Telling stories

Writers are you addicted to PR?

Posted by southwrite on July 18, 2010

Anyone who thinks a travel writer’s media tour is just a vacation or an all expense paid junket has never been there. It’s a non-stop early morning to late evening procession of businesses, attractions, and places lusting for favorable media exposure.

Sure there’s a lot of eating, looking and more eating, but after awhile it begins to take on the character of a forced march. Last week I shared a van with a half dozen other freelance writers as we toured the Tennessee town of Oak Ridge and environs. Nicknamed the “Secret City” by locals, it’s a once high security lab that became the birthplace of the atomic bomb.

We were all there looking for potential stories and this east Tennessee town just west of Knoxville has more than its share. All of us came away with ideas and interviews that we can develop and sell.

Of course that’s the whole point of the travel writer’s tour. This trip was hosted by the inexhaustibly pleasant and efficient Oak Ridge CVB communications director Nicky Reynolds. She and travel PR maven Georgia Turner kept the tour rolling along, producing sources and experts on what was for us an extremely useful experience.

For me it was also a reminder of just how dependent journalists – whether full time or freelance – are on the services of public relations practitioners. Many of the news stories I and others write always begin with calls to agencies looking for sources. Their cooperation – or lack of it – shapes how stories get written to a far greater degree than most readers suspect.

Is this good or bad? Georgia’s agency makes it easy for writers to connect with good stories. Communities like Oak Ridge get positive coverage and likely more tourist dollars. It’s a win for both.

Dependence on PR practitioners for access to news sources also limits stories as well. They have a vested interest in ensuring their client’s views are represented and negative or dissenting comments are excluded.

Shaping stories has become more of an issue as the ranks of PR people have swelled and the number of journalists declined  One survey found that 80% of news stories are repackaged from other sources. There’s also been a corresponding increase in the number of news stories that reporters base on press releases – even to the point of pulling quotes rather than conducting interviews.

What do you think? Is this trend the end of “real” journalism or just a further evolution of reporting that we really shouldn’t be too worried about?

4 Responses to “Writers are you addicted to PR?”

  1. Becky Boyd said

    Randy – I’m from Knoxville, near Oak Ridge. When I was in kindergarten, I remember how scared everyone was about the “Russian Missile Crisis,” where people were afraid that Cuba would bomb the US. We were told, that since Oak Ridge was so close to Knoxville, that they might miss. In the classroom, we always had someone watching the sky in case our fears came true. We were taught that if we saw a bright light and everything flashed that meant a bomb had landed. We were then taught how to walk to our homes from the classroom (not sure this would be such a good idea). One of my friends even had a bomb shelter in her backyard. It is so amazing how the Secret City just sprang up overnight.

    As for journalism and PR, I think that more and more “citizen journalism” will happen and more and more people will become their own writers. But I feel that there will be a growing demand for the way things were because not everyone can write. People will get tired of self-promoting articles, poor English, copied stories, etc., and crave ‘real journalism.’

    • southwrite said

      Good points. Citizen journalism and hyperlocal coverage is filling a real need that’s been largely ignored by big [or even not so big] media. There’s probably a business model there that can tap into local advertising that’s now going to everything from menus to cable.

      I can appreciate your comments on Oak Ridge. It’s a beautiful area that’s fills with history and great stories. I’m sure having the heritage of the bomb really made everyone more aware of the Cold War although it’s hard to imagine anyone walking home after the “flash.”

  2. Michelle said

    Journalists and PR have always been two sides of the same coin. Just the publishing medium has changed how much more dependent we are on each other.

    Before the era of web journalism, we always had lead time on stories, so we could dig deeper, make the ten or twenty phone calls needed to talk to various sources and conduct interviews, etc. But in this era of instantaneous publishing, we don’t always have the time to conduct our own interviews or set up all the pieces of a media trip on our own. So we turn to PR people to help us.

    Yes, they do have a vested interest in promoting their clients, but then it’s our job to remain honest and truthful to our readers. And if there’s a viable quote in a press release that will work for my story, I’ll use it and credit it as a press release statement.

    To me, writing a story assisted by information or experiences provided by a CVB or PR firm is still “real” journalism as long as the majority of the story is the writer’s words and not just regurgitation of a whole press release or an advertorial written solely to please the CVB/PR.

  3. Did you see any two tail deers running across the road? I enjoyed the article (of course). Imagine … Me a Citizen Journalist? Too much pressure…I can’t spell or write. I would like a bomb shelter. My mom told me once how they uses to have drills where they crawled under their desk.

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