Deal or No Deal?

Nice guys never win, so they say. Always beaten to the girl or to the top job, they are invariably left consoling themselves that at least they "did the right thing".

Renege on a deal with a journalist at your peril, warns Rob Willock
Renege on a deal with a journalist at your peril, warns Rob Willock

If karma was currency, they’d be rich; but it isn’t, so they’re not.

So where does that leave diligent, fair-minded editors? Increasingly it leaves us at a competitive disadvantage.

Here’s how it sometimes goes.

An industrious business journalist on a market-leading publication latches on to a tip-off and – remembering her training and her duties of care – contacts the organisation involved to sense-check the information and seek a comment.

The company representative confirms that the story is indeed correct, but that its immediate publication would be inconvenient.

And so – because the relationship is valued – a deal is struck.

The journalist agrees to hold fire on the story in exchange for more information a few days hence – at a time more expedient for the company concerned.

Then, before this arrangement is concluded, the company feeds the story – with a more positive slant – to another title.

The journalist has been mugged, and faces explaining to her colleagues and editor why she has fluffed the scoop.

"It’s cock-up, not conspiracy," she is told. "It won’t happen again."

But it does, and it makes an editor like me start to wonder whether we’re all being taken for a ride.

I’m seriously tempted to tell my journalists: "No more deals."

After all, our primary duty is to our readers, more so than to the companies about which we write.

The more PRs and company directors double-cross journalists to optimise a content opportunity or achieve damage limitation, the more we will seek to bypass them.

The internet is full of churnalists – ‘cut and paste’ merchants for whom being first is more important than being right.

They won’t seek a comment or offer a right of reply.

And they certainly won’t accommodate favours.

It’s cheap and it’s nasty, but it’s a content service of sorts.

Perhaps it would just be easier if we all behaved like that, levelling the playing field and removing any scope for further misunderstanding.

Discuss...

Next month – why editors will no longer be complicit in replacement of advertising with PR.

Rob Willock is group editor of The Publican's Morning Advertiser and M&C Report

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