These days, freelance journalists and the few remaining mainstream media staffers are pressured to gasp! MARKET their own work. Page views trump reporting quality (yeah, who needs truth when it's eyeballs that sell to advertisers!?) Get the numbers or be gone, say publishers! So we writers rush to push every article via slashdot, reddit, digg, stumbleupon, etc ad nauseum. But now Peter Shankman, of Help A Reporter Out (HARO) fame may just prove to be reporters' surprise! saving grace.
A good many mainstream journalists are already familiar with HARO and the majority find Peter's service tremendously helpful in locating reliable news sources. In general, we journalists post our queries, reap the email responses, do our research, write our stories, and then move on. Rarely do we take a moment to say thanks to the sources (especially those who answered our call but didn't make the story).
In our own defense, that odious behavior comes from our having to do the work of ten journos these days (without the aid of a massive newsroom) AND market our work to the masses. In any case, we are not great at following up with folks on the other side of Peter's table -- no matter how great a feast was just served there.
We are even worse at letting Peter and his HARO gang know when our story is published. Overworked and sweating page view numbers (as publishers and bean-counters continue to scream at us yes! but what have you done for me LATELY!?) we focus on marketing our stories elsewhere and thus completely overlook the value of marketing our work before the collection of news consumers/participants in the HARO universe.
Peter says he'll soon be adding an easy way for journalists to notify HARO that the story behind the query is published. Sure, it's to Peter's advantage to do so. No doubt a continuous list of published stories will give Peter bragging points and help him promote HARO. A published mention is after all the Holy Grail of PR, especially given the rarity of media exposure these days in light of harsh cutbacks, layoffs and outright media crashes. But, such will also help journalists promote their work as HARO members click on the stories and pass on links to clients, friends and public places on the Web.
There has always been an uneasy relationship between journalists and PR pros. Today is no different. But what is different is the journalists' need to self-promote and Peter's HARO can inadvertently help with that. So can his competitors.
The next time you have to promote your article and/or your brand as a journalist, look for help in places you already work within -- like HARO, Profnet (PR Newswire), Businesswire, and NewsWise.
Will news services promoting articles buy favor from journalists? No, they won't. Good journalists don't play that game. Wires and services will have to be content with promoting themselves and their clients this way -- the byproduct will be that it also promotes individual journalists.
However, aggressive article promotion could attract journalists to using services like HARO, ProfNet and NewsWise much more often. Indeed, a brilliant way to attract journalists would be to add a clip service and automatically list stories by journalists that used your news service. THAT would help tons as it would reduce the time we journalists spend on marketing (an activity we detest, btw).
What are your thoughts on how journalists can promote their articles to readers?
UPDATE: Peter Shankman had this to say to me and fellow reporters "We encourage you to post all your completed stories at https://facebook.com/helpareporter - close to 10k fans in there, all waiting to read your work!!"
Note: Names have been withheld to focus this discussion on the issues rather than on the personalities involved.
This story began, as so many do, with a slip of the tongue. It was just a quiet mention butted on each end by unremarkable sentences. It floated in a pitch by a PR pro who really wanted me to include her client in the story I was writing for a huge online publication.
But this slip was no mistake. It had been carefully choreographed to give both me and the speaker plausible deniability. I could easily ignore it, pretend it unheard, and it would be as though the incident never happened.
Though not directly spoken, the implication was as clear as church bells: a large number of page views could easily be delivered on this article and any other articles I might write.
Page views: the new Holy Grail for struggling journalists trying to stay employed. Publishers have long since set the stakes: write stories powerful enough, sensational enough, or popular enough to rack up huge numbers of page views – or lose your job. It’s not an empty threat. Thousands of unemployed journalists stand in the wings to fill the space and join the page view race.
Yet no one has ever been able to predict which stories will find favor in the eyes of readers. There is no apparent rhyme or reason behind which stories take fire, which burn the house down and which flicker to nothingness.
So, writers spend hours of what would otherwise be billable time promoting articles in places like StumbleUpon, Digg, Reddit, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn Groups, and on and on. These are hours writers can ill afford to give away given today’s low pay rates per article. Yet, failing to do so often leads to the unemployment line.
Journalists are cynical by nature. My thoughts immediately turned to “what’s in it for the PR gal?” Page views of any given article typically mean little to PR people compared to a site’s overall traffic. If a single story’s page views were important, then adding to the number could be beneficial to the PR firm but not so much to the firm’s client. Planting a super number of page views would give a false reading of how many readers had read the story containing the client’s super-duper whirlymagig.
As a freelancer, I write for many publications. The total readership of the online publication I was writing for on the Day of the Slip is huge. The article would most likely be read by some percentage of that traffic. Large exposure was a near-given or could be feigned by the PR firm by quoting the web site's overall traffic to the client instead; and, being able to point to an article in such a respected publication has its own rewards. No worries for the PR Lady on that front.
Plus, the high number of planted page views would bump the article to the top of search engine lists. This would mean more readers beyond those that follow the publication. A large number of whirlymagig units would likely be sold.
The PR firm would remain employed having satisfied the client’s need for media exposure. Make no mistake, the client’s need is very real as commerce cannot happen and profits cannot be made if the buying public does not know about products.
As journalists are laid off by the thousands and publications fold by the hundreds, there are fewer and fewer ways for manufacturers and retailers to get the word out. Getting the attention of the few remaining (and heavily overworked) journalists is ridiculously difficult to do. Obtaining a simple, unbiased review is another near impossibility.
Articles by respected journalists add credibility to products. Buyers often make buying decisions based on a journalist’s review or analysis. By comparison, advertising carries little credibility and costs a lot of money (especially in a recession).
So, If I accepted the offer:
the PR Lady’s client would obtain credibility and an audience before that publication’s readers without the expense of advertising. Plus, a high ranking in search engine results was probable.
a writer, in this case me, would remain employed, having gained the required number of page views which would presumably be provided by a large PR firm’s dedicated staff.
my publisher would get his treasured page views ---and presumably the advertising dollars that follow.
the reader would be negligibly affected since the story – other than an added quote from the PR Lady’s client – would remain unscathed. Its angle slanted precisely to the degree it was before The Slip request. Balance would remain untipped. Other views in the article would remain unaffected. PR Lady was not asking for an article exclusively about her client or that client’s product. She asked only that her client’s quote be included in the story.
PR Lady confirmed my analysis of her slip. Yes, she said. That’s what it means. See, everybody wins.
But no, I said. Everyone does not win.
If planted page views are added to existing ploys such as planted reader comments, paid reviewers and other manipulations of online content, we could soon find ourselves in the ‘age of misinformation’ where nothing is unsullied, nothing entirely truthful.
Or, is this merely the evolution of news? Is this pay-by-page-view play inevitable given that journalists are judged less by the value of their content and more by the number of people that arbitrarily read their work?
I know where I stand: I passed on the offer. My page views per story are organically grown, the same as my followers on Twitter and other social media. I have not gamed the system in any venue.
But was that the right decision – or an outdated stance?
It is clear that ethics are evolving as publishing models continue to shift and churn. I am asking you to help shape that evolution with an open discussion. Please share your comments below.