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Wednesday, 9 September 2009

A couple of years ago I attended a news writing course for a few days. I was working at the time so it was part of my professional development and I'll always be grateful to the manager I had then - thanks Kim! - who also allowed me to edit and produce a weekly bulletin for my work unit. The bulletin ran for over a year until we had a reorg, when another group of employees took it over and I moved to a different work unit.

Anyway, the presenter at the course was (and possibly still is) a contractor with the University of Sydney's Centre for Continuing Education. Because I was also then studying for a masters in media practice, I had more experience than other attendees. I'd already heard about the general practice among journalists to use feed from public relations agencies and the PR people employed by private corporations, NGOs and government departments. So I asked the presenter if investigative journalism was decreasing. "Yes, definitely," she said.

Since then I've been looking out for such references and they appear fairly frequently. One guy I heard on the radio - a journalist himself, though retired - said that he can tell if a piece is largely reproduced from a media release.

And for the study I was doing I had to take a unit specifically dedicated to writing PR releases. I didn't get a brilliant mark, but I passed. We were trained to write stories in such a way that enabled us to both get the message across and to engage journalists and, hopefully, get them to run our stories unaltered.

So when I read about an address given recently by Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, I took notice. He is reported to have said, in part:

What Rosenstiel described as the “trust me” era of journalism in which journalists served as gatekeepers has been replaced with a new era of “show me” journalism, in which audiences express their demands of journalists to openly divulge the source of their information and prove its legitimacy. Thus the role of the journalist has shifted to that of the “committed observer,” with the responsibility to be the eyes and ears for their audience.

If this is the way things are moving, and if journalists now need to "insert their content into a rapidly flowing stream of information", then it seems likely that news consumers will be more and more wary of anything that seems "manufactured". By this I mean something that looks to have been merely cut-and-pasted from a media release.

Journalists are already among the least-trusted breed of working professional, ranking just above lawyers and politicians in the popularity stakes. Isn't it time that they started to do more work, instead of relying on free stuff?

It may be cheaper, but we know now that newspapers are running toward deficit faster than a bunch of lemmings toward a cliff. And who are they following? They're following the shareholder gremlin, the one who says that cheap stories are good stories because these are the stories that pay for themselves.

But this seems short-termist. Getting quality copy online is hard, but the alternative is going to be harder: readers will go elsewhere for their daily news intake. The question to study right now is: how much distance is there between the flock of moving lemmings and the cliff's edge.

In the United States many newspapers have taken the plunge, reformatting output by stopping their printers entirely. Others have settled on a hybrid, with a weekly printed edition as well as daily online publication. But the core problem won't just disappear by wishing - which is what going for cheap copy essentially is.

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