You win.

Incapable of independent thought, bereft of unique insight or inspiration, business models failing and with resources stretched to breaking by at least a decade of steady newsroom depletion … daily newspaper and broadcast journalism is in the process of capitulating to that insidious and often irresistible attraction: the easy feed of the PR industry.

It is voguish to imagine that this is a modern phenomenon, one that first reared its head with the advent of the telephone, blossomed in the era of the telex, soared with the faxstream and finally reached a paradigm shattering climax with the advent of email, twitter and the readily roneoed cheque book of Max Markson.

Au contraire apparently. There is, we’re assured, nothing new to see here. Move on please.

Jim Macnamara (National President of the Public Relations Institute of Australia according to his advance publicity) did a little myth busting on this issue for Crikey last week.

He wrote in response to faintly hysterical coverage hosted by The Australian’s media section, a story that suggested that as much as 80 percent of any given Australian newspaper owed its presence to the earnest self-serving insertions of the public relations industry.

Jim offered a learned and slightly stern corrective. He was presumably advised that this was the appropriate tone:

As far back as 1926, Silas Bent reported a study of the New York Times that found 147 of the 256 news stories in the newspaper on one day had been suggested, created or supplied by public relations sources. Other studies in the 1930s found around 60% of newspaper stories “were written or pasted up from press agent material” and the content of women’s pages was almost totally dependent on publicists.

In 1973, a study by Leon Sigal classified the sources of 1,146 stories in the Washington Post and New York Times and reported that around two-thirds of media stories originated from news releases, handouts and other documents handed to reporters by news sources. Similarly, in 1979 sociologist Herbert Gans reported that 75% of all news came from government and commercial sources.

Sounds authoritative. I was reassured. You could reasonably conclude on these figures that through periods in which journalism was thought to be enjoying its rudest moments of robust Nixon busting good health – its various stabs at a golden age — that PR input was already considerable.

The prosecution of good journalism and the majority of newspaper content being PR sourced might not be a pair of mutually exclusive possibilities.

Maybe. Maybe not. I have no empirical data to support this, no rigorous research, but my sense is that while the quantum may not be changing the quality of PR’s contribution to daily journalism certainly is.

PR is working harder and smarter, while journalists are working dumber and faster … all of it under the constant background duress of failing businesses and falling newsroom numbers. While journalists have been culled and cuckolded by once ink-stained editors slowly turned management stoolies, PR has moved beyond the mere disposable suggestion embodied in the meek politeness of the press release to a far more sophisticated game of information management … one that has led to the all but complete reshaping of the informational and journalistic environment.

Not much exists that is not spun, considered and massaged for release. The relationship between PR practitioners and the few doughty souls surviving in daily journalism has accordingly changed. It has gone beyond the simple, time efficient, innocent pleasures of rip and read.

Journalists – and their partly unwitting, partly canny, untrusting and increasingly dismissive audience — now operate in a world dominated by manipulated information.

That some harried junior in The Age newsroom barely re-writes a press release before committing its key paragraphs to print is as nothing beside the capacity of the serried ranks of PR people working alongside government, business and goodness knows what other vested interests to remake the world in the image required by their clients.

Independent, organic public discussion of whatever issue you care to name barely exists outside the boundaries determined by the spinffners engaged by the various participants.

Oft times this is all but inconsequential: the rash of feature stories surrounding the release of a much-feted film, the sudden popularity of a particular technology around the time of a particular product launch. But the effect of this mutual dependence cuts deeper. It has cultivated a journalistic culture in which every story now requires the hook of this illusory PR-driven currency. The modern editor wants the stories that keep him or her up with the Joneses. Stories that flesh out an agenda already determined by the PR-manipulated zeitgeist… a less than virtuous circle.

It’s not news value that guarantees a good run, or at least not news value as we used to know it. News value is a question today of competitive edge. If the competition has the yarn then we must have it too.

Same for politics as Hollywood. We’re only talking about alcopops because the PR people from the Prime Minister’s Office decided it will be the day’s topic. They’ll switch it tomorrow to suit their purpose and the press pack will swing to the new subject like, well, a pack. It’s not often that we read pieces in the paper that appear simply because of the intrinsic merit or interest of the subject matter. Most are led, fed or teed up.

It has now become the conventional journalistic wisdom that the piece must somehow tie to some other observable reality. We cannot write about George Clooney simply because George is a fascinating subject – that is the new journalistic verity. We must only write about George — and will only get access to George — when George has a product to promote. That is the PR point. The simultaneous cover shots on a brace of weekend supplements is the anxious, sheepish, time strapped, resource starved, happy to be unthinking, journalistic response. Between the two we have the synthesis that is killing modern journalism.

So much so obvious. And where you might wonder is the lonely voice of truth? Struggling to be heard. But the enemy is not necessarily the waves of attrition thinning the ranks of newsrooms. Though goodness knows attrition has certainly been the case. We all know the numbers, 500 from Fairfax, undisclosed, vigorously denied quantities from News.

There will be more. Analysts are now tipping single digit — as in less than $10 million – profits for Fairfax in the coming year. Proud quality papers once fuelled by rivers of gold are now barely breaking even. But worse than the mere quantity of journalist jobs culled has been the quality of the people departed, and the diminished capacity of the ones who remain.

What is dying here is not necessarily newspapers — they will be killed not through any decline in the rigor and standards of their journalism — though it must be said its slow decline over many years has played a part in their falling popularity — no, they will be killed because people have found a better way to buy houses and motorbikes.

What will die with them though is the tradition of investigative, independent, curious reporting. Dying the death of several hundred cuts over many, many years.

Investigation takes time. Investigation takes money. Investigation takes a newsroom environment in which it’s OK to spend two weeks chasing a lead and eventually getting nowhere. That is not the newsroom of today. The newsroom of today is driven by the need to produce stories that in turn meet the expectations of a public imagination schooled by an assiduously managed landscape of public information. This is a terribly tight pincer movement.

It leaves us with an unfortunate equation. Newspapers and broadcast media will suffer terrible reversals of fortune and may die. In their long, lingering, sickening twilight they will increasingly become sausage machines, happy to squeeze out one end whatever is fed for free and in digestable form at the other.

They will be left too weak to offer their traditional resistance to homogenized, commercially self-interested or politically convenient information. This resistance has traditionally been offered by independent editors and hard nosed reporters experienced enough to spot a wolf beneath the sheep’s clothing, some even driven enough to find their own prey loose in the wild.

They’ve almost all been sacked now. The 24-year-olds who follow them don’t have much of a clue, and most have been trained in schools that divide their class time between teaching how to write news and how to fob off PR. Today’s journalist thinks that working in PR requires journalistic skills.

The cancer has all but consumed the ageing, decrepit host.

You win.

Speech given by Jonathan Green on the theme ‘Is there a new balance of power in Australian media relations?’ at a breakfast today awarding the RMIT Communicator of the Year, an award shared this year between former High Court Judge Michael Kirby and community activist Melina Schamroth.

Peter Fray

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