So I was reading the newly-redesigned Corvallis Gazette-Times website earlier today (though I agree with the Eugene Weekly – the word “Corvallis” is conspicuously absent from the new header), when I saw a link to a “news story” about riparian zone recovery.
I put news in quotes because I noticed when I opened the story that it was bylined “OSU News and Communications,” which means it is a press release. Presumably, since they didn’t both to retype it and/or add or subtract or give it a GT byline, it’s an unedited PR. My reaction was something like “well, that’s crap. They should not be running unedited PRs,” and to an extent, I still think that’s true. However, I also acknowledge the shrinking number of journalists and the pressure to produce that places on the remainder, especially at the G-T. And besides, I’d rather know that it’s a PR than not.
And on top of that, there is a good argument to be made for running PRs, especially on the web, on the grounds that it increases access to information, which is the point of a newspaper, right?
So having thought it about it a bit, I put up a bit on Twitter expressing my surprise that the GT would label an unedited PR with an OSU News and Communications byline. You can see that, and rest of the conversation, below.
(click for larger, clearer version)
I mean, in some ways I agree (see my suggestion about a special website section – certainly I like the idea of a newspaper website hosting more information, not less), but I also think the page structure does not make that at all clear – the single byline that attributes to “OSU News and Communications” does not make it clear that it’s a PR, and it’s really small anyway. Come on – many readers don’t know the difference between a column, op/ed, letter, and news story; you can’t tell me they are byline- and PR-savvy. And I think folding the PRs in with the news stories, in the same format and in the same online sections, obscures the source. AP stuff, for example, does not look the same or appear in the same section.
Also, if it’s not that important, then what’s the point of journalists? Ostensibly, journalists serve a valuable function by ferreting out the news and adding multiple points of view and relevant context. PRs are not designed with that in mind; they are single-sourced with a clear agenda, i.e. they are not good journalism. As a reader, I want to trust that when I see Matt Neznanski’s or Bennett Hall’s or Nancy Raskauskas’ byline I know they’ve written a good story and aren’t shilling for the subject of the story. (Just to be clear, I think all three of the people I named are excellent reporters. This is a structural problem, not an individual one.)
Given the financial and other constraints placed on journalism these days, and the terrible, terrible quality of journalism from most of the national media, don’t give me another reason to be skeptical of newspapers. Make it clear that a PR is different than a story.
Also, on a local level, OSU is an 800-lb. gorilla (parallels to the DC establishment and national media relationship, perhaps?). They generate a lot of the news that goes into the GT, and that means, despite the general goodness of the people involved (on both sides), the coverage of OSU in the GT is going to be, in the long run, favorable. Throw in the fact that – again despite the people involved – OSU and the GT have very different institutional goals, and, well, I hope you can see why I think PRs need to be very clearly labeled as being PRs, both in general and when coming from OSU. A PR and a news story written from the ground up by a trained journalist may look the same, but have different priorities and goals, and as such, readers should be able to tell them apart.
And the GT should not be so quick to dismiss this as not mattering. I know I trust them a little less having received such a cavalier response.