All the PR That’s Fit to Print
If you thought you were getting your news from a journalist, think again
REUTERS / Jonathan Ernst
The Gulf oil spill was 2010’s biggest story, so when David Barstow walked into a Houston hotel for last December’s hearings on the disaster, he wasn’t surprised to see that the conference room was packed. But Barstow realized as he glanced across the crowd that most of the people busily scribbling notes were not there to ask questions. They were there to answer them.
“You would go into these hearings and there would be more PR people representing these big players than there were reporters, sometimes by a factor of two or three,” Barstow says. “There were platoons of PR people.”
A New York Times reporter, Barstow has written several stories about the shoving match between the media and public relations in what eventually becomes the national dialogue. As the crowd at the hearing showed, the game is changing.
“The muscles of journalism are weakening and the muscles of public relations are bulking up—as if they were on steroids,” he says.
In their recent book, The Death and Life of American Journalism, Robert McChesney and John Nichols report that the number of U.S. journalists has fallen drastically while public relations people have multiplied at an even faster rate. In 1980, there were about 45 PR workers per 100,000 population compared with 36 journalists. In 2008, there were 90 PR people per 100,000 compared to 25 journalists. That’s a ratio of more than three to one, better equipped, better financed.
How much better?
The researcher who worked with McChesney and Nichols, R. Jamil Jonna, found that revenues at public relations agencies went from $3.5 billion to $8.75 billion between 1997 and 2007. Over the same period, paid employees at the agencies went from 38,735 to 50,499, a 30 percent growth in jobs. And those figures include only independent public relations agencies—they don’t include PR people who work for big companies, lobbying outfits, advertising agencies, nonprofits, or government.
Traditional journalism has been headed in the opposite direction. The Newspaper Association of America reported that newspaper advertising revenue dropped from a high of $49 billion in 2000 to $22 billion in 2009. A lot of that loss is due to the recession, but even the most upbeat news executive has to admit that many of those dollars are not coming back soon. Six major newspaper companies have sought bankruptcy protection in recent years.
Less money means fewer reporters and editors. The American Society of News Editors found that the number of newspaper reporters and editors hit a high of 56,900 in 1990. By 2011, the numbers had dropped to 41,600. Much of that loss has occurred since 2007. Network news did not fare any better: The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism estimates that employment there is less than half of what it was in the peak period of the 1980s.
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