By now you’ve probably heard the story of two recent Pulitzer Prize winners who had already left “the industry” for jobs in either public relations or academia. The story brought out the usual suspects saying the usual things about how that damned Internet has robbed the newspaper industry, the result being a great loss to citizens of the U.S.A. The latest is from the Washington Post: Why the PR industry is sucking up Pulitzer winners.
The piece says it’s all about money and displays a PEW graphic showing the disparity between journalists and PR. Then, it drifts into the cause, which author Jim Tankersley describes as “a free rider problem – if no one pays, eventually the service shuts down – and it’s a different sort of economic disruption that (sic) the ones cause (sic) by other American industries that have shriveled or disappeared or migrated in recent decades.”
When, for example, a corner grocery in Michigan is driven out of business by a big chain based in Arkansas, the people in Michigan still have somewhere to shop. If regional news outlets die, who will dig up corruption by their local lawmakers? Start-up news organizations across the country are trying, but they’re largely struggling to find a for-profit model that works.
It’s fair to ask, in the midst of this, how smaller newsrooms still do so much valuable journalism — and whether they should. As newsrooms shrink, the sort of deep project reporting that often wins Pulitzers has become “harder to justify economically,” Bhatia (former Oregonian editor, Peter Bhatia) said. But it must continue, he added, for business reasons, not just accolades: “It reminds the community of the essential role that ‘traditional media’ plays where people live.”
And there we have it, the sob story of how valuable “the old way” was and is to communities. This is not a fact, at least not anymore; it’s an assumption that is not supported by current data. Public trust in “the press” is at an all-time low. Only 1 in 5 people tell Gallup that they have any trust in the press whatsoever. So all this tearful nonsense about Pulitzers and “shoe leather” and “holding the powerful accountable” is just hyperbole used to defend the indefensible.
Moreover, PR today is another changing animal. Businesses and industries are learning that the best way to get THEIR stories out is through real stories. This is due to the growing education of the public through experience provided by life in a networked world. Attraction, not promotion, is the new paradigm, and this requires people who can write beautiful stories, not “cover” blood and guts.
As Lisa Williams wrote in 2008, journalism will survive the death of its institutions. Professional journalists, however, likely won’t be a part of it, unless they can step off this relentlessly drum-beating high horse.