So there was a student who tweeted at me the other night to ask if they could ask me some questions for their marketing and public relations course at some university somewhere and I said yeah sure because I’m like polite and stuff and they emailed me questions and I sent off some answers today and because it took me ages and it was all about the nature of journalism and shit I thought I should share them with you to see what you think.
Here’s what I said, unedited. Well, except for fixing a few obvious mistakes.
I’m always happy to help on student projects. Let’s see where we go with these questions at the end of a long week.
The first thing I’ll say is that I’ll be putting my answers on my own website too — perhaps an edited version — though I won’t mention your name or even your gender or the university you attend.
It’s taken a good three hours to think about this stuff. Your questions were very open-ended and do not have simple one-par answers. I suspect that’s what you’re meant to be doing in this exercise — digging deeper into the issues rather than just assembling the responses from the panel.
There didn’t seem to be any sign in your questions that you’d read any of what I’ve already written on these subjects, particularly on the nature of journalism?
Anyway, to get more value for the world out of my time I’ll post this online and see what responses it gets. That in turn may be useful for you.
The second thing I’ll say is that everything is a dialog, and list-of-questions leading to list-of-answers will lead to a stilted view. I don’t know what the important aspects of your questions might be. You’ll need to think about your own interpretation of this conversation and draw your own conclusions.
If you did this again, I’d strongly suggest doing what other students have done: book an hour of my time for a chat, either over coffee or a beer or via Skype, and have a conversation to explore the issues.
The third thing I’ll say is that my responses probably reflect my specific preoccupations this week and may well change over time.
Oh, and how did you select me for this panel? I’m curious, ‘cos I also saw (obviously) who else you tweeted.
1. Could you please explain what you currently do and how you got there?
I’m a word-whore. I write for mastheads that might be interested in my take on subject areas that they think I’m qualified to write about, and where they know I can deliver the product on time.
Some people call that “freelance journalism”. I really don’t care what it’s called. The fact of the matter is that editors have a product to deliver and they engage people who can deliver that product. That product might be a 500-word straight news story, or it might be a 900-word op-ed (which means “entertain the punters and stir them into posting comments”), or it might be a 2000-word feature on a specific topic. Or it might be a video or audio piece.
I do this shit for (currently) ZDNet Australia, CSO Online, Sydney Morning Herald, Crikey, Technology Spectator, ABC The Drum and whoever else wants to call and offer money. I do a weekly podcast for ZDNet and an occasional one for myself.
As a supposedly-specialist I end up being a go-to person for comment in other media too.
I also have some legacy technical clients for whom I manage websites or solve network problems. That’s a far better hourly rate but not as much fun.
How did I get here? I’ve been fascinated by language and writing since I was a six-year-old, when I asked for a typewriter as a birthday present. When I got to university I studied computing science and linguistics, but also edited newsletters. When I was maybe 21 I dumped a perfectly good job and volunteered for a community radio station and learnt the craft of broadcasting — and a couple of years later I got a job as a producer for ABC Radio.
The rest is history. See my LinkedIn profile.
2. What is journalism to you? …
- Senate to re-open Bloggers versus Journalists
- Note to “old media” journalists: adapt, or stfu!
- When is a journalist not a journalist?
Above all it’s storytelling. Telling stories that help people explain to each other the world around them.
There’s a lot of pious bullshit talked about journalism, about uncovering the Truth. But at its heart it’s storytelling and entertainment — a core human need.
In all this “journalism is dying” rubbish there’s a core issue that’s forgotten: the vast majority of journalists are factory workers, producing media objects for industrial-age media factories, and they’re just shit-scared about their job security.
3. In a survey in 1991 Public Relations Practitioners believed that 40% of output was based on Public Relations. Editors in contracts estimated it to be an average of 20%. Around what percentage of the news that you produce would you say is sourced from PR? When it comes to working with PR on some articles, how vital is the information that they give you?
