We don’t do a lot of rants here about PR people or the way media works. I mean, like all newsrooms, we rant a lot on our internal Yammer feed, we just usually don’t see the need to publish any of it.
It’s inside baseball, and there’s not much of a point. The things that annoy us are frequently just the way the industry works. There’s a natural tension between PR people (who are not all inept for the record) who get paid to get a company’s message across and a reporter who wants to write a critical, nuanced piece. It’s like mice writing long emo blog posts complaining about cats.
But there’s a new trend in startup PR that looks nice and helpful, but I worry is actually pretty insidious for journalism: the demo video.
In case you haven’t seen them, companies send along an informative or funny video explaining how their product works, offering it up to reporters as a generous way to take away part of their work load.
There’s a spectrum of them. Some, like the Dollar Shave Club video, don’t really demo the product and are arguably part of the story, because the company is trying to use viral videos to attract a certain user. But others are just polished demos of a site. Co-opting them is just lazy, and worse, it gives away our power.
I’m not totally sure when this got so mainstream. I feel like it was a nascent trend in the summer. Then I had a baby, and came back and every company was sending us a demo video to embed in posts. (I assume that video studios are making a mint producing them all.) We put a handful of these in posts, before I’d really thought through the harm in them. But recently, I called a kibosh on them.
On the face of it, there’s nothing awful about this, and as an entrepreneur I understand it. Startups build an audience through blogs, so it’s important that the write-up capture what the product does. Frequently a startup is depending on a blogger who may be new to the industry, is pressed for time, and doesn’t have the wherewithal to use the product sufficiently or even spend time on the phone with the entrepreneur. If someone is going to do a rush job on your news, why not give them an asset to make it better? You’re just hacking a common problem, and entrepreneurs love to hack things.
Because the blogger is allowing a company to script and shoot a commercial he puts under his byline in lieu of his own description. And that’s just not journalism.
Because of the volume demands of most blogs, reporters who have to file multiple stories a day are under intense pressure. This has lead to a slippery slope of PR people controlling more and more of the messaging, and these commercials are just the latest versions of this.
Long gone are the days of calling every investor, competitor and an analyst before you write about a new company. We require two sources on every story — even opinion pieces — and that feels radically old school. It comes at a cost too, dramatically slowing us down compared to most blogs. But even what we’re doing is nothing compared to common reporting practices in reporting just six or seven years ago.
This is dangerous, because when you talk to just the company or the company’s investors, you are already a giant step closer towards the company controlling what you write. But at least, this is passing through the filter of a reporter’s brain, still bringing to bear the analysis of every other startup one has talked to in a given week. In a sense, smart bloggers become their own secondary sources. And the audience frequently comes for their take, as much as the news. So, when done right, that’s a trade off I can live with as an editor.
A step further was the trend of directly rewriting press releases without doing a single phone call — not even to ask the entrepreneur a hard question or two. It’s not that the people writing such stories are lazy or untalented — it’s the demands of any blog focused on volume, page views, and speed.
And PR people are great at using that fact to their advantage. We get pitches every day saying, “This is going up in thirty minutes, do you want to write it?” If you write something in thirty minutes, there’s no way you’ve tested a product, called other sources, or likely even done one interview. But if your job is to compete on speed, you have little choice.
We saw the extremities of how the need for speed has warped the industry when Facebook filed its S1. Many incredibly smart reporters sat hitting refresh on the SEC website and then raced to cut and paste parts of a publicly available document into WordPress and hit publish.
So, to recap, savvy PR folks — largely taking advantage of an obsession with volume and speed — have pushed journalistic standard practice from multi-source stories to single source stories, then to re-written press releases, then to cut and paste. And now, they have top industry blogs embedding actual commercials for the products.
I think as an industry we need to stop and ask ourselves: What again is the role of the journalist here? I say, if companies and PR folks want access to a readership that we have painstakingly built, they have to play by our rules not the other way around. If they want to write their own news, they should put it on their own blogs, not rely on ours, and let the readers pick which one they want.
All of this reminds me of the days early in my career when I was a 21-year-old reporter in Memphis, Tennessee covering bond underwriters, commercial banking, and agribusiness. It was a grand old boys club, and I would hear over and over again with a drippingly condescending Southern accent, “Well, honey, how do I know you’ll get this right if you don’t let me read the story first?”
Um, because I get paid to be a reporter. If you don’t have confidence in me, don’t grant me an interview. But that also means you don’t get coverage. Or it means I just write the story anyway talking to your competitors.
The reason I love this job — and the reason I have no desire to be a VC or do other more glamorous and lucrative jobs — is because there are few other professions where you have an equal power footing with the most interesting and powerful business people in the world. That’s what’s awesome about being a reporter.
And by and large blogging has made this job even better. But writing for speed and page views at all costs corrupts the very reason most of us got in this profession, because it puts reporters at the mercy of people who can get us things quickly.
And over time that throws away everything that’s great about journalism.
[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]