- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 5, 2007

Pecking order

Consider the lowly press release. Press releases probably have been around as long as there have been newspapers, but of all the sources that give rise to stories for our pages, none gets less respect.

At the top of the journalism pecking order is the big exclusive, ideally based on some secret government document or other incontrovertible evidence, that has the power to shape public affairs. If there is evidence of corruption or scandal, all the better.

Next in rank comes the one-on-one interview with a top government official — say the president or secretary of state. On-the-spot accounts of major disasters also are valued, especially when reported from some out-of-the-way, inaccessible spot.

You get the idea. The more difficult the story is to come by, the more we value it. Inversely, the more accessible a story is to other reporters from competing publications, the less prestige attaches to having it.

According to that logic, a story based on a State Department briefing aboard the secretary’s airplane — where only 10 to 12 reporters are present — is more highly valued than a story from a session in the 35- to 45-seat State Department briefing room.

Also, perhaps perversely, journalists attach much more value to stories they have to dig out than to those that are handed to them. The more someone doesn’t want us to report something, the more determined we are to see it in print.

Thus, stories based on press conferences rank still further down the journalistic food chain. Not only is the information provided at press conferences available to any reporter who shows up, but the conference was usually called in the first place because someone was trying to get the information into print.

That brings us to press releases, the lowest of the low. Not only are they distributed as widely as possible, but they almost always are written by someone who is trying to get reporters to write about his or her product or organization or cause.

Groucho Marx said he didn’t care to belong to any club that would accept him as a member. Journalists say they don’t want to write about any group that would want us to write about them.

Attention grabbers

That said, the new information technologies that have revolutionized the way we work have also transformed the press release.

Years ago, straining mail room employees would dump huge stacks of them on editors’ desks every morning, sometimes two or three feet high. Someone would have to open all the envelopes, discarding most of the contents with a cursory glance, and setting aside the most promising to be read later — if the editor got around to it.

Over time, the stacks of mail got smaller as more and more releases began arriving by fax, the machines spitting out endless streams of them — maddeningly, sometimes, just when a reporter overseas was trying to fax in a big story we were waiting for.

Faxed releases had the advantage that they didn’t have to be ripped from envelopes, but they were boringly monochromatic and the flimsy paper tended to curl at the ends, making them harder to stack into useless piles.

Then came e-mail. The first e-mailed press releases were even cruder than faxes — black-and-white text messages with no possibilities for logos or art. But as e-mail technology has advanced, press release writers have been quick to adapt.

The typical release reaching us today has a full-color logo stripped across the top with the name of the organization, followed by a splashy color headline and, usually, a photo or two alongside the text.

They pop up instantly and require no messing about with envelopes or curly fax paper. And best of all, we can train our spam-catchers to filter out or allow releases from various groups as we choose.

Sometimes, one of them even inspires us to write a story.

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is djones@washingtontimes.com.



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