20%? 40%? Hahahahahahahahaha! Check out the Crikey/UTS analysis done the other year. It’s WAY over 50% and tech journalism was the worst with 78% of news stories being the direct result of PR placement.
I’ve just counted my own output for the last few months and maybe it’s only 1/3 with some PR input, and perhaps a third of those are little more than straight rewrites of PR material. But then the bulk of my work is analysis and commentary, not daily news cycle reportage.
What’s your count of my work? It’s all listed on my website…
How do you measure this? A government minister announces a new policy and their PR people send the documents. You report what the minister says, read the reports, write some analysis. Was that story PR-driven?
How vital the PR input is to the story depends wildly upon the story itself and what the PR input actually is. Something that might have been seen as important — a company’s view on some aspect of the industry — might be sought and yet comes back as a bland, cliche-filled piece of overly-legalled corporate speak. So it gets dropped.
4. How do you decide if something is news worthy? …
How close are we to deadline?
That’s actually serious. If we’re running out of time then things that might not have seemed newsworthy three hours ago can suddenly look appealing.
If I have to write down words then I’ll end up listing all the standard stuff you see in journalism textbooks. Is it new? Interesting? Surprising? Affects lots of people? Represents danger or excitement or a change of worldview? is there human drama such as a power struggle? Is something being exposed that was otherwise hidden?
But really, this stuff is really decided by a gut emotional reaction. You either know what’s news or you don’t.
Or: Is it the sort of thing that’s going to get people talking to each other about it?
… Is there anything PR practitioners can do to persuade you to place their news over another more notable article?
Of course not. Notability or newsworthiness is the determining factor in editorial. Why on earth would any ethical journalist run a less-newsworthy story as lead?
I believe what you’re referring to is called “advertising placement”.
5. Between Journalists and PR practitioners, who do you believe holds more control and why?
Control of what? Of what the audience sees? The journalist. Always. They choose what they write and the manner in which it’s written — well, in conjunction with their editor. Whether they choose to be responsible and ethical and take control is another question.
As soon as you hear a PR person thank a journalist for their “support”, you know that that journalist has failed. They’ve put the needs of someone else ahead of the needs of their audience.
If PR people want more control, then again I believe that’s called “advertising”.
6. What are some strategies that are or could be implemented so that gatekeepers and PR firms can build a strong relationship which allows a win-win situation?
Well, I don’t think of this in terms of wins and losses. But to answer more broadly I think this is less about cultivating relationships with journalists — I mean, by all means buy me lunch or a drink, but that’s just basic courtesy and what you’re buying is the lunch or the drink, not the story — and more about cultivating an acceptable, rational, honest public face for the organisation you represent.
You’ll hear journalists talk about “PR droids” and “minions”. They’re the ones who only ever contact you when they have something to sell, never go beyond the specific line they’re currently pushing, and never seem to think about what kind or work you actually do. They’re the ones who, when asked if there’s a comment on some topic, copy and paste some crap we’ve all seen before, Yawn.
Good PR people develop a a human face for the organisation. Real people saying things they’d say to other real people.
7. Could you please describe a relationship that you have with a Public Relations Practitioner, how that relationship started and what it’s like now?
I try not to be too close to PR people. Better objectivity comes from maintaining a bit of professional distance.
That’s not the answer you wanted, I know, but I’m on deadline now — a story that was commissioned two hours ago. And to be honest the question feels like you’re asking “How do you get along with the people you encounter?” Every one is different.
I’m about to flip over to the 1000 #iiTrial decision in the High Court and I have to file by midday. If you do have suitable timelines maybe we can come back to that.
Hope this helps. Do feel free to come back to me.
So, um, what do you think? Have I given this poor student a hard time? Is there anything I should’ve added?
Oh. And I asked them to set me a deadline and they said midday Friday so I sent it by like before 10am but they still haven’t acknowledged receiving it so I reckon they just made some shit up for the deadline.