Newspapers aren’t pizzas and journalists aren’t delivery boys

Journalism is a profession. It requires education on theories, training for practical application and experience to make you a well-rounded professional. It requires the ability to gather, share and explain news. It is about reporting news, not distributing it.

When I ask my students at Michigan State University what their main source of news is, many cite Twitter or Facebook. But these are not sources of news, they are sources of news distribution. So are YouTube, RSS feeds and blog posts with a bunch of links to press releases and news articles written by other journalists.

Seth Godin recently blogged about “lazy journalism,” and he makes some valid points. But I can’t blame journalists for this dearth of professional reporting, particularly in my old stomping grounds: newspapers. I blame the bean counters at newspapers and readers who are too cheap and fickle to support their local news organizations.

I wrote earlier this year about how “news” is more important than “paper,” because it is content that matters, not the distribution system. Since that post, which I wrote after the major MLive/Booth Newspapers merger in Michigan, I’ve seen experienced journalists dropping like flies. The Booth Capitol Bureau  lost a seasoned reporter who has not yet been replaced and may never be. The Grand Rapids Press lost two experienced newspapermen that I’ve worked with over the years and grown to trust for their talent and forthrightness. And today I learned a Kalamazoo Gazette reporter is leaving with no real idea of where they are headed next. They didn’t say it, but I think I can safely assume they are a victim of what MLive/Booth called an “investment in our digital future.” Newspaper reporters left behind on the beat are often inundated with spreadsheets from bosses about the number of hits on a news post, sometimes being directed to write about those numbers, as if that’s actually newsworthy.

Booth has dropped seasoned reporters and editors and consolidated editing functions to a centralized location instead of having local editors edit local copy. Gannett is throwing up its hands on trying to get out-of-control reader comments tamed by selling its readers down the Facebook river. And some of the “news” outlets that are now online have resorted to posting links from press releases to balance out stories rather than doing any investigative interviews of their own. This is happening nationwide, not just in Michigan.

Is it any wonder then that the 2011 list for the “year in media errors and corrections” has some real doozies in it?

At one point in my career, I was the editor for a weekly newspaper and we were the main competition for the local daily paper. Often, people don’t think weeklies can compete with dailies because of the delay in printing. But we focused on hard news stories just as much as the daily did — we simply took advantage of our extended deadline by digging into the story from a different angle or to a deeper level than the daily had the luxury of doing. We gave them a run for their money and every week I was proud to say that our little weekly newspaper was chock full of news that was of importance and interest to our readers.

The newspaper industry is missing a fantastic opportunity to fill a niche. Newspapers have always had a disadvantage when compared to TV, radio and, now, the Internet. Newspapers cannot be first to break a news story unless they’ve been working on an investigative piece quietly and launch an exclusive. But they have the advantage of an extended deadline. TV and radio have to meet a regular deadline (or several) every day. Newspapers have tried to emulate that deadline hell instead of focusing on what they should be doing:  getting a better story, a deeper story, a more compelling and interesting story than their broadcast brethren would ever have the time or space for.

Newspaper journalists need to focus on doing a better job of keeping their profession professional. Give us the stories we need. Give us the details we can’t find on TV or in a tweet. Give us the fair, accurate reporting that often is lacking in opinion-laden blog posts. Give us what we want, even though we may not yet know that we want it. Steve Jobs created an empire at Apple by doing that with tech gadgets. Imagine what newspaper journalists could do if they applied the same philosophy to the intellectual pursuit of real news instead of the packdog-driven drivel they’re forced to heap upon us.

“30 minutes or less” is a fine mantra for pizza delivery, but newspapers aren’t pizzas and journalists aren’t delivery boys.

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The trip to the holier than thou mountaintop is shorter than you think

humboldt mountains

By now, many of you have heard about the story of Brody PR and the lessons learned by its owner when she inadvertently sent a pitch out to journalists and bloggers by putting all of their addresses in the cc: field instead of the bcc: field. Therefore, I won’t bore you by beating a dead horse — if you want a quick review of what happened, Jeremy Porter has a decent recap over at Journalistics.

The issue here is an important one, obviously, because so many people have reacted and commented. But let’s face it, many people have joined together to make a mountain out of a molehill. Actually, they’ve made a holier than thou mountain out of a molehill. I’m really getting tired of these folks who think their time is so valuable they can’t be bothered with the PR pigs feeding at the trough. Guess what? It seems to me that many of them have become high-prancing stallions intent on building their personal name recognition and Google-search status much more than providing a valuable service to anyone.

The journalists and bloggers involved with the offending Brody PR email went ballistic on this one, from what I can tell, because of the flood of replies that came into their email in boxes. The thing is, Brody PR didn’t send replies to everyone — the journalists and bloggers who clicked “Reply to All” caused that mess.

In the end, Beth Brody has stepped up, taken her public caning and committed to learning from her mistake. I don’t know Beth personally, but I’m inclined to get to know her, if for no other reason than the fact that she has been made the focus of a wrath that was so over the top it’s almost laughable.

I try to have “be cynical and paranoid” added to all my job descriptions, so I suppose it’s no wonder I have a different take on all of this. Was it really necessary for the recipients to reply to all when  complaining about how the email pitch was handled? Absolutely not. They could have ignored the email, they could have replied just to the sender or they could have used their own publications or blogs as a teaching tool. Instead, they decided to make an example out of someone who made an honest mistake. They turned someone’s attempt to do her job and earn a living into a voodoo doll designed to inflict pain and suffering on the entire PR industry.

Are there poor PR practices and professionals in the industry who give it a bad name? Absolutely, but you can say that about every profession, including journalism and blogging.

In my career, I’ve been used as a source for news reports more times than I could ever count. And there have been plenty of times when I’ve dealt with clueless reporters for whom I had no patience. Not only did they not understand a subject they were writing about, they refused to learn and stop repeatedly asking me for the same explanation over and over. Did that mean I hated the entire journalism industry and went out of my way to skewer it whenever possible? Of course not.

Then there are the bloggers writing missives that are opinionated and filled with poor research but passed off as delivering a factual news story. Does that mean all bloggers are evil and not to be trusted because the industry as a whole has no code of ethics? Of course not.

The next time journalists and bloggers want to go on a rant about the public relations industry and how all of its practitioners are evil, they need to take a deep breath and remember this: the trip to the holier than thou mountaintop is shorter than you think. It also is a trip that can be avoided if you just stay on the molehill.

(Image courtesy of kiwinz on Flikr)