When I read Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now by former editor of The Guardian Alan Rusbridger, I was struck with how much his experience at the newspaper tracked with my own experience in corporate communications. The worldwide web and what followed was upending his world at the newspaper at the same time it had begun to change mine – and for the same reasons. We began to deal with it earlier, while The Guardian and other newspapers were affected more quickly, but we were grappling with many of the same issues and at roughly the same time (1995-2015).
I left corporate communications for a time – almost four years. I felt worked to death, spun off, and finally laid off, and I was done. I set up my own consulting firm, and I was focused on two areas of communications – writing speeches and community relations. In late 2003, a friend dared me to apply for the top communications job at St. Louis Public Schools, which I did, thinking I’d never hear anything. I was wrong. They called, I interviewed along with nine others (we were all told to report at the same time and sat in the same room until we were interviewed). I got the job and started work the next morning.
The school district was in crisis. A reform board had been elected, an outside management firm was hired, the district was found to be bankrupt, and underway were layoffs, school closings, and staff restructurings. The old communications department had been 13 people. The new one was me and one-half of another person, and we shared a secretary with another group.
I’ve never had a job like that one. On my first day of work, I was filling out papers in HR when I was told the news media were waiting for a statement. The teachers were having a sick-out to protest changes in sick-leave policy. I did five media interviews that day, three of them on camera. One of the reporters laughed when she saw me. “We heard they’d hired you. Welcome to St. Louis Public Schools.”
For the next eight months, there wasn’t a single day when I didn’t give a media interview. I was followed home at night by reporters. I was tracked down at a car dealership on a Saturday when I was having my car serviced. Sometimes it was national media calling and doing interviews by phone. I lived, breathed, and dreamed journalists and journalism. And sometimes the news happened right next to me, like when a school board member drenched my boss with a pitcher of water or people in the aisle next to where I was sitting were arrested at a school board meeting. A good meeting, my boss told me, was one where fewer than three people were arrested.
It was a crazy and rough-and-tumble experience, but I was dealing with journalism as I’d always known it, as I was trained in it, and as I had experienced it in corporate communications. A bit more intense, to be sure, but I recognized people who saw their jobs as getting the news and telling the story.
By the time I returned to corporate communications in 2004, something had fundamentally changed, and especially with national media. I was working in a narrowly defined area, communications for so-called “legacy” assets. A spinoff from seven years before had declared bankruptcy, and the company had regained responsibility for all of the issues that had been spun off with the bankrupt company. I was hired because I had the background for it.
Generally, the reporters I dealt with specialized in business or environmental issues, or they were local media in various locations. I was in familiar territory, and the journalists were familiar. But with the company’s main line of business, the journalists were anything but familiar, and the people involved in media relations were going crazy.
Simply put, reporters were casting news stories in a broader context of opinion. It wasn’t all thinly disguised editorials masquerading as news stories, but it was close. And it wasn’t all reporters, but it was a few key ones. I’d sit in staff meetings, listening to the problems. And it wasn’t simply a case of “PR people always dislike reporters and vice versa” kind of problems. I read the stories, and I could easily see that the problem was serious. The media relations people had tried everything – from uninviting the reporters to events to traveling to meet with the reporters’ bosses. Nothing had worked.
At one staff meeting, after yet another example of what should have been a balanced story had been turned into a disaster, I offered a suggestion. “We have a web site. You’re going to have to critique the story and publish the critique on the web site, showing exactly what’s happening.”
By the looks I received, they must have thought I’d landed from Mars. You didn’t do that with reporters. It would make it worse. They would hate you and get even. That was not a solution, and no one had ever done that before. “You don’t get into a spitting war with someone who buys ink by the barrel.”
“Embarrassment at doing a shoddy job is the only thing I know you can do that might work,” I said. “Seriously, what’s the downside?”
My advice was not accepted. The problems continued. For years. Until the day a worse-than-usual outrageous story was published, inventing “news” out of whole cloth. It was all bogus. It was so bad that a major journalism school called out two reporters for what they had done. But only people following journalism had seen it.
By that time, one of my responsibilities included the company’s blog. We often published links to stories about the company. Without asking permission, I published the link to the journalism school’s statement, without comment, and lots of people saw it, including people inside the company. The offending reporters were pulled by their editors from covering the company for six months.
Today, we have a phrase for the problem, and it is a serious problem. Many people will tell you that our national media no longer report the news, but instead maintain, promote, and defend the narrative (a post-modern concept if there ever was one), whatever the narrative happens to be. And it’s exacerbated by social media.
How all of this might have started is unknown. A lot of things fused together – post-modernism, fundamental changes in university academics, the growing political divide in the United States, and more. The narrative is not an active conspiracy of publishers, editors, and reporters colluding to report the news in a certain way. It would likely be easier to deal with if it was a conspiracy. Instead, it’s group think, group think shared by many of the nation’s elites, and it’s killing journalism. And the rest of us
Top photograph by Markus Spiske via Unsplash. Used with permission.
Lower photograph by Absolut Vision via Unsplash. Used with permission.