Repercussions like those Hamilton observed in North Carolina are evident at newspapers throughout the country: Many staff cutbacks have occurred on beats that had enormous civic impact but lacked sexy, marketable stories. As editors prune beats to leave only those that generate buzz—or, in the case of websites, traffic—they are tempted to serve fewer portions of “broccoli journalism,” i.e. stories that might be both unpopular but good for you.

What you tend to cut is the day in, day out, beat reporting—or the city council meeting, or doing three days of reporting on the immigration bill instead of one,” says Mark Silverman, editor of the (Nashville) Tennessean. “There’s less time to invest in in-depth coverage.”

(For more, see the FCC report’s chapter, How Big Is the Local Reporting Gap and Who Will Fill It?, starting at page 262.)

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“Full-time, professional journalists have less time to go beyond press releases”

“Information Needs of Communities,” page 245:

In some ways, the Internet has increased the influence of press releases. Wally Dean, a longtime TV news executive, says that stations often refer to people as “beat reporters” when really they are just the point person for press releases on a particular topic. “Frequently the so-called health reporter fronts the health news but is using handouts from the health industry or using material from one of the feeds coming into the TV station,” Dean says.

In the Columbia Journalism Review, Ryan Chittum described a company that put out a press release with a false claim about a new deal it had made with record labels. Major news outlets, such as the Financial Times, the International Herald Tribune, AP, and Reuters, among many others, published the story without verification. While most outlets followed up with corrections, few of them posted the correction along with their original article, and thus the “uncorrected version continued to proliferate on overseas news websites…. And that can only lead to grief, thanks to the magic of Google caches and message boards, where original copies of the story can still be found.” Chittum explained, “Events move so fast that there often seems to be little time to check facts, and announcement-based reporting is given too much prominence.”

Amy Mengel, head of inbound marketing for public relations firm readMedia, wrote about this issue on a message board dedicated to public relations topics: “Newsrooms have been gutted and, particularly at the local level, journalists rely on press releases…to help them fill their ever-increasing news hole.” By one estimate, the ratio of public relations professionals to journalists is now four to one, compared with one to one just 30 years ago.

In fact, public relations professionals increasingly use the Internet to get press releases directly into the hands of consumers, bypassing reporters entirely. Bernadette Morris, president and CEO of Black PR Wire, says that the press release “is no longer just a media relations tool; it is now widely read online, in addition to the eyes it attracts via traditional delivery inside the newsroom.” A survey of PR professionals conducted by PR News and PRWeb found that 24 percent now view the consumer as the direct target of press releases.

There is nothing inherently wrong with a press release or with public relations efforts. These have always been a part of the news flow, and there was never a time when every press release was cross-checked by a reporter. But as the number of reporters declines, the balance shifts toward the institutions that call the press conference or issue the press release.

“Information Needs of Communities,” page 50:

In the report and on HealthNewsReview.org, complaints abound from seasoned reporters who lament the growth of “press release reporting” and the lack of time they have to check out the veracity of information contained in a press release. Twenty eight percent of health reporters said that they personally get story ideas from public relations firms or marketing outreach somewhat or very often. Among those who work on at least some web content, half said that having to work across different media has resulted in less time and attention for each story, and 59 percent said it meant that they work longer hours.

“Information Needs of Communities,” page 86:

From 1998 to 2001, [Tom] Rosenstiel said, the percentage of stories generated by “enterprise reporting” (for example, digging into the details of city, county, or state records; asking bold questions of elected officials or corporate leaders) as opposed to stories based on press releases, chasing the action on the police scanner, or following a story already in the local newspaper, fell by 30 percent.

“Information Needs of Communities,” page 94:

Steven Waldman was senior advisor to the Chairman of the FCC and principal author of its report on the changing media landscape. He was chair of the Council on Foundations Working Group on Nonprofit Media and is a consultant to the Pew Research Center. Before that, he was the founder of Beliefnet.com and a national correspondent for Newsweek.