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, 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:

In 2006, the media and consumer watchdog group the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) released a report titled “Fake TV News: Widespread and Undisclosed,” which found that over a 10-month period 77 broadcast stations and cable outlets ran 98 separate instances of 36 VNRs, without disclosing to viewers that these were video press releases rather than journalism independently created by local news teams.

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“Full-time, professional journalists have less time… to challenge officials… to investigate powerful institutions”

“Information Needs of Communities,” page 55:

As newsrooms have shrunk, the job of the remaining reporters has changed. They typically face rolling deadlines as they post to their newspaper’s website before, and after, writing print stories. Some are required to blog and tweet as well, some to produce videos. The good news is, they can write shorter, more focused stories for the print edition of the paper and provide longer, more detailed versions online that can be enhanced and updated as events progress. However, these additional responsibilities—and having to learn the new technologies to execute them—are time-consuming, and come at a cost. In many newsrooms, old-fashioned, shoe-leather reporting—the kind where a reporter goes into the streets and talks to people or probes a government official—has been sometimes replaced by Internet searches.

Newspapers have tried to become more like the new medium—emphasizing speed and dissemination through multiple platforms. But that drive can take a toll on quality. In an article in the Columbia Journalism Review in the fall of 2010, Dean Starkman likened newspaper reporters to hamsters on a wheel:

The hamster wheel isn’t speed; it’s motion for motion’s sake. The hamster wheel is volume without thought. it is news panic, a lack of discipline, an inability to say no… . But it’s more than just mindless volume. it’s a recalibration of the news calculus. Of the factors that affect the reporting of news, an under-appreciated one is the risk/reward calculation that all professional reporters make when confronted with a story idea: how much time versus how much impact?

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 and a national correspondent for Newsweek.