The tweetspace was filled this past weekend with the opinionated bloviations of blogger and "j-school prof" Jeff Jarvis, who seems to spend a fair amount of his time twittering. I know. That makes him a hipster.
One thing that happens on Twitter is that everybody writes about him or herself. That is the subject of Twitter: Yourself. So you read a chain and most of it doesn't really pursue anything. People read your tweet. They tweet back with something of marginal relevance, rotating the subject so it has something to do with them. Somewhere in this mass of teeny personal observations, Jarvis went off on a particularly acid chain attacking the profession of public relations, showing the kind of soggy hostility that journalists reserve for the profession upon which they are dependent.
"How can I tell flacks that I don't open any of their press releases?" the surly pundit wrote on Sunday afternoon. "The press release is dead, folks."
This really annoyed me. First of all, it's my experience that journalists who routinely call PR people flacks are themselves hacks. Journalists are individuals who are paid to write. A very small number write about what they choose some of the time. But in essence they are writers for hire. Their sensitivity on this issue displays themselves whenever they are called upon to characterize their counterparts in public relations.
Secondly, I can tell you this: the press release is not dead any more than the newspaper is dead. I'm really tired of people declaring things dead, by the way. But in this case, nothing could be further from the truth. Certainly, inept press releases, flowing out from bad practitioners to bored bloggers, are in trouble. But every time you open a newspaper or boot up a Web site, you are reading the result of companies issuing formal paper on what it is they are doing.
Jarvis may not be interested in what's actually coming out of corporations because he's mostly reporting on the landscape of his own mind. But a lot of reporters are, in fact, engaged in matters external to their brainpan. No, they don't simply reprint the press release. But it may jog something that does require conversation, follow-up and reporting. That's what a press release does.
A few weeks ago, in fact, I put out a powerful, articulate press release accusing Microsoft of poaching my Bing brand for their ostensible search engine. It was picked up by a host of very reputable news organizations, since it was masterfully done and of intense interest to a marketplace that, that day, was fascinated with anything Bing.
I considered putting out one today on the newswire declaring Journalism (or perhaps Mr. Jarvis) dead, but decided this milder format seemed more appropriate.
That's not all. Jarvis twitted on a few minutes later: "I've long said that papers should have at least one day a week with no PR... just reporting. What a concept."
Yeah. Right. You guys know what a day without public relations assistance would look like in the world of journalism? Take a newspaper. Strip out most of the quotes from every article, which were arranged for the hacks with the help of flacks. Take out a fair number of the photos, which were provided by the photo departments of the companies and organizations involved. Just dump out about 40 percent of the coverage altogether, which was pitched and accepted by editors who need ideas for stories beyond the ones they glean from actual events. You can also dump all the stories on earnings and the comings and goings in corporate capital. You can keep the opinion pieces. They rarely require any professional assistance.
Journalism is in trouble. Its basic brief -- the investigation and reporting of real events both important and not-so -- is under attack by the medium in which you are reading this. People say stuff. People read it. Then it all evaporates into the ether. True? False? Nobody really cares. It's just what's out there for the moment that counts.
That's why people tweet, and why Twitter is the hula-hoop du jour. But believe it or not, the best journalism, particularly in complex matters like business and government, takes place when honest journalists and their counterparts in public relations work together without lying and without spinning each other to death.
And nobody benefits when the hacks attack the flacks.