How I became a 'flack'

Public relations wouldn't have crossed my mind as a job prospect. But I didn't anticipate the changes in journalism that have since come about, nor the changes in me.

When I received a master's degree in journalism in 1990, the legend of Woodward and Bernstein was still very much alive, the Berlin Wall was coming down, and South and Central American countries were mourning their dead and disappeared at the hands of US-backed dictators and military regimes.

I looked up to my professor Jacqueline Sharkey, who had won awards for her coverage of the Iran-Contra scandal, and Stephen Kinzer of The New York Times, who was trying to report what was really going on in those countries. I learned Spanish and wanted to be a foreign correspondent someday. Public relations wouldn't have crossed my mind as a job prospect. But I didn't anticipate the changes in journalism that have since come about, nor the changes in me.

My first paid writing job was with the Associated Press, which I considered a perfect vehicle for eventually getting overseas. I covered general news for four years (Phoenix, Louisville, Boston, Providence, RI) and then got a call from a friend looking for a reporter to cover technology in San Francisco for an international wire service called IDG News Service. I didn't know a kilobit from a kilobyte but loved the City by the Bay and figured they'd need a South American bureau chief soon, so off I flew. Little did I know that in 1994 I'd get a front-row seat to the Internet revolution.

The San Francisco bureau grew from one to four people by the time I was bureau chief and left for the sunnier pastures of The Industry Standard where dot-com fueled excess was paying for opulent parties in City Hall and rooftop parties with lines down the block. Within a few years, that luxury liner was tanking, and Reuters was my lifeboat. When an opening in Lisbon came up, I applied (I studied some Portuguese in college) and finally accomplished my dream of being a foreign correspondent. Granted, covering European Union politics, soccer culture, and Fado was a far cry from Central American insurgencies, but it was still exciting and challenging.

When I returned to the US in 2005 to work for CNET, things had changed quite a bit. The scrappy search engine Google was becoming the new Internet powerhouse. Meanwhile, the newspaper publishing world continued to decline, with print pubs unable to compete with online sites for reader eyeballs and ad dollars. Bedroom bloggers were all the rage, writing pithy, short posts that appealed to increasingly short attention spans. In the haste to break news, bloggers uniformly rely on the “post first and confirm later” approach, breaking long-held rules in journalism that require getting independent confirmation of published reports and seeking comment from both sides. Twitter ratcheted up the pace even more. Now, a random tweet could lead to a feeding frenzy and false reports of “news” that gets picked up and repeated across the Web ad infinitum.

And who needs editors? Much of what passes for news on the Web has had just one set of eyes on it -- the writer's -- before it is published for the world to see. Often readers serve as after-the-fact editors in their comments. That's embarrassing for an old-school journalist trained to write clean copy and used to being edited. This is common at traditional news sites now, as well as blogs. Then there's the death of long-form journalism. Former CNET News Executive Editor Jim Kerstetter, who is the reason I stayed in journalism as long as I did, fights the good fight for well written, enterprise journalism. (He left CNET last week to be deputy tech editor at The New York Times). But that can be a losing battle in an industry obsessed with chasing the latest Apple rumor of the day. It's easy to get caught up in the follow-the-fad coverage, particularly when everyone is doing it. CNET was a great place to work and definitely had higher standards than most other places, and I adored my colleagues there. (Since I left, CNET has been the subject of controversy, though. In January parent company CBS decided to interfere with an editorial review of a legal adversary's product, prompting at least one reporter to leave.)

I remember exactly when I decided I wanted to get out of journalism. It was about a year ago when I was at the RSA Conference, the industry's biggest computer security show. I had been feeling burnt out from covering breaking news for 22 years, tired from being on constant deadline and frustrated writing the same old “Web site gets hacked” stories year after year. I needed a change. I needed to get out of the rat race. But how? I realized I wanted to do work related to my passion -- animal welfare advocacy. The non-profits I looked at want people with PR experience, so that was out. A former editor introduced me to the Bateman Group, which was looking to expand its editorial bureau and was willing to give me a flexible schedule for volunteer work. Bingo!

So, here I am at Bateman Group learning the ins and outs of PR, still writing and editing and giving the team an inside perspective on how a journalist thinks, and enjoying it. So far this mid-life career crisis has worked out for me. As the number of journalism jobs shrinks and pressures and expectations mount on reporters, I predict there will be more defections. Oh, and, did I mention we're hiring?

Elinor Mills is director of content and media strategy at Bateman Group. She joined the firm last year after working as a journalist at Associated Press, Reuters, IDG, Industry Standard, and CNET.

This blog post was updated on April 23 to change the title of Jim Kerstetter.

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