Public relations colliding with the truth

There is a strange line between the work of public relations staffers and journalists within the newspaper industry and certainly within the media as a whole. This boundary is often present when we examine both the way in which the media reports on itself (which most of the time is very little), and the actual interviews that are conducted with newsroom staffers outside their respected companies.

Newspaper reporters traditionally like to ask the questions, not have to answer them. Most of the time they are forced into defending their work against savage naysayers, so I can’t really blame them.

So, when I set out to begin “Fit to Print”, I imagined it would have been next to impossible for any of these reporters to open up to me about their experiences (positive or negative) within their newsrooms.

…Not so…

In fact, up to this point it has been quite the opposite.  Several influential newspaper reporters, staffers and media experts have provided me with in-depth accounts of their experiences within their industry.  A great deal of it is positive.  A great deal of it is negative.  A good majority of these people still work for these newspapers.  Some of the details don’t exactly paint the best picture for the institutions in which they work.

I have often asked reporters why they have felt compelled to talk on camera with me (other than my request for them to do so).  Many of them share a common response — they are deeply concerned about the current state and future of the business they are in.

Each one of the reporters and newspaper staffers I have interviewed thus far has my deep respect.  They are doing something that is often rare in their line of work — explaining what is happening behind the scenes.  Most likely this is a reaction from the many ways in which newspapers are now essentially forced into being transparent (take the New York Times’ taped editorial conferences available on their website, for example).  But I think it’s more than that.

I recently spent a few years working at The New York Times.  The idea for “Fit to Print” came well over a year ago when I was still employed there.  I was the lowest man on the totem-pole that you could actually be — a backfield copy-editor (Note:  my copy-editing skills still suck!). I was, however, lucky enough to have had the opportunity to sit down with several reporters and staffers for coffee in the Times’ gigantic 14th floor dining hall. Overall, it was an eye-opening experience because of the concerns I was hearing over pending layoffs and the rapidly changing nature of the newspaper industry.  An idea immediately sprang into my head — Document this right away!

My first step in doing that was to reach out to the Times’ public relations team to receive an okay to proceed.  About a month later I received a phone call from one of the P.R. staffers who was positive about my endeavor.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t up to her to green-light.  The go-ahead on my project was left up to one person — the head of the P.R. department. Not a committee or board, but one person.

A few more Times reporters had agreed to be interviewed for the film during the month which passed in my waiting for a response back from the head of P.R..  I imagined this was a good thing, after all, these reporters each expressed a deep desire to get this story out there.  A feature-length documentary film seemed an ideal way to tackle this subject.  This was a new way to express themselves and defend the field in which they love. I certainly do not have the interviewing skills of Charlie Rose, but maybe it was to my advantage that I could actually sit down face-to-face with these people well beforehand and talk (not just about the newspaper business, but about life in general).  The most important thing for them was to get an idea of who the hell I was …after all, I could have just been some snot-nosed punk kid looking for another quick YouTube clip.

But apparently the rules of the company still apply to a punk with a camera and a Times reporter sitting down for an interview in a cramped living room far away from The New York Times’ headquarters (I was aware that filming inside the Times building was prohibited, so a few reporters proposed locations elsewhere).  Or so I was later informed by the woman in charge of the P.R. department.  The one ‘gatekeeper’ over all that is said and done at The New York Times (save for Bill Keller, Janet Robinson and Arthur Ochs Sulzberger — Yet I even have my doubts about that).

I was informed via e-mail by the head of P.R., that I was “not allowed to talk to anyone within the company at any point for the film” — anywhere.

…okay…well, to be fair, I did work there.  Perhaps there was definite conflict of interest.  But even after I had left, I was informed that I couldn’t talk to ANY Times staffers.

This hasn’t stopped Times staffers from agreeing to speak on camera I’m happy to report. Once you see the film you will understand the importance of actually seeing a reporter express their concerns and hopefulness for the industry on camera, not just reading about it.  Facial expressions seem to say it all.

In looking back, pursuing this story instead of backing down to public relations policies was the best move I could have made.  After all, what is the true meaning of public relations when it comes to journalism?  A company like The New York Times is just that — a company.  I’m glad that newsroom staffers have the balls to talk to a nobody like me, because the mastheads of the business side certainly do not (yes, I have tried to interview a few).  CNN or Charlie Rose will always be the favored route for journalists to speak to first, but in a hyper-transparent news environment, public relations should be reevaluated completely. 

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