Communication is process is journalism

Rather struck this week by Richard Sambrook’s announcement that he’s joining Edelman, the PR firm, following his departure from the BBC. You can imagine the rolling eyes among the old-school hacks at the prospect of such a respected journalism figure joining the dark side, and there are a couple of comments to that effect under Richard’s post. For many journalists, the dividing line between PR and newsmaking has always been and will always be deep and wide and tall.

But when someone as smart and intellectually curious as Richard makes a move like this, you have to dig a little deeper. It seems obvious to all of us now that connected media is transforming journalism, turning it, as Jeff Jarvis says, from a product into a process. But in fact journalism has always been a process, and PR has always been a process as well. And it’s in the history of these processes that the perceived gulf between them has opened up.

When the vehicle for eyeballs was print, with its inbuilt limitations of space, journalists and advertising sales teams were the gatekeepers for user attention. Commercial interests that wanted attention had two options: buy advertising from the sales teams (where the quality of the attention being bought was reflected in the price of the ad); or get their messages into news stories. Journalists meanwhile had something of a monopoly on user attention, and saw themselves as providing something unique, socially essential and in some senses holy. People bought newspapers because of the journalism, they argued, so therefore the sanctity of the journalism should be preserved at all costs (though it turns out, as we now know, that peoples’ reasons for buying newspapers were rather more nuanced and complicated than that).

So immediately journalists and PRs found themselves locked into a transactional process where “market value” was reflected by the quality (and uniqueness) of the information being traded. Journalists thrived on exclusivity, because that’s how they gained both attention and also self-worth: if they broke a unique story, they were professionally validated.

PRs sometimes thrived on exclusivity (when the story was big enough), but normally craved ubiquity, because that meant more eyeballs. Journalists saw themselves as gatekeepers and purveyors of truth; PRs saw journalists as opportunities and as obstacles. No wonder they rarely got on.

But now we find ourselves in a world where anyone has access to eyeballs at any time. The playing field has been levelled. Anyone with something interesting to say can get it into the public forum, as the politicians are beginning to discover. But once it’s out there, a new set of skills is needed to get significant attention to it. These are communication skills, and they include such things as optimising for search, incorporating reader input and responding quickly to new information.

That is the new process, and journalists and PRs suddenly find they don’t need each other in quite the same way as before. They’re both embarking on discovering how these new communications techniques can work in their favour; they’re both immersed in the process. That’s why journalists-as-communicators may find themselves increasingly attracted to PR firms, because what those firms offer is just another toolkit for getting attention.

A question, though: what type of person might go the other way?

6 thoughts on “Communication is process is journalism

  1. Great post.In answer to your question, though, does it really matter either way? If what we're learning from these kinds of transitions is that the skill set and motivation are two sides of the same coin, than do we really need to examine which direction the coin rotates when we toss it in the air?Apologies for the clumsy metaphor, haha. I'm young, but I've made the switch from journalist to publicist to journalist again, before starting my current job at Edelman. I can't say I notice a lot of difference – I love both jobs equally.

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  2. It's a really good point you're making. I've seen the argument made that themarket for journalists is both flooded with talent, and highly unstable, sothe flow of transitions is (seemingly, naturally) one-way. Like inchemistry, highly-concentrated substances disperse down the gradient, thepath of least resistance. And these are people with highly-transferableskills…One trend I've noticed increasingly in the past few years, and I think youallude to this in your post, is the convergence of publishing and marketing(using both terms broadly). For instance, St. Joseph's Media in Torontocarries both “legitimate” magazines, and branded publications (e.g. onbehalf of Nissan, though I'm just making this example up). If the Internet'staught us one thing it's that you don't have to scheme your way into anewspaper or magazine in order to build buzz anymore – self-publishing ismore and more the way to go. Sometimes that means a blog, sometimes thatmeans Facebook, Twitter and Youtube, and sometimes that means publishing aspecial interest magazine dedicated to your brand. You see the samearguments being made by old-timers who have had to become freelancers -newspapers aren't the only place to pitch potential stories, because NGOs(and sometimes even corporate PR teams) can be just as interested.But I'm a techy evangelist, and like I say very young, so it's possible I'monly starting to notice something that has always been the case. Would loveto see more people weigh in on this topic.

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  3. Great post Lloyd. I'm a switcher, and don't regret it.I switched from journalism to PR the first time because it was the late 1980s, greed was good, and most PR people earned more than most journalists.I switched back from journalism to PR because as a journalist, I was sick of people pretending I was a demi-god visionary who knew more about the future of the industry I covered than anyone actually working in it. Like many, I thought the industry really cared about my opinion, when really they only cared if they could influence my opinion.I left PR when I realised I would always be held accountable for the results I achieved for my clients, even though the results I achieved for my clients were so influenced by random factors outside my control that my worst work was often my most successful, and vise-versa.I could have gone back to journalism but the interwebs beckoned, and with it, the opportunity to create not just new content but a new medium for it to be created in.However, much of the work I've done since has been so close to journalism and public relations, particularly my work in social media. But what's been different has been the ability to communicate with an audience both one-to-many (as in a blog post) and one-to-one (as in a messageboard) or both at the same time (as in Twitter).There's an ancient distrust of ex-PR people in journalism, and an ancient respect for ex-journalists in PR but that's the only barrier to switching and it's legacy code — no longer makes any sense today.There's no significant difference between journalism and public relations now. Neither profession is very often able to write or say what they think, both professions have an additional agenda or two in the back of their minds when communicating, both professions are held accountable. Neither is able to define the scope or composition of their audience anymore. And both have experienced a collapse in the centre of the bell curve graphing salary against number of salary earners in their industry.

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