Flat Earth News revisited

In need of inspiration, I am re-reading Flat Earth News by Nick Davies.

It was a big story for Press Gazette – we serialised it and hosted a debate at London College of Communications (Private Eye was less than impressed incidentally – as were one or two people who turned up.

It was a top reporter, probably one of the leading investigative journalists of his generation, setting his sights on his friends and colleagues mercilessly. (And if proof were needed of Davies’ credentials as a writer check out this mighty piece on the anti-globalisation demonstrations in Genoa in 2001).

Not just that, it was a Guardian reporter – albeit on a freelance retainer – serving up justice to The Observer, Guardian News & Media’s Sunday paper. We were, to say the least, quite eager to read the book.

As were our readers. PG became a sort of sounding-board for people to air their praise and criticism of the book: Press Association editor Jonathan Grun wrote an angry letter as did David Leppard of the Sunday Times Insight team and two Observer executives.

But looking back at the coverage of the book, I can’t help feeling that a lot of people missed the point.

The book’s essential argument is that control of the flow of information in public life is now controlled by PR firms and goverment departments, something none of the reviews I read managed to disprove or even deny. Davies argued that 80 per cent of stories in his five studied newspapers during one week contained PR or wire copy or both.

The diary of the local newspaper reporter who spends all his time in the office re-writing wire stories and even recycling nibs from other papers, is very sad to read.

You can’t blame the papers for defending themselves, but I wondered whether anyone would say, “OK, fair cop, we do rely on PR/PA a bit too much”. But it never happened.

My own criticism – which I put to Davies when the book came out – is that his statistical analysis only deals with what he calls “respectable papers”: Guardian, Independent, Daily Mail, Telegraph, Times. He says that “nobody needs a book” to tell them tabloids are full of lies, whereas I find that a bit elitist.

But it’s an inspiring book, a call to ask more questions and reject what you are told. I even tried my humble hand at exposing PR mistruth myself, albeit on a much smaller scale.

And what effect – I wonder – does PR have on the blogosphere? In an age of publicity-hungry clients paying richly for their Google rankings and even paying bloggers to blog, does Flat Earth News spill over into the online realm?

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Why aren’t PRs using Twitter?

Arguably the most important social media tool around is Twitter. For journalists – the ones that “get it” at least – it has meant a new network of contacts, shared information and friends. 

News is increasingly broken by ordinary people with iPhone Twitter apps or normal office workers sat at their desks updating Twitter by web or Gtalk and not by dashing reporters in long macs, or even agency reporters in far-flung bureaux. It is the canary in the news coal mine.

So it’s great and everybody loves it.

But where are the PRs? As Michael Cooper (@michaelcooper) rightly said a while back, “If newsdesks had Twitter at their disposal, the relationship between hacks and flacks could change dramatically”.

He says: “From instant updates like ‘Don’t bother me. I’m on deadline!’ through to ‘Looking for urgent case study about….’ journalists should be using Twitter as a tool to interact with PRs. If newsdesks are evolving into 24-hour bodies, maybe it’s time for their journalists to move away from resources like ResponseSource to a more immediate communication tool.”

Indeed. But more and more, on some national papers and forward-thinking regionals, journalists are getting it big time. Trinity Mirror seem to be leading the way in both Liverpool and Birmingham where journalists use Twitter to connect with people locally as well as to break and aggregate news. But are PR officers seizing the opportunity?

Though I know people who have, I’ve never been approached by a PR on Twitter and I would quite happily discuss story that way. Or what about sending press releases or statements out that? Downing Street does. Even the Mars Lander does.

And for PRs it could be a good career move – Todd at PR-Squared says he has hired people because they handled themselves well on Twitter.

So if you want me to write about your newspaper/website/magazine follow me and let’s start talking. And if you are in public relations and already a prolific Tweeter, get in touch and prove me wrong.

UPDATE 07-08-08 – A Twitter friend tweets to say that tech PR people are ‘all over it, unsurprisingly’. That would make sense, it’s just not something I’ve seen myself.

Just another drop in the digital ocean

This is the first post of a blog about the news media, new technology and how journalism is changing.

I’ve been meaning to set this up for many years but have held fire until now. Why another blog about news?  I thought. Is there anything left to say on the supposed death of newspapers and why ‘mainstream’ media execs just ‘don’t get it’, whatever ‘it’ actually is?

Well, you can think that or you can think that if you don’t have your own say you get marginalised and ignored.

As a reporter at Press Gazette I’ve seen up close all the interesting things that are happening to reporters’ daily lives and how UK newspapers are becoming simultaneously less important to the man on the Clapham omnibus but increasingly very important to readers around the world.

So this is another drop in the ocean, but… why not?