Sunday, 12 October 2008

Let reporters report - not re-write

Here's a radical one.

I attended the Digital Editors' Network in UCLan last week where I was lucky enough to hear a presentation from Jane Singer creatively titled 'Barbarians at the Gate ... or Liberators in Disguise?'.

During the presentation, one of the questions which Jane asks is why do media companies bother to re-write press releases? Why not, she suggests, just put the press release up online as soon as it lands for all to see?

Audible gasp.

Just make sure you label the press release as having come from where it has come from. That way, you can free up talented journalists to do what they do best - report ... instead of re-write.


I've been mulling the idea over in my head since the presentation, and mentioned it to a number of people in the various offices I work in. Without fail, they have all come back with the same response: "Jane Singer hasn't seen the crap we receive."

But the thing is ... she has.

Jane Singer is currently a member of the department of Journalism at the University of Central Lancashire and the Johnston Press Chair in Digital Journalism. And according to her UCLan profile, she was Prodigy's first news manager, in charge of one of the first around-the-clock news products ever to be delivered to Americans' homes through a computer, as well as boasting five years' experience as a reporter and editor at three daily newspapers in the eastern United States.

To be fair to the more talented PR press release writers, some of them used to be where we are. In fact one local authority in my patch has a press office which is made up of all former senior journalists. And what's more, 80% of that team used to work with me! You couldn't get a more talented bunch of writers (and now multimedia producers).

OK, there are varying degrees of quality from authority to authority, and public body to public body, so what do we do, just reproduce the poor quality ones too?

Yes says Jane, then everyone can see what crap is being spouted and by whom.

So while they are freed from having to toil over a badly worded press release, reporters can then question those press releases, question those in power, get to the bottom of the story and do what they are trained to do - cut through the crap and tell people what they need to know.

In his latest blog entry, Paul Bradshaw quotes Philip Meyer, author of the Vanishing Newspaper, whose views on this point seem to tally with Jane Singer's.

Paul quotes Mr Meyer as saying:
The old hunter-gatherer model of journalism is no longer sufficient. Now that information is so plentiful, we don't need new information so much as help in processing what's already available. Just as the development of modern agriculture led to a demand for varieties of processed food, the information age has created a demand for processed information. We need someone to put it into context, give it theoretical framing and suggest ways to act on it.
By letting the press releases appear online, albeit attributed and unprocessed, then we are freeing up reporters to get out and report. They can do what most citizen journalists cannot do and what most bloggers haven't been trained to do. Put into context the events of the day by making sense of things and getting to the core of the story.

So after all that, I'm coming around to Jane Singer's way of thinking on this, although I do still have concerns:
  • If a press release appears unprocessed under one of my mastheads, will the reader be able to separate what is being attributed to someone else and what is being 'reported'?
  • Will my websites be damaged by poorly written press releases?
  • Should we put out someone's messages without questioning them first?

So many questions, and there's countless more. But the more I think about it, the more I find myself singing from the Singer songbook.


xxNapoleon Solo said...

V-E-E-E-R-R-Y interesting Mr Matthews (that sounded like I was stroking a cat, in my underground lair - didn't mean it to!).

I have seen many terrible press releases that actually have a good story buried in them, or a nugget of info that would make a good story.

Shouldn't we rewrite them (or rewrite that one section with a load of new stuff) in those instances, rather than just putting them online?

Another option is just to throw them in something I call bin 1.0 ;-D

Kevin Matthews said...

It did indeed sound like you were in an underground lair Mr Solo, but you should have killed me when you had the chance (sorry - I slipped into character there as well).

I too have seen many god-awful press releases - I've re-written too many to count. But why not stick them directly online and let the reporter get to the bottom of the nugget?

Ms Singer's point isn't to do away with reporters in favour of police-speak press releases. She asks, why waste time de-policifying the release, when better time can be spent serving the story.

My personal point of view is that press officers should be treated in the same way as any other contact - points of fact should always be checked.

But while the story relevant facts are being checked, why not post the release for all to see?

And releases which are of no interest to any sane person, I agree, they should be filed in bin 1.0.