Last week, the Project for Excellence in Journalism released its third annual State of the Media report, an exhaustive survey of every legitimate gripe, absurd hypothesis, and broken coffee machine that has afflicted American newspapers, magazines, TV shows, and church bulletins over the past year.
It is safe to assume that no reporters on deadline actually read every page of the report before banging out Monday morning stories about it and rushing off frantically to cover something else; after all, as the report notes, two-thirds of national journalists believe "increased bottom-line pressure is seriously hurting the quality of news coverage."
Indeed, the "journalist survey" section of the report is the most fascinating reading by far, and probably gives the greatest insight into the actual declining conditions in American newsrooms. In between doing interviews and writing stories, journalists took the time to report that - surprise! - staff cuts plus increased pressure to feed the instant Internet news hole are adding up to a shoddier journalism product. And in the ridiculous kicker, it turns out that online news staffs - the ones dedicated to Web site news - are more likely than anyone to be the targets of job cuts.
If it's not too much trouble, when you finish reading this paragraph, could you reformat your last piece into 850 words for the Web, including clickable links? Thanks. Now let's proceed.
This workload crunch that individual reporters say they're feeling is part of the widely noted economic pressures facing journalism as a whole. Newspapers, in particular, are feeling the pinch. Knight Ridder, one of the most respected chains of papers in America, sold itself to McClatchy last week after a somnolent bidding war between a handful of meager suitors. McClatchy promptly announced plans to sell off 12 papers in an auction that will, considering the previous level of interest from investors, presumably take place on eBay.
Not surprisingly, into the maw of overworked journalists and reticent corporate owners comes the PR industry. The simple fact is that the less staff a newsroom has, the less time a reporter has to devote to gathering news, and the more receptive a reporter is likely to be to a PR pitch. In this sense, the "state of the media" is "overworked, and ready to hear about your client's 'exciting' new program."
Jonathan Capehart, a former head of the editorial page at the New York Daily News who is now an SVP for Hill & Knowlton, says the report heralds an opportunity for "crafty" PR pros to deliver complete, top-to-bottom story ideas.
"Because reporters are so stressed for time and for ideas, the PR person who can give the reporter a complete package, if you will, is the PR person who stands a greater chance of piquing that reporter's interest," he says.
Bob Brody, an SVP and media specialist at Ogilvy PR, says the complaints of American journalists come as no surprise.
"I've found in lots of my conversations with reporters, at major newspapers in particular, that they're very much under the gun," he says. "They're overwhelmed. They're getting more e-mails than they can handle. They have more assignments than anybody can possibly produce."
Brody says that for media relations specialists, "the best service we can possibly provide is to package as much as we possibly can for these reporters."
Reporters themselves would undoubtedly chafe at the idea that friendly PR pros are happy to step up and do their jobs for them. But deadlines are deadlines, word counts are word counts, and Happy Hour at the bar next door to the newspaper's office ends at 8pm sharp. The Project for Excellence in Journalism may have unwittingly signaled the beginning of a new "Project for Excellence in Media Relations," which will offer tired journalists an increasingly tempting crutch.