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The Ratio of PR Professionals to Journalists

Ken Gaebler

Ratio of PR Professionals to Journalists
What are the implications of having

more PR professionals and fewer professional journalists?

The sky is falling! The sky is falling!

Academics Robert W. McChesney, Ph.D., and John Nichols claim that the end of good journalism is near because the ratio of public relations professionals to journalists has jumped from 1.2-to-1 in 1980 to 4-to-1 today.

“Journalism is literally being rolled over by propaganda,” said Nichols recently, while speaking at Fordham University.

As I understand it, the hypothesis of these authors, who have recently written a book entitled The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution that Will Begin the World Again (Nation Book, 2010), is that journalism is being co-opted by corporations and government agencies who are using public relations as a tool to take over the media.

They cite research conducted by the Pew Research Center that found that eighty six percent of all news stories that were printed or aired by Baltimore media in 2008 originated from public relations firms or corporate press releases.

"With four P.R. agents to every one journalist, and 86 percent of stories coming from power and 14 percent coming from the people, the future is not ‘Big Brother is watching you,’ the future is, ‘You will be watching Big Brother,’” Nichols said.

One of the solutions advocated by McChesney and Nichols is to transform journalism from a business venture into a public trust, on par with schools and police. To do this, the authors suggest that the United States needs a free press subsidized by the government.

What a bunch of bullshit.

From our vantage point as a Chicago PR firm, the constant innuendo from these authors and others that PR firms are evil incarnate gets a bit tiring.

I can say without equivocation that when we assist a journalist on a story, the story is better off based on our having been involved.

At the end of the day PR firms compete in a free market for information. A journalist can always choose not to use the inputs of a PR firm. As such, there's no reason for the quality of journalism to be negatively impacted by a higher PR to journalist ratio, is there?

Well, maybe you can argue that journalists who previously had time to do more reporting on a story now have less time to work on a story and so are more likely to accept PR firm input without doing the requisite fact checking.

In other words, with pressure to do more with less, maybe journalists are in fact more vulnerable to spin now than they were in the past.

If this is the case, however, won't people stop buying media that opts for lower-quality journalism? If my hometown paper, the Chicago Tribune, just started printing press releases verbatim instead of writing articles, I'd cancel my subscription in a heartbeat. Journalism cannot descend below a certain quality-level without being severely punished by the market, and there will always be a market and an appetite for high-quality journalism.

The solution is not to decrease the ratio of PR professionals to journalists. The solution is not to offer subsidies to journalists.

The solution is that we need better journalists and we need better PR professionals. This will lead to higher quality journalism.

The solution is that we need more efficient news organizations with smarter business models. You can still do great journalism on a budget. It's when journalists have to support the huge salaries and overhead of their employers that good journalism suffers. Cut the bloat in large media and you'll see a dramatic improvement in media quality.

And let's not forget the citizen journalist.

I don't have the numbers but if you count citizen journalists, there is no way that the ratio of PR pros to journalists is 4:1. Anybody has the ability to be a journalist in this day and age, by writing a blog, for example.

If you implicitly believe that citizen journalists are lesser journalists than those who work for small or large media enterprises, I think you need to reconsider that assumption. There are some phenomenal citizen journalists out there who put many professional journalists to shame.

Indeed, these days, it's the citizen journalists who are keeping professional journalists honest. If a professional journalist lazily writes a story based on PR firm fodder and that PR firm outreach is factually wrong or not objective, the citizen journalists will call the professional journalist to the carpet.

In other words, we do have some checks and balances in place that should ensure that journalism remains a valued contributor in serving the public trust. Government subsidies are not necessary, thank you very much.

As for the cheap shots on PR firms, it's almost not worth getting into that quagmire. Just as a bigot is locked in his ways, those who insult the PR profession are typically a lost cause as well.

I would just say to McChesney and Nichols that the sky is not falling.

More importantly, they need to find another dog to kick because PR is part of the solution, not part of the problem.