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As Newsrooms shrink, PR grows to fill the gap

May 11, 2011

There is a fascinating and well researched article on ProPublica.org by John Sullivan titled “PR Industry Fills Vacuum Left by Shrinking Newsrooms”.

While it’s fairly lengthy, Sullivan examines the relationship between the diminishing amount of journalists and the rise of the PR profession. He proposes that rather than the premise new forms of reporting will eventually fill the void left by traditional newsrooms, the void that is created by the collapse of traditional journalism is being filled by public relations.

Some of the more interesting points are;

  • The birth of PR and how the rise of the “publicity agent” created deep concern among America’s leaders, who distrusted a middleman inserting itself and shaping messages between government and the public. US Congress was so concerned that it attached amendments to bills in 1908 and 1913 that said no money could be appropriated for preparing newspaper articles or hiring publicity agents. This sentiment changed rapidly during WWI and the value of the PR professional has grown significantly ever since.
  • Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that the number of journalists has fallen drastically while public relations people have multiplied at an even faster rate. In 1980, there were about .45 PR workers per 100,000 population compared with .36 journalists. In 2008, there were .90 PR people per 100,000 compared to .25 journalists.
  • Census data to track revenues at public relations agencies between 1997 and 2007 found that revenues went from $3.5 billion to $8.75 billion. Those figures include only independent public relations agencies — they don’t include big companies, lobbying outfits, advertising agencies, non-profits, or government.
  • The Newspaper Association of America reported that newspaper advertising revenue dropped from an all-time high of $49 billion in 2000 to $22 billion in 2009.
  • Research from the Pew Research Center that focused on when the University of Maryland announced on July 22, 2009, that it would test the new swine flu vaccine. Of the 19 stories Pew reviewed that covered the development of the vaccine, three contained significant new information, another three had new details, and the rest either repeated the same basic facts as the press release or were identical stories appearing on a different platform.
  • In 2005 and 2006, the New York Times and the advocacy group PR Watch did separate reports detailing how television news was airing video news releases prepared by corporate or government PR offices, working them into stories as part of their newscasts. PR Watch listed 77 stations which aired the reports, some of them broadcast nearly verbatim.
  • It took Drew Armstrong, a health-care reporter for Bloomberg, months to nail stories showing how the health-insurance industry had funded efforts by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to fight against changing the health system. Armstrong dug into tax records to show what had previously been hidden — that AHIP contributed a whopping $86.2 million to the Chamber to fight against the Obama health-care plan. Neither group would confirm that it was the same money but no one called for a correction.
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