Monday, March 27, 2006

Where B2B falls short

If you work in B2B journalism, then you know we have a respect problem. Our peers in the mainstream press often think we're hacks. Our brothers in the ad department sometimes think we're whores. The companies that we cover think we're part of their industry, not part of the media, and expect us to take on a cheerleading role.

B2B publishing can be a lonely place for reporters and editors who push for excellence. I've lost track of the number of times I've heard talented and ambitious journalists say they wish they worked for a "real" magazine," wish they were "real" reporters.
And the awful truth is that they often have good reason to be embarrassed.

Take a look at this press release from the National Instruments company. Note that the press release is clearly a press release, and that the BusinessWire tag appears at the start.
Then look at this "story" at Desktop Engineering magazine.
The two pieces are the same. Only Desktop Engineering removed the BusinessWire tag and added the phrase "written by DE editors."
Visit the DE news section. Open any story. Copy some text. Paste the text into Google and search. You'll find that the pieces that DE labels as "written by DE editors" are press releases written by someone else.
I sent an email to the editor of DE several weeks ago voicing my concern, but have not received a reply.

Now DE has clearly crossed a line by saying things are "written by DE editors" when it's more accurate to say they were "copied and pasted by DE editors." But it's not fair to single out DE over this issue. Although not everyone in our industry struggles with the meaning of the phrase "written by," lots of B2B publications seem to struggle with the line between news stories and press releases. Regular readers of this blog know I've complained in the past about similar practices by PennWell. And regular readers know that I've lobbied ASBPE to address a related problem -- when a publication runs its own press releases as news -- in its new ethics guidelines.

I shouldn't have to say this, but perhaps I do: a press release often has value. I don't object to seeing press releases on a Web site or reprinted in a magazine.
But I don't understand why anyone would label a press release as news. Press releases are not the same as news stories (although they are often the starting point for news stories.) And by not drawing a distinction between the two we tell readers that there is no distinction. When we label a press release from an outside company as news we confirm the worst suspicions that people have of us -- that we don't "report" the way "real" journalists do, that our "news" is nothing more than regurgitated public-relations material and that our news judgment is determined by how easy something is to do or how much someone pays us to print it.

I know I'm not alone in my concern. John Brady wrote an interesting column for Folio a few weeks ago in which he listed "the tell-tale signs of a magazine that had fallen into the easy marketing arms of PR." If you're interested in excellence, ethics or even just not being half-assed, take a look at his piece.
And if you want to see what folks in the public relations industry think of B2B editors who run press releases as news, check out the comments to this earlier post.

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  1. The question of the week on the ASBPEkc blog is about the ethical issues of placing editorial content online. Your post directly answers one of the sub-questions I posed about the ethics of puting regurgitated press releases on the web. I added a link to your post. Thanks!

  2. Hi Spring,
    Thanks for the comment. Thanks for the link. And thanks for raising these sorts of questions with your readers!

  3. Any thoughts on wire copy? Meaning, if editors cut and paste Reuters or AP stories and list them as "news"..where is this on the ethics scale? (Just a topic for debate, I guess).

  4. Hi Anonymous,
    Thanks for the comment.
    I don't have any problem at all with wire copy --- as long as it's attributed.

  5. We have an active online news operation with a dedicated reporter/editor posting original stories every day. Sometimes they orginate from press release -- we couldn't get 5 or 6 stories done each day any other way -- but in those cases they're rewritten for clarity and more objective attribution. On any given day,though, there are two or three stories reported by our web editor or from print editors. We made the investment in a dedicated reporter 4 years ago as it was the only way we felt we could do a credible job delivering daily news for our market.

    The problem is that we have two direct competitors who simply reprint releases as their entire news coverage, without acknowledging it of course. Yet for many in our marketplace, they seem to get credit for reporting "news." I guess what I'm getting at is that part of the problem is audience -- people who see no difference between press releases and reported stories. Are readers becoming less sophisticated about the quality of news coverage?

  6. Hi Jim,
    You raise an interesting question. And I don't know what the answer is.
    I do know that when I confront edtiors about this issue, they tend to say something along the lines of "my readers don't care" or "my readers don't know the difference."
    But I refuse to believe that assuming our readers are knuckleheads is a good business decision.
    I applaud you and your staff for keeping clear the lines between news and public relations.

  7. I was talking to the editor of a well-known photography magazine a couple of weeks ago. He mentioned that they assign the "new products" section to the new writers. They are graded on their ability to write interesting copy that does _not_ replicate the press releases. Everybody has to do this when they start. He considers this a difficult assignment for someone new (and that's a good thing).

    Anyway, I found it interesting that some magazines take this pretty seriously.

  8. Hi Anonymous,
    That's a great idea...and one that many publications use now and that any B2B publication would be wise to copy. It gives new writers a chance to learn the industry they cover, find some sources and develop their writing skills.

  9. Rewriting press releases was my very first job in journalism, and boy did I hate it--it's a boring, thankless job, but it is one worth doing. I made a point of calling and getting an original quote from someone and fact-checking each press release. Invariably, the PR person I contacted first would say something like, "This is the first time anyone's asked." Sad.

    It's also a little scary how many incorrect things make it into press releases--I once called to get a quote from someone who won an award. Except they didn't: A typo on the press release turned someone else's name into this person's, and even the PR person didn't know that had happened. Does anyone need another reason not to run press releases verbatim, or does this convince you?