Tuesday, December 28, 2010

All the president's publicists - why Js jump to PR


Journalism is exciting - just ask Kenneth H. Dahlberg!


When I was a kid, I wanted to be Woodward and Bernstein.

That's right: I wanted to grow up to be not one, but two, Washington Post journalists.

After seeing All the President's Men, I knew that it was the only job for me; I couldn't wait to start meeting sources in parkades, trapping interviewees on the phone, and bringing down presidents on a daily basis, before I even ate lunch.

It was an exciting time for journalism, because the film's clear message is that you, young person, without any training or formal education whatsoever, can turn the world on its ass, and all you need is a shirt and tie, notepad, and gumption.

Hey, I've got gumption. And a tie. They're talking about me!

Delivering the news, old school

Don't let anyone tell you differently: delivering newspapers was, and still is, the fastest track to bringing down presidents.  

So, I showed up at the Winnipeg Tribune, a young kid with a dream, and signed up to be a substitute newspaper deliveryman for my friend, Darren Campbell, who did the gig full time.

The Winnipeg Tribune folded shortly thereafter - something to do with shitty home delivery - but my dream stayed alive when I saw my friend, now-famous CBC journalist Pat Kaniuga, get a byline on the front page of the Winnipeg Free Press.

To me, he was better than Woodward or Bernstein, because he was breaking stories on the cover of the city's biggest daily newspaper at the same time he handled a full course load - the equivalent of having one hand tied behind your back. 

With him as my success model, I enrolled in Creative Communications, majored in journalism, and promptly went to work for the local media as a "freelance journalist," where I wrote articles about how much it snowed yesterday (the editor wrote the headline, reaching deep inside himself to find the term, "The White Stuff" - ugh), the touring World Series trophy at Polo Park Mall, and an art exhibit in the Exchange District.

Maybe the only story I ever sniffed out was a secret rethinking of the Mental Health Act, but it withered before my very eyes when I got a key contact on the phone, and he yelled at me for "not asking the right questions." Where was Kenneth H. Dahlberg when I needed him?

Things perked up a bit when I started covering the Winnipeg Police news conferences for a local radio station, but I quickly realized that the cops owned the information, and I was just some poor schlub they had to deal with in order to get their message to the masses (these were the early days of the Internet, remember).
Me: "Why haven't you done an autopsy on the body you pulled from the river yesterday?"
Police spokesperson: "How long does it take you to defrost a turkey?!"
Information is power. But keeping that information secret from someone who really wants it? That's real power, as I learned each day anew.

Fort boredom

After awhile, I felt deflated and bored with the whole inverted-pyramid thing. I was also pretty broke, since the only real full-time entry-level J gigs at the time were in towns with exotic names, like Flin Flon, Slave Lake, and five or six places with the word "Fort" in their names; as stand-up  comedy taught me, where there's a "Fort," there's a chance that you won't live to see tomorrow.

So, I made the jump to the light side of the Force (see what I did there?) by applying for my first corporate gig in advertising and PR. Long story short: I got the job and surprised myself by enjoying it immensely, from a creative, professional, and - yes - financial perspective. 

Here, I not only owned the information, but I tripled my salary, was appreciated for being a good writer of creative (as opposed to "creative writer") and never again had to utter "scrum" or  "meat before attribution" in mixed company.

Better yet, I never had to chase a story, and my job had me home before 5 p.m. (I love you flex time!), watching Degrassi and drinking margaritas, when my journalist friends were just starting to write their articles, having spent another sleepless night next to their police scanner.

I am looking at it through rose-colored glasses, of course, because the proverbial "cushy" corporate gig gets more intense with each promotion and responsibility, and learning how to deal with management, the legal department, and red tape is a skill set unto itself.

And that's probably the biggest misconception about making the leap from J to PR: that "it's easier for a journalist to do it, because he or she understands how to get into a journalist's mind." The equivalent of that argument is "You'd better jog every day, so you can compete in the triathlon." Well, yeah, it won't hurt, but there's more to the triathlon than running. 

That wacky ol' Internet

I have to admit to feeling much smugness with my decision to work in PR when journalism slowly stopped being something that people wanted to pay for, and started becoming something that everyone could do as a hobby.

How was it that my 15-year-old nieces could post a concert video on YouTube and get more views then the Saskatchewan Leader-Post's coverage of the same event? Who was the real journalist anyway?

And I couldn't help but notice that each, new PR posting saw a flood of resumes from well-known local journalists, whose Woodward and Bernstein dreams had also been replaced with more practical considerations involving lifestyle and pay. 

In Public Speaking, HBO's recent documentary about writer Fran Lebowitz, she knocks the New York Times itself by making fun of its writers in general ("Writers need to know stuff") and delayed leads in particular.

"I thought the news was supposed to just be information," she says.

But here's the thing: I still love great journalism, the New York Times, and the Washington Post - even if they are shadows of their former selves.

So, like everyone, I've been waiting to see what would save these great institutions. With WikiLeaks, I think we may be seeing the first, real exciting journalism model we've seen in some time, even if a good chunk of the traditional news media doesn't get or like it.

Says Diane Francis in the Huffington Post:
"Julian Assange has created a model that will be replicated, as long as the Digital Commons demands transparency and as long as juicy secrets are left around unguarded. WikiLeaks is not a business. It is a volunteer organization, based on donations, and its site is fed from servers scattered around the world. Lacking assets to seize or sue, it falls through the jurisdictional cracks and legal attempts to curb its site, based on privacy concerns, have gone nowhere in the US and other democracies."
That's a pretty great place to start. True, you have to do time in prison and be ostracized by your peers, but - hey - even Woodward and Bernstein took some hits back in the day.

To be continued tomorrow!

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