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Thought Leader Public Relations

Working in the Great Divide: PR and Journalism

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When I was a reporter working for several daily newspapers in the 1980s, we instinctively fell silent when a company salesperson would walk by our desks. In those days, journalists were purists: newspaper salespeople wore nicer clothes, drove fancier cars and made lots more money, but we were more comfortable in our glow of righteousness.

Occasionally, that same cloud would enter our very own ranks. We were happy when a fellow reporter got a promotion to editor or if they took a job at a bigger newspaper. But every once in a while, a reporter would walk into the boss’ office and announce they were becoming a spokesperson for a politician or a company – or worse, that they were going to work for a PR firm. When that occurred, a pall would drift over our team for days. Usually, the departing reporter – his or her personal belongings packed quickly in a box – was awkwardly escorted out of the building shortly after announcing they were going over “to the dark side.”

I once worked for an editor who would take such an occasion to warn the remaining reporters that if they ever took a job in PR, they’d never work for a newspaper again. It was a hollow threat. That same editor a few years later welcomed back a writer who found he didn’t have the mettle for billable hours and client service.

I was reminded of this Great Divide this week when I read a Facebook post by a digital editor of the Fulton County Daily Report, a fine paper for which I used to work. Grayson Daughters wrote:

“I’d re-post articles from the SaportaReport here, such as the one by Saba Tesfanesh Long, on the domino effect of the now-open U.S. Senate seat in Georgia, but as I never know WHO the author of a Saporta Report article is working for/consulting for/receiving a paycheck from to write said articles, interesting as they might be, I’ve decided not to do that any longer. Sorry, kiddies.”

None of the writers at SaportaReport are able to afford to work full-time for this experiment in new journalism, even though – given the chance – we might prefer to. But Maria Saporta, whom I consider Atlanta’s most trusted journalist, holds our feet to the fire to make sure we disclose any potential conflicts to our readers, so they can make their decisions as to whether we are providing worthwhile commentary on issues of importance to metro Atlanta.

The ironic truth is when I worked for the Fulton County Daily Report in the 1990s, I had two jobs there: In the mornings, I would sit upstairs in front of an IBM laptop and manage the advertising staff. After lunch, I’d drift downstairs to my Apple computer and help edit news stories, scan photos, write headlines and design page layouts for the next day’s front news section. I didn’t even have to bathe in between gigs!

I love journalism and newsrooms. My heart aches when I pick up the morning papers in my driveway and see them barely breathing from a lack of advertising. Journalism was a noble profession. It still is. It’s just a challenged one.

Not only does social media offer an informational platform to anyone who can write or post a photo, my Wall Street Journal features a weekly editorial column by a former presidential aide who raised hundreds of millions of dollars this past year to unseat Democratic candidates. When I watch my Sunday morning television news panels, I listen as journalists debate lobbyists and PR professionals.

The lines are so blurred these days, it’s difficult for regular readers to know the difference, except for the occasional italicized disclosure at the bottom of articles, stating that the writer works here, represents someone there or authored a book on a subject that possibly sounds impressive.

And that, I guess, is the point: We’re all human. Each one of us is a bundle of beliefs, biases and contradictions. When newspapers were founded in 18th century America, they were started by someone with a particular voice who pushed an entertaining – and hopefully profitable – point of view. Readers bought several papers, but they tended to believe the ones that aligned with their own political leanings.

Somewhere along the way, journalists began to proffer a higher calling: objectivity. News stories could not express an opinion; they had to be balanced. Only editorials could opine. But that was just too high and mighty of a brand to promote. Reporters and editors are humans. They make decisions about which quote to feature first and how to end an article. According to the dictionary, those are not objective decisions, they are “dependent on the human mind for existence” and, thus, subjective.

I really enjoy public relations. We assist organizations in shaping messages that help customers understand what services and benefits the firms offer. Our profession even provides a decent enough income that some of us can afford the time to work part-time in our first love, journalism.

Judging by recent analysis, our website is attracting thousands more readers this month than we did in any month last year. We think we are building momentum – and trust. We are proud of our efforts. We do have families and other jobs and hobbies and groups to which we belong. We provide paragraphs at the ends of our articles reporting what other endeavors in which our writers are involved. It is not a complete description of our personalities or beliefs. It is merely a glimpse into our souls.

Thank you for reading our columns. We appreciate your feedback. If you choose to share our columns with your social media friends or co-workers, thank you for doing so. If you choose not to, well, that’s also fine. You have exercised your own judgment – and here at SaportaReport that is a right we respect very much.

– Chris Schroder
Schroder PR and SaportaReport!

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