Publicists, Journalists, Twitter, Attribution, Blogging, Oh My

For reasons various and stupid, I was reading through the twitter feed this morning of one of my favorite restaurant writers, Julia Kramer, and I noticed this tweet, directed at me, that I had completely missed like three months ago: "@ellit, re: content shortage+lots of blogs=qs about attribution etiquette. <--pls to write a blog post about this?? [really.]" And then later this afternoon, completely out of the blue, came an email from another restaurant writer in my personal A list, asking a related question: Why (on my work blog) do I give credit in certain posts to Ellen Malloy, who's a publicist? It's her job to get the word out about her restaurants. Why do I, asked this writer, "give her double play"?

So then I wrote this epically long email response, in which I started to crystallize all sorts of abstract thoughts that had been swirling around in my head about Twitter, and blog citation, and the blurring line between PR and journalism.

The first question is one of crediting sources. If I get a story from Twitter, no matter who it's from, I'll credit that tweet as my source, because it's public communication. Anyone can see what Ellen tweets, for example, and she does that on purpose: part of her (well-publicized) philosophy of PR is to cut out the journalistic middleman. My post about Dale Levitski taking over at Sprout is a good example: if Ellen had emailed a press release or posted information behind RIA's password-protection, I might not have credited her by name. But Twitter's public, just as public as sourcing my info from the Tribune or TOC, so it gets cited.

For stuff that appears on RIA, Ellen's members-only aggregation of news and information about her restaurant clients, the ethics of attribution is a little cloudier. The stories that are posted there are press releases, yes. But on one hand, they have a public component to them - they're linkable as sources even if you're not a journalist with a password. On the other hand, that public component isn't RSSable and it's unlikely that non-journalists are reading it.

(Still, I feel uncomfortable omitting credit, because it is essentially publicly available information. I wouldn't, for example, upload the PDF of an emailed PR blast, and I get twitchy when I see blogs that just repost release text wholesale. Even when I get a newsy press release I'll often attribute it to [Inbox] or mention that it came over the wire - I think that kind of transparency is important when it comes to creating trust between me and my readers. Off the high horse now.)

But then there is the question of attributing biased sources. While Ellen's game-changing approach to restaurant public relatinos often blurs the lines between PR and journalism, there is that fundamental thing that separates what Ellen does from what I do (or the Trib or TOC or someone with a Yelp account or whoever): she's being paid by the restaurants. As publicists go, I trust what Ellen sells me - unlike many other PRs, I don't think she tries to pass off non-stories as incredibly important breaking news - but I can't forget that it's her job to make sure that the stories that get out about her clients are positive. The objective measure of her doing her job well, as she's pointed out to me before, is butts in seats.

That's where I (and other journalists, bloggers, and people who get press releases) come in: our goal isn't butts in seats, it's to dig up news and - in some cases - to express our opinions about it. So when Ellen hands me a story (or really, since most of what RIA does is non-exclusive, I should say: when Ellen broadcasts a story and I pick up on it), my job ought to be to look at it with skepticism and then, if it passes muster, to take it beyond the press release: calling chefs for comment, providing broader-picture context (there's an example of a RIA-sourced story I didn't attribute), or - occasionally, if it's warrented - just being like "hey, this is awesome."

When I reblog folks like TOC, the Reader, etc., that additional legwork has often been done already - they start with a news nugget and garnish it with their own editorial perspective - so I don't necessarily feel obligated to embellish, just to point my readers to their insights. But with press releases, Ellen's or otherwise, I do think I've got an obligation to take it a step beyond the information I (and everyone else on the bcc list) am handed. That doesn't always happen (sometimes a release is just facts. Sometimes it's a tiny story and there isn't more to add. Sometimes it's just a painfully busy day and I literally don't have time), but I like to think that I add something to the conversation more often than not.

So then let's go off in another direction: there is, of course, always that bcc list to keep in mind. It's rare that I get my hands on a piece of information - big or small - that half a dozen other people covering my beat don't also have at the same time. Taking a release (or even an exclusive) as just a starting point is, I think, good practice among journalists in order to account for redundancy. I can't count the number of times I've stared at an empty MT input field with no idea what to do, simply because other bloggers who got the same PR blast I did had just gotten the information online faster than I could. (Argh, lunch breaks, so dangerous.)

