People send us lots of press releases, often with a kindly cover note saying something like “Please publish this in the next issue of your newspaper.”
We’re happy to get these messages, by and large, because they often have important facts in them, and they sometimes tip us off to news stories that we otherwise wouldn’t have known about. But press releases also give us headaches.
The pain is related to the precipitous decline of the newspaper industry in recent years. As we have said in our reasons for starting the Independent, the consolidation of corporate ownership in the industry, and the expectation of unrealistically high profits by investors, has led to draconian cost-cutting and the loss of tens of thousands of newspaper jobs. Newsrooms across the country are literally deserted.
These decimated papers — the ones that are still publishing, anyway — resort to whatever strategies they can manage to fill their pages. That often means printing what comes in over the transom as press releases. As that has become standard operating procedure at many news outlets and publications become increasingly filled with canned copy, readers have been trained to expect it and think it’s normal.
For serious journalists, though, it’s not normal and it’s not OK.
When you read the Provincetown Independent, I hope you notice that almost every news article — even short items on the “currents” pages — has a byline or author’s signature line. That tells you that a reporter has taken in the information from press releases, interviewing sources, and other research and asked questions of the people feeding us information before deciding what to write.
Press releases are necessarily incomplete, exaggerated, or slanted in order to present the source of the information in them in the most favorable possible light. That’s what publicists are paid to do. And that’s why news stories — even small ones about your local council on aging or your town’s tax relief committee — should be written by reporters who work for the newspaper, not by the people who are the subject of the story.
Newspapers that print press releases as news stories are little better than bulletin boards. That’s not to say that a bulletin board is a bad thing, but it very easily turns into a mess if no one is taking care to clean it up.
It’s the same problem that confronts us with unmoderated social media, where anyone can post anything, true or false, and no one is responsible for asking questions and checking facts. It was an exciting idea, with horrendously unanticipated downsides.
So, don’t stop sending me press releases. But keep in mind what I do with them. I read them, and if there’s something important there, I ask a reporter to follow up, talk to people, and try to get the whole story. We are lucky to have reporters who take that work seriously, and we need more of them, at this newspaper and in every community across this country and the world.