kind of like editing a Columbia Journalism Review piece.” But he continued that this wasn’t your normal reporting job: “It certainly wouldn’t be something just any reporter would do. My role was more limited, and I can certainly use the money these days.”

Ah yes, the money, the journalists got theirs up front, by the way. When the jobs came open True/Slant pointed it out, and asked openly whether a journalist should take the gig, but ended with “work is work.” Journalistic organizations are laying off quality reporters by the truckload. At the same time, companies need content to attract readers to their blogs, Websites, Facebook pages, Twitter feeds or anything else that takes a feed. Journalists are people with skills who need to eat. If their skills aren’t appreciated in the traditional journalism industry, they’ll just make a move. Wouldn’t you?

Oddly, in a comment on the True/Slant post, Steve Weinberg himself weighed in (first), saying “Recently, an experienced investigative journalist who has found it difficult to Steve Weinbergconduct his work because of the economic downturn asked me if he should apply for the Scientologists’ opening. I told him no, even though I like to see superb investigative reporting no matter who is funding it. More than any other existing organization that comes to mind, the Scientologists have been so hostile to outside journalists that I cannot see crossing the line to accept employment there. But I told my acquaintance that I’m speaking only for myself. After all, for some folks, work is indeed work, as the T/S posting by Matt Stroud says.”

I guess “work is work” trumps his fears about the Church of Scientology. Or maybe he told his buddy “no” because he needed the work himself.

But the question still remains: is this particular effort really journalism? The journalists who worked on the report certainly think so, though the critics have their knickers in a knot about the whole thing. They’re asking weighty questions like “what does this mean for the industry?” Although, I’m curious how loudly they’d ask those questions when the pinkslip lands on their desk and they’re forced to find new jobs.

My personal problem with the actions of the Church of Scientology aren’t in what they did, but what they’re not doing. They’re not releasing the reporting. That’s what journalism is all about, shining a light into the darkest corners of society. It’s not just about finding those places, but about turning on the light and letting the world see it. The Church isn’t releasing the reporting.

If you’re going to create content, then let’s see it.