In those cases, I'm unsure what to do. Do I kill the story completely, and hope my readers pick it up elsewhere? Do I just run the same set of facts that's already been put out there, credit the press release, and pretend I haven't seen that, say, Julia Kramer already put it up on TOC? Do I run the facts but link to TOC as a source? It's not accurate - I didn't get the news from Kramer, after all - but it makes me look like less of a dick. Is the goal here to avoid looking like a dick?

But if I stick to the high-hat tenets of journalistic obligation that I got into above, this "take the facts and then add value" thing, then it alleviates that concern: I've got my own angle to add to the story ("angle" in this case could be as little as a stupid pun or as big as an interview with the chef), so my readers (who probably overlap significantly with TOC's, LTH's, Gaper's Block's, Chicagoist's, the Reader's, the Stew's, and probably Ellen's) don't feel like they're trapped in an echo chamber.

Of course all this depends on news being good and interesting, and sources being compliant, and the internet not failing, and people caring about what I have to say, and my mental bad-pun-generator firing on all cylinders. It's not perfect. It never is.


Michael said...

1) I think you're right to credit Twitter; it is often essentially news, regardless of who sent it and why, and Ellen for example IS a personality in that medium, though not a journalist. There may only be 100 people to whom she's a personality, but that's the point of Twitter-- microuniverses for fast-breaking news/gossip/whatever in which everyone's an outlet.

2) Beyond Twitter, Big Journalism has almost never credited where stories come from; bloggers mostly do. This is not to Big Journalism's credit. If I get a freebie, or some info, or whatever, I would feel funny about not saying how I came by it, but obviously journalism has a considerable interest in NOT having to say "I picked up this information at a dinner in Georgetown consisting solely of members of one party dishing dirt on the other, and was able to confirm it with the help of a State Department source who was using me to make his boss look bad and a lobbyist who hopes to land a big contract later." But it would sure be more fun if they did.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this, Helen. I do think a lot of journalists are occasionally not too sure how to deal with a PR firm that is looking to change the game and I appreciate open conversation on the topic.

I, too, have had all sorts of abstract thoughts swirling around in my head about PR and journalism, though I don't believe it is a blurring line. I think there is quite a firm line drawn in the sand and I, for one, never intend on crossing it.

Journalists are great writers, great investigators, great reflectors. Their contribution to the conversation in food, in my mind, is best served with a big dose of reportage and investigation, perspective of how something impacts our world and creative, careful writing.

Publicists are paid to promote. While we at RIA have a very strong "bullshit detector" in the form of our PReditor, aptly named for her reaction to fluffy, inaccurate, spin-y news, we still are in business to get the message out for our clients.

The real point of pain that RIA is trying to resolve with our disruptive technology is that there just aren't enough outlets to get out all the news that restaurants are able to tell and diners want to know. The outlets, moreover, that may pick up on one bit of the story, don't necessarily have enough reach to make a significant enough impact with that one bit of news to actually impact the restaurant's bottom line.

So what we are trying to do is give our clients more reach. We first built technology to distribute to media as that is the one part of the puzzle clients understand most. They think: Get me in X publication and I can then feel I have done my part in getting the word out.

But of course that isn't true. If it were true, no one would have ever advertised and, gasp, there would be no "Mad Men."

So we then started repackaging news, adding more interesting bits of information, and getting the word out to concierges. Since most restaurants don't have extensive concierge programs, this has proven to be a great service.

Next, we started aggressively distributing news on Twitter, through my feed. It seems to be working as I see the numbers of my followers climb. People want more information about restaurants.

And yes, in the pipeline are more plans to push outside the boundaries of traditional PR and get the word out to networks beyond just media. We owe our clients that kind of thinking because we all know that the amount of traditional space devoted to restaurant coverage will continue to slide down a slippery slope. And the number of restaurants doing great reportable things will continue to rise, crowding the available space ever more.

I suppose from my vantage point, I would love for journalists to stop worrying that I am competing with them. We just develop content for restaurants and find every network we can to reach out to potential audiences. We churn out our clients' news bites from a rather small staff. We have one writer. One. He's awesome but I think kinda tired right now. We are NOT in the business of composing long, reflective and perspective-laden pieces that engage audiences.

It is a good thing, helping restaurants find more customers, so they can stay in business and keep doing interesting things so great journalists have good stories to write.

Hope that helps.

Marcin said...

I live in England. Most of our news is made up. Time Out London either lies for money, or is very very poorly researched, or terribly out of date (I mention it because it is the premier entertainment magazine and website for London). So, none of this really struck a chord.

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