Public Relations Versus Journalism

Public Relations Versus Journalism
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Stuart Howie (pictured below) is executive director of Flame Tree Media, a former editorial director of Fairfax Regional Media and author of The DIY Newsroom. In this guest post, Howie argues the message is getting more and more clouded as journalists continue to move into comms and PR roles…

A common complaint from council communicators is they can’t get their messages out in local media. And local media, where it still exists, bemoans that what they receive from local councils is not newsworthy or is just pure spin.

Stuart Howie36873 (3)

There’s plenty of other areas that can spur acrimony between the two parties. 

When there’s a hot story, not all council officers are prepared to front the issue. Indeed, some council policies (still) do their best to keep officers and even councillors out of the spotlight. 

I’ve always regarded it as dirty pool too when a journalist submits questions about a story exclusive to them, but the council makes a response to all media. That’s a sure way to sour the relationship.

Local newsrooms are not without blame for fuelling tensions. 

Most council comms teams can provide examples of where journos have got the facts horribly wrong or come to press conferences or events woefully unprepared. Some don’t act in a way that reflects well on themselves, who they represent, or the craft of journalism.

Some reporters make it their mission to make life unbearable for those on the frontline of council communications, which I have some sympathy with, not the least because I used to do that myself. It is the role, afterall, of local journalists to keep local authorities accountable.

Now, however, a new battleground has emerged – and it is one that involves us all, whether we are in the media, the communications game or as the good burghers of a municipality.

Increasingly, councils are running their own media, pitching PR versus journalism – a subject close to my heart as author of The DIY Newsroom. 

The topic has received airplay on the ABC’s Media Watch with the focus on what two big councils in Queensland are doing. 

Bundaberg Regional Council has set up Bundaberg Now – “a free community website delivering good news online”. And in the City of Ipswich, near Brisbane, a similar venture called Ipswich First has been established.

Why are councils doing this? For at least three good reasons:

  1. Media has fragmented – and this has caused huge pain and strain for traditional media. Across Australia, hundreds of regional journalists have lost their jobs, newspapers have closed or become emaciated versions of their former selves, and TV newsrooms have been shut or news services are now produced from hundreds of kilometres away. If you’re trying to get a council message distributed that may mean you don’t have a local media outlet, or in the least you’re going to find it hard getting the attention of a journo. You see, it’s a numbers game. When I was editor of the Illawarra Mercury in Wollongong, for instance, I had some 80 full-time equivalent editorial staff. The paper would be lucky to have 20 now. As editorial director for Fairfax Regional Media only several years ago, I had more than 800 editorial staff nationwide. This group of 180 titles has been sold to private investors, but I doubt if the number of journalists employed today was half of what I had. 
  2. Councils can DIY. Most of them don’t realise they have the resource already, often a half-dozen or so people in marketing and communications who can be reorganised into a newsroom operation. Many people in council comms are former journos anyway. Ballarat, my old stomping ground, is a good example where skillsets have easily transferred across from the local paper to Town Hall. Councils have access to the tools for distribution – social media, websites, low-cost gadgetry, and stacks of content. Gee, and don’t forget councils are publicly funded, not reliant on a problematic commercial business model like local media.
  3. It’s more effective. There’s nothing like going direct with your message in the right form, at the right time and to the right audience. Yes, a story on local radio or in the local newspaper provides a level of authority and influence, but for the vast amount of council information going DIY is a no-brainer. The return on investment can be quantifiably proven to be higher when compared to the same energy, time and budget spent on chasing media mentions.

As a member of Local Government Professionals, I’m increasingly seeing councils run their own news websites, but I’ve also seen them produce regular broadcast news services, newspapers and a host of social media.

Where local media doesn’t or cannot lift its game, it will – to be blunt – get smashed. 

I’m thinking of one newspaper for which I did consulting work that has a paywall that would make Donald Trump dizzy with admiration. No-one gets through that without paying their way. Meantime, the newspaper’s circulation is plummeting, and the council’s Facebook page is eating its lunch. 

So, the question is not why councils are doing this, but why aren’t all councils taking a DIY newsroom approach?

Media Watch’s Paul Barry is right to ring alarm bells for local journalism. 

Only in the past couple of years has Canberra paid any attention to the plight of journalism in the regions and rural Australia, and what that means for a working democracy. I shudder to think of all the stories that aren’t being told across our great land because there’s simply no journo on the patch.

As Barry says: “We reckon there’s nothing wrong with town halls telling us the good news. But if a council-run site weakens commercial media and its capacity to hold power to account, then the whole community will suffer.”

Of course, what councils produce is not the independent and fearless journalism that is the remit and duty of local media.

But a council newsroom can produce a lot of information that will tangibly enrich the lives of  citizens and help them connect to their communities.

Councils realising that this is an opportunity and obligation is not mutually exclusive to local media doing its job. Indeed, it highlights the latter’s real purpose of keeping those local authorities to account.

If councils choose to direct their resources otherwise, well local media will just need to transform their business models.

No, it’s not easy. 

This week the New York Times reported the death of yet another local bugle, the 121-year-old Warroad Pioneer in Minnesota, which crystallises what a community loses when revenue runs dry and the presses stop rolling.

Certainly we can agree, the more voices, the better. And in every community.

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  • Luke Starr 2 years ago

    That should set the cat among the pigeons Stuart.
    I’d be interested in your opinion on which regional newspapers have adapted well to this no-longer-new state of affairs, how and why?
    Whose responsibility is it to ensure local reporting remains strong? That certainly isn’t a council’s job. Could this be a symptom of publishers not managing to demonstrate value to an audience that has subsequently moved on?

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