When Reporters Become Promoters

I was in the KPBS newsroom working on a story about the routing of rapid bus lines in San Diego. Some business folks were upset about what they saw as a pile-up of bus traffic on Broadway downtown. I called the planning agency SANDAG for comment, and my call was transferred to Bob Hawkins.

Bob Hawkins? Last I’d heard, he was working on the transportation beat for the San Diego Union Tribune. Now he was working a temporary job in PR for SANDAG, after leaving the UT in a series of layoffs and cutbacks. I was asking him for information about rapid bus lines. HE should have been writing that story, not me.

If you work in journalism for any length of time you know dozens of people who have moved from being reporters to working in public relations or marketing. Reporters joke about people going over to the dark side, but we understand why they do it. They get tired of the stress of meeting daily deadlines. Maybe they got tired of being passed over for promotions, and they opt for a job that’s more relaxing and, typically, better paid.

We reporters actually like working with former reporters who’ve moved to PR because they know how we think, and they don’t waste our time trying to sell us some story we both know is bullshit.

But the economics of modern journalism has made the exodus of reporters to PR jobs so much more dramatic lately that it should discomfort anyone who values accurate and truthful reporting. The cause of the exodus is the collapse of the economic model that fostered the daily newspaper.

Classified ads have fled the newspapers for Craigslist. Job listings have gone to Monster.com. Naturally, the Internet has provided a fine forum for distributing print journalism and, in theory, newspapers should welcome the chance to put out the paper without having to pay for presses and newsprint. But in fact, nobody quite knows how to make money over the Internet because it’s something users see as a source of information that’s free.

Last year the investigative news source ProPublica reported: “In 1980 there were about .45 PR workers per 100,000 population compared with .36 journalists.” Okay, even back then we were outnumbered. But the story goes on: “In 2008, there were .90 PR people per 100,000 compared to .25 journalists. That’s a ratio of more than three-to-one, better equipped, better financed.”

Some organizations employ virtual newsrooms of public relations people. Those who work there have subject specialties just like reporters have beats, all the time writing stories that advertise and benefit their sponsor.

This new reality affects what we know and think to be true when information gathering and distribution is so heavily weighted in favor of the promotion of governments and businesses,  rather than the investigation of them and independent reporting on them

Despite all this, I have to believe people still value a telling of facts that is devoted to being fair, true and (dare I say) objective. That’s the currency of journalism and I think people will always pay for it, and therefore continue to pay our salaries.

Hope lies in the feral expanse of the Internet. But the old institutions are done, and we don’t know where professional journalism will end up. I’m just pretty sure it won’t go away.

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