The Hobart Mercury came in with the second highest figures in the Spinning the Media survey, with 67% of all content published generated by public relations sources.
Alex Taylor interviewed Garry Bailey, Editor of the Hobart Mercury. She began by asking him if he was surprised by the results.
This is an edited version of what Bailey said during the interview:
Taylor: Were you surprised by the results?
Bailey: Very, very surprised … I did my own survey of the Mercury from the 9-11 September (issue), putting on my blackest of black hats, I could only come up with 51 story leads which might have been driven by PR… not including international or overseas or AAP content.
Taylor: How do you and your journalists treat the media releases that come across your desk? As potential leads for a story, just like any other source of leads?
Bailey: We are overwhelmingly local, heavily local in our content. For example, this week we have 712 local stories and 245 non-local stories, some of which would come from PR. But when we look at media releases we think, should it be developed?
Overwhelmingly we treat announcements from individuals and businesses the same: with natural suspicion and as a starting point for a story, to be developed.
If something comes across my desk as a brief statement, I don’t feel the need to go back to the University of Tasmania [referring to an “Uni deal takes research to world”, 9 September, Hobart Mercury] to find if every fact is correct. We get things checked if they need to be checked, but often they’re indisputable fact.
Taylor: Would you then say that some PR leads are run relatively unchecked?
Bailey: A lot of your survey depends on what you mean by PR. For instance, announcements of something like a partnership or statistics from a non-profit organisation like the Heart Foundation (could be considered PR)… we would tend to treat something from a community organisation differently to a business.
I’m the first to confess that these things [unchecked PR] do go through… for instance, there was a story on Bank West which was just a straight re-write [of a media release].
Taylor: Does it personally bother you that, sometimes, straight PR is published by your paper?
Bailey: Of course it bothers me, we treat all press statements with suspicion and it’s very rare that one will get by us in error.
(However) I would have some very cogent arguments for our local (content) – very small stories that are basically public service announcements, an awful lot of public service announcements are in our paper.
Taylor: Do you think the reliance on the PR industry has increased in the last 5 years?
Bailey: We’re not relying on PR more and more. The great majority of our content is local and event-driven PR (is) important, but we encourage people to ring the paper and alert us to stories. We have to rely on PR, it’s how businesses and organizations communicate what is important to them.
We’re not replacing what we’re doing in the media room with PR bumpf. The nature of our profession is to treat PR with natural suspicion and we will resist [the convergence between PR and journalism].
It depends on what you mean by PR, I mean we had one journalist who spent a week chasing a story on Duncan Kerr and it was in response to that chasing that Mr Kerr, for political reasons, put out a media release.
You’ve got to get the context, the imputation of the survey is that [PR-driven journalism] is a bad thing.
Taylor: Do you think that increasing budgetary pressures and falling circulation numbers are putting a greater strain on your publication which could result in a heavier reliance on media releases for story leads?
Bailey: Last year The Mercury reduced staff by 10 full-time equivalent people, mainly in subediting [14 production staff] and we’ve lost one general reporter and one sports reporter but I am delighted to say the staff have responded to the challenge and we’re more efficient than ever: I think our papers are better [for the reduced staff size], as far as our reporting staff go, we zero in on the stories we think are important and are more tailored to our audience.
Taylor: Murdoch has said “quality journalism does not come cheap” to justify charging consumers for online content. Do you think it’s reasonable to expect people to pay for largely PR driven copy? Do you have any thoughts about workable paid online models?
Bailey: I have no idea what we’re going to do to find a [paid online content] model.
Taylor: Would you say that your paper stills produces as many high-quality, strong stories as when you started as editor of The Mercury eight years ago?
Bailey: We still go after strong investigative stories, for instance there are two front-page political exclusives this week alone. If it’s a good story, we will devote resources to it as we have always done.