Live-Blogging the Corporate Press Release

Live-blogging is a relatively new responsibility in the journalist’s job description—which now includes regular blogging, picture-taking, Web video, Twitter, live chats, TV appearances, podcasts, BlackBerrying, answering commenters on your story, and perhaps a bit of old-fashioned reporting and writing if that can be squeezed in.

All (sort of) joking aside, live-blogging can be a useful tool. For instance, I hate conferences (one too many shopping-mall pow-wows in my Journal days), but now I can let other people hit the rubber-chicken circuit and read the best stuff on Twitter. I’ll admit to have refreshed a few Gizmodo Apple-cult shows, too.

But the tech stuff is emblematic of some of the downsides of the form, or at least how it’s being used in its relative MSM infancy. Particularly, it puts the corporations and their marketers in the driver’s seat, while the journalists who cover them often just go along for the ride.

Today, Barnes & Noble unleashed its Nook e-reader, its response to Amazon’s much-hyped Kindle. The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal both live-blogged the “event”—in the Journal’s case with a “developing story” link at the top of its home page.

You may recognize some of the hallmarks of the form, including the pointless nothing’s-happening-yet scene-setter. Here’s the Journal:

3:55 p.m. Standing here in the lobby of Pier 60 waiting for the event to begin. Media isnt allowed inside the room yet, so we’re just milling around here…

All right. Well, sorry about that. I had reheated Chinese takeout for lunch. Some things are better left unwritten.

The Times has a scene-setter, too, but at least conveys some sense of the ridiculousness of the whole thing:

The Pre-Announcement Hoopla | 4:05 p.m. We’re waiting for Barnes & Noble to unveil its new Nook e-reader. Press, publishers, tech heads are arriving at Pier 60 at Chelsea Piers in Manhattan. Despite the beautiful fall day outside, we are stuck in a windowless room with loud music playing over the loudspeakers. The news conference is expected to start at 4:15 p.m.

But at 4:09 p.m., the Journal, with no hint of skepticism, reports:

We’ve just been allowed to file into the conference room, where the crowd is dominated by dozens of men dressed formally in suits, standing in the aisles chatting as the room starts to fill up. There’s seating for about 300, and it’s rapidly disappearing!

The B&N flacks couldn’t have exclaimed it better themselves (!). But just in case, here’s the WSJ four minutes later, after a Malcolm Gladwell sighting:

The buzz of the chatting crowd has risen to a dull roar–dozens of suits now standing in the back of the room, as anticipation builds in this crowded conference room in the bowels of New York’s Chelsea Piers.

The tension rises! Hey, it’s not the Super Bowl, but just in case you really wanted to know what it feels like in there, the Journal adds this at 4:18:

The lights are dimmed and the center screen simply reads “Welcome.” We’re also listening to cheesy, elevator techno music.

Then the CEO walks in and the real news-management begins. It’s all carefully choreographed instanews that gives the reporter no chance to call, say, a skeptical analyst or a book publisher or really to add much context at all. In other words, by going along with this kind of thing, news organizations risk putting themselves in the business of advertising for the corporation—or at least issuing a sort of dynamic press release.

For instance, would the Journal really use this pre-packaged quote in a news story?

4:34 p.m. “Simply following the leader is not in our DNA,” (B&N president) Lynch says, whether it’s being the first retailer to do free shipping, or the first e-reader 10 years ago.

This is not just a problem with the form, of course (and the NYT is less fanboyish here). Re-writing press releases was a time-honored journalistic tradition before everybody started aping Steve Jobs’ masterful media manipulation.

Here’s hoping the press can find a way to avoid that when covering these types of events.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.