Why are people so willfully stupid about how news gets made?

Another shocking expose about the lazy, corrupt “old media” this week from Down Under via Crikey, which “tackles the stories insiders are talking about but other media can’t or won’t cover.” In conjunction with the University of Technology, Syndney, employing 40 students over 6 weeks, Crikey discovered the dark secret of the news media: between 42% and 70% of the news printed originated from PR. Horrors! What has become of the independent media?

Let’s leave aside their methodology, their definitions, and the fact that they say, “PR driven” rather than simply “PR” and accept Crikey’s claim at face value. Let’s grant that much of the news that shows up in a daily newspaper or broadcast news originates from the public relations function of something that’s being covered by the newsroom.

Here’s my question: why are people so stupid about how the news works? I don’t simply mean uninformed. I mean willfully, stubbornly, self-righteously self-deluded and stupid.

Crikey should know better: their brief claims to know what’s “really going on” in media. But it’s not just Crikey. New media guru Jeff Jarvis retweeted the link with a knowing/scolding comment, “Spin Zone.” Reporters and editors at all levels of the media–from the local weekly up through the New York Times–pontificate on panels about how useless PR is to them, and how press releases go into their circular file.

Where do these people think news comes from? I don’t mean the sexy investigative journalism and enterprise reporting most people think of when they walk about “news,” I mean the day in, day out happenings around town. That kind of news originates from the people who make it. When soldiers return from a deployment in Afganistan, how do you think the news media finds out about it? The National Guard tells them. When some local dude gets busted for workers’ comp fraud, how does that get into the newspaper? The Tax Department issues a press release.  When the most awesome moving company in the Northeast opens a big new warehouse in town, it may not be the Pentagon Papers but it sure is interesting to the local community, and they find out when Gentle Giant announces it.

I mean, employees who write stories for newspapers are called reporters, for crying out loud. They report news that’s interesting and useful to their audience. So when they get a press release that’s clearly newsworthy, they can and should report that news to their readers.

This relationship between the news media and its sources is eternal, and frankly it works just fine. What’s surprising (and a little galling) to me is the denial that exists among news mavens about how this all works. Reporters, editors and news pundits treat PR like a regular booty call that they don’t want their friends to know about.

The problem with this shame and denial by the news media is that it’s leading them to make stupid, wasteful decisions about how to run their businesses. And not just the old media: new media suffer from the same assumptions and delusions.

Take Jeff Jarvis. He clearly disdains PR and press releases as “spin” and worse. Yet the core of his link economy philosophy is, “cover what you do best and link to the rest.” Don’t replicate coverage elsewhere, he says to the mainstream media (and its new media heirs): focus on your core expertise and link to what’s already been created if it’s valuable to your audience.  So why not embrace the fact that local news is being made and written about constantly by members of the community and link to their press releases (maybe with some commentary or context) rather than making a fetish of rewriting it for the sake of journalism? The “new news ecosystem” could run much leaner and put its efforts toward enterprise journalism and original reporting if it isn’t rewriting good, relevant press releases.

I think this same fetish for “original reporting” hurt Aol’s Seed.com reporting project at South by Southwest. Rather than get hundreds of freelance reporters to interview and profile 2,000 bands in two weeks–from a standing start–why didn’t Aol simply tell all of the bands that they’d publish a band-written profile, and give them some helpful guidelines (not requirements) for what to write? I’ll bet they didn’t do the latter because it would have been “promotional” or “PR” rather than “reporting,” but who cares? What’s the goal of the project? Presumably it’s to have informative content on Spinner.com for readers to find out about all of the new bands they’d see at SXSW. And who do you think is more motivated to provide the content–a freelancer getting paid 20 bucks/piece or the band itself?

Seed.com’s strategy was also wasteful as a way of doing business in the new news world. Let’s say that some percentage of self-published content from the bands was crap. We should also agree that some percentage from the freelancers is just as bad. Even if the bands produced more junk, at least Aol would have gotten that junk for free, instead of paying $40,000 for it.

It’s time for the news media to be honest with themselves and their readers about how news gets made, and embrace the “professional user generated content” that organizations produce. It’s the right thing to do because it’s transparent, and it makes good business sense.