Magazine article Information Today

Meet the Press ... or Not

Magazine article Information Today

Meet the Press ... or Not

Article excerpt

Professional ethics require a journalist to gather information as vigorously and assertively as possible. The service ethic requires a librarian to deliver all known or accessible truths to needy clients as completely as possible. So what happens when the librarian is also a journalist and the clients are readers who are also vendors? Clearly, as a weekly reporter for Information Today, Inc.'s NewsBreaks, disclosing reportorial techniques to vendors from whom I must one day pry inside news seems dangerously altruistic.

Ralph Nader never told me there would be days like this.

"There exists in the modern world, perhaps for the first time in history, a class of people whose interest is not that things should happen well or happen badly, should happen successfully or happen unsuccessfully, should happen to the advantage of this party or to the advantage of that party, but whose interest is simply that things should happen."

When G. K. Chesterton delivered this somewhat bemused indictment of journalists, he pointed the way to the royal flush of journalism: the scoop. More than anything, a journalist wants to be the first to publish a well-written truth that excites the interest of a large number of readers. That's the ideal, the best in show. But there are other winning combinations, such as being the first to publish a not very interesting truth or writing the best article with the most truth about a story others have already covered. However, the common element throughout is truth.

What advantages do vendors seek in dealing with journalists? After all, vendors have other avenues for communicating with current or potential clients: advertising, mailings, sales calls, etc. Getting a vendor's story in front of the public through a news outlet offers at least one unique advantage (beyond not having to pay for an ad): third-party certification of an announcement's importance, even for readers who, as current clients, might have received the same announcement from the vendor itself. It can also reach new audiences beyond the scope of the vendor's marketing reach--and without paying for the outreach effort.

What disadvantages do vendors face? Well, as a very wise publisher once told me, "Heat sells better than light." Journalists love to find and report the things that folks don't want revealed. They love to pry behind the public face and find the hair in curlers or, even better, the toupee still on the bureau. Responsible journalists (ahem) still insist on relevant truth as a standard for publishing, but this doesn't mean that irrelevant, unverified tales don't circulate around trade press networks as gossip.

For vendors, working with journalists is a lot like zookeeping. Most of your day is spent pitching hay to cud-chewing herbivores. But you can't run a zoo without spending a lot of time warily poking large chunks of meat at hot-eyed carnivores.

How can vendors succeed when dealing with the press? What works? What doesn't? What should you always do? What should you never even consider?

What Not to Do

Let's start with the "never." Never ever lie to the press. The only thing worse than telling a lie that the press doesn't swallow is telling a lie that the press does swallow--and publishes. Either way, you've probably made yourself a dangerous enemy. But if the press publishes the lie, they'll have to retract it. And after that, not just one reporter but an entire publisher and all their friends and colleagues will probably declare open season on you.

As the sage Tommy Lasorda wisely observed, "Never argue with people who buy ink by the gallon." Half-truths count as lies in direct proportion to the estimated knowledgeability of the source. The only way to escape the penalties for half-truths is to claim incompetence, which, at this point in the debacle, will probably be believed by all.

Ugly--and unnecessary--as it may be even to mention, never try to use advertising clout to control editorial content. …

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