The 21st Century Journalist: PR by Day, Reporter by Night?
May 22, 2009 4:00 AM PT
Maybe it's another example of great minds thinking alike -- or in my case, a not-so-great mind kinda-sorta thinking along the same lines as Edward Wasserman, journalism professor at Washington and Lee University and nationally syndicated media columnist.
I had every intention of using this week's column to discuss the forced migration of out-of-work journalists and how they might be able to keep food on the table. By now, you know the combination of factors at play here: sinking ad revenue, a losing business game plan for traditional media, the advent of the Internet as an alternative news source.
More and more journalists-with-a-capital-J are thinking the previously unthinkable: passage to the infamous Dark Side of public relations. That is, they're thinking it if they haven't already made the crossing because they've either been laid off or they see the 96-point-type writing on the wall.
I told the ECT News editors that I wanted to make the case that newly freelance reporters should find a day job that helps with the bills -- yes, even a PR job -- and start a blog or join an existing news Web site in their city/town/neighborhood that would let them keep comforting the afflicted while afflicting the comfortable. There should be no mistaking that the job would be low-paying or no-paying.
I also wanted to make the case that in this economy, some ethical slack should be cut for said reporters. They can spin for companies but must refrain from covering those companies. New rules need to apply. Transparency should be key. Judge the work, not the journalist, etc.
That's what I pitched to my editor on Tuesday morning. Less than a half-hour later, I checked my news feeds and read Wasserman's column from the Society for Business Editors and Writers (SABEW) Web site: "Keeping It Honest in a Freelance World."
Great. Scooped by what terminally cranky Newsblues.com editor Mike James calls a "pointyhead": somebody who's spent more than his share of time in the news trenches who is now paid to just sit around and think journalism-y thoughts. Probably another Twitter-basher, too.
I initially decided to write about something else, but couldn't let the idea go. Visions of typing endless lines of "all work and no play makes Renay a dull boy" also figured into my thinking, I admit. So I decided to use Wasserman's excellent column, with its recommendations for new editorial rules of the road, as a starting point, but also address the issue more from the freelance journalist point of view. Wasserman appears to have a full-time job, and a damn fine one at that.
However, Linda Thomas and I don't. We are freelance journalists (that's called "full disclosure.")
The Freelance Balancing Act
"He talks about transparency in his recommendations, and I think that's important," Thomas told me. Thomas, aka "The News Chick," writes a blog with the same title focusing on media at SeattlePI.com, the online remnant of the recently departed Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper. The blog is just one of more than a dozen freelancing venues for her, ranging from major wire services to local newspapers to regional magazines to a couple of radio stations. She's won awards, she works steady -- and she does some PR work for corporations, so she's already dealing with the issues raised by Wasserman's column.
Members of the new generation of freelance journalists are "perpetually on the hustle," Wasserman says, "trading on their skills to assemble a livelihood from numerous sources. The same writer who's filing a report on the neighborhood bank shutdown for the hot new local Web site is teaching as an adjunct at the community college, copywriting a conference brochure for a PR firm under contract to a local builders group, ghost-writing the memoir of a former governor -- and angling for a full-time post as press secretary to a yet-undeclared congressional candidate."
He calls it the "Op-Ed model moved from the opinion pages to the news," since the contributors are not beholden to a media organization by a steady paycheck, and editors will have a tough time charting ethical boundaries.
The days of writing for one boss and one news organization may indeed be numbered, agrees Thomas. She says her corporate work -- an entirely different kind of writing -- gives her the freedom and financial cushion to chase the facts. Being upfront about her associations is critical for credibility's sake.
"If you go into something and everybody kind of knows, 'here's the full disclosure, here's who I work for, and here's what I do,' that helps," Thomas said. "You have to disclose stuff, even perceived conflicts. I write a blog about the news business, and I'm constantly writing about who I work for. If readers know where things stand from the start, they tend to accept that. If they don't know and later discover something, that will seem unethical."
For Thomas, the challenge is keeping her PR and news work separate, but maybe not in the way you might think. "It's not so much the conflict of having to write a PR kind of story. For me, if [the client] is doing something that I think would be a great news story, I can't pursue that, because that would be crossing too many lines. I really want to tell somebody but I can't. That's where I draw the line personally. I say, 'Nope, they're paying me, they get my loyalty.'"
Like me, Thomas has embraced her digital side and thinks more journalists should do the same, but she knows that the lack of a business model won't be attracting more Woodwards or Bernsteins anytime soon.
"The best blogs are the ones run by journalists," she says, "but I'm not sure blogs are going to pay for what they want to do." And there's also the genetic predisposition among many journalists to avoid PR work like a plague of cliches.
"People don't fall into journalism by accident," says Thomas. "They're called to it, and they really love doing it. When they do step into a PR job, they're kind of resigned to it. The ones who do well in PR never forget their core as a journalist, and they never forget what people want to hear and how they need to get that information. It's possible to go to the dark side and have a happy life. I just don't think a lot of journalists are going to want to."
It may be a moot point. "There aren't a lot of PR jobs out there anyway," she says.
The New Freelance Rules
Wasserman sets up some guideposts for writers and editors to consider; obviously, the T-word is important, but too much transparency offered up to the public can end up clouding things for the reader. Potential conflicts and the possible need to excuse oneself from writing an assigned story should be between freelancers and the news organization. Freelancers need to police themselves and others.
Okay, I get it. I know the terrain is getting slippery these days, but I think I can keep up. I want to cover news stories about technology and media, but I also think I've got a lot to offer with digital content and social media strategies from the PR side of things. As I've said too many times before to count, it's all about storytelling, whether it's in a news story or in a company blog. If I write for that company, I won't write about that company. I will write about that company's business sector; my experience writing for that company gives me unique insight into that particular segment of the economy.
Since the news is all about the conversation, I'm open to suggestions on how to negotiate this new territory, and you don't have to be a pointyhead J-school columnist to offer up ideas.
Of course, all of this is unnecessary if somebody comes up with an online news business model that returns journalists to their regularly scheduled salary scale. I'm not holding my breath, if another column that appeared on my news feeds is any indication. This from the Christian Science Monitor and Robert G. Picard, professor of media economics (oxymoron, anyone?) at Sweden's Jonkoping University, and the title is all you really need to see: "Why Journalists Deserve Low Pay"
TechNewsWorld columnist Renay San Miguel started his journalism career with his hometown newspaper in Texas in 1979. He moved to television in 1985, anchoring, producing and reporting in Austin, Dallas and San Francisco before joining CNBC as a technology correspondent from 1997 to 2000. Following a stint with CBS MarketWatch, which included filing tech stories for the CBS Early Show, San Miguel joined CNN Headline News in 2001 as an anchor/tech reporter. He also contributed digital content for CNN.com. After his 2007 departure from CNN, San Miguel founded Primo Media and now freelances in television/online reporting and media consultation.