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Transparent to opaque: Collapse of conventional journalism has reporters fleeing to PR, taking tricks of the trade with them

by Terry Boyd

(Editor’s note: This post was updated at 4:40 p.m. on May 23. Due to a reporting error, the original post and chart misstated where Tony Hyatt works in city government. Hyatt is a spokesman for the 17 members of the Louisville Metro Council. This post and the chart will be updated later with additional names.)

The transitional periods in American society are always the toughest.

Agrarian to industrial. Segregated to integrated.

The ongoing tumult as we move to a convergent digital media society from an analog/print model.

Everyone knows the conventional media are dying, shedding journalists left and right.

Digital information delivery is growing, but we haven’t reached the revenue levels in Louisville where Insider Louisville or anyone else is robust enough to cover all the important news.

Surviving conventional journos are beaten down, their idealism, natural curiosity and enthusiasm muted by corporate conformity and staff cuts.

So, there’s this coverage gap into which so many important stories fall these days.

Which means the schemers in goverment and the corporate C-suites can get away with almost anything short of putting their felony-prone grandsons on the government payroll.

What no one gets is how big a threat this painful transition is to American democracy and government transparency.

Because all those people who were holding government officials and corporations accountable yesterday rapidly are fleeing to the other side of the ledger, being paid – paid well – to make this a more opaque society.

As ex-reporters, they get paid twice as much as reporters, using their insider knowledge of the “news” game to create what are euphemistically called “media strategies.”

Translated, this means, “What are the best tactics in our war to polish our boss’s image while thwarting the public’s right to know?”

Not that any media is particularly interested in watchdog journalism or any story that doesn’t have Richie Farmer or Barbara Shanklin’s grandson in it.

Insider Louisville can identify a dozen stories that, if we had the resources, we’d take on, from the KFC Yum! Arena bond issue to the Kentucky State Fair Board to public employee retirment funds to the abuse of state and local tax incentives programs. And in the not too distant future, we will.

While not hugely sexy, these are scandals that will cost taxpayers for decades to come, and may dramatically alter state and local goverments’ abilities to function.

An egregious example is the March, 2011 explosion that wrecked Carbide Industries and killed two workers.

Carbide Industries uses what is essentially a huge furnace to turn quick lime into acetylene – a very hazardous process that produces a very hazardous product.

The CJ never was very interested in this story. The fact that Carbide Industries could have blown up the neighborhood lacked  key ingredients – sports connections, a press release and an easy target. A “bad guy.”

The TV stations were there until there was no more sensational fire footage. Then they lost interest.

But the scandal didn’t emerge until six months after the explosion when Carbide Industries officials announced they were going to ask for state tax incentives to rebuild!

Insider Louisville finally got hold of a Kentucky Labor Cabinet/Kentucky Occupational Safety and Health report indicating Carbide Industries officials had run the furnace with virtually no maintenance or safety precautions until it blew up.

So think about this: In a state that is functionally bankrupt, taxpayers are going to reward the company with $6 million in economic development incentives for killing its employees.

State and city officials have assured us it is perfectly legal to award Carbide Industries millions in tax breaks so they can do it all over again. And the goverment media people will write glowing press releases and speeches about Carbide Industries’ rebirth.

Before you say to yourself, “God, what’s Boyd goin’ on about now,” let me show you something interesting.

I spent about 10 minutes making a list of all the local reporters who now are in public affairs/media relations:

This is just the list I came up with off the top of my head, maybe 10 percent of all the journalists who’ve gone over to the Dark Side.

And dig this – the Bartlett/Poynter/Hyatt triumvirate at City Hall/Metro Council costs taxpayers a total of $223,000. A quarter of a million dollars annually for doing what, I don’t know outside of talking on the phone to their former colleagues at the CJ.

I’m not saying these are bad people for switching sides. Most – sure as hell not all – are incredibly professional, responsive to media queries in their new roles.

Some left journalism years ago chasing higher salaries and and a normal, 9-to-5 working life. But lately, reporters increasingly are switching sides involuntarily because their media employers are crumbling.

And let’s face it … all have fiduciary responsibilities to support families, an obligation that trumps any journalistic altruism.

But in their roles as media relations/public relations executives, they are charged with optimizing the public perception of their companies or bosses. That’s what they get paid for.

They are effective precisely because they understand not only how reporters think, but how reduced reporters are in resources and resolve, increasingly dependent on being fed by PR.

This is from their super secret media strategy playbook:

Lesson One: Always send out a press release. Gannett newspapers such as the CJ are operating on less than half the staff they had 20 years ago.They will essentially run press releases on even the most important issues in lieu of actually spending time reporting. The last actual journalism in this town happened back when Patrick Howington was trying to report on the hospital merger. Howington left the CJ last month.

Lesson Two: Never let your under-attack pol or CEO do a live interview. Why? Because it’s not the initial obvious question that gets to the truth, it’s the follow-up question. No live interview, no zeroing in on what’s really going on.

Lesson Three: A variation on Lesson Two. Always control the conversation. Make reporters submit questions in advance. Answer each question with a vague, canned response: “We are aware of the situation and addressing it internally.” If the reporter persists, go to the righteous indignation default mode: “Ms. Jones, we’ve answered your question to the best of our ability.”

Lesson Four: A variation on Lesson Three – If you must give a live interview, grant your audience to someone who will swallow whole what you’re selling. Avoid the Philip Baileys, Dan Klepals, Chris Otts and Marcus Greens. Go for Voice-Tribune and Business First reporters.

Lesson Five:  Stall. Every former reporter knows there’s an editor breathing down a current reporter’s neck, wanting that copy now. If  the reporter can’t get the story, the content-challenged editor always says, “Just wrap it up and move on.” No in-depth public service reporting ever got done by a reporter answering to an editor whose default mode is, “Just move on.”

Lesson Six: Always take an inquiry from the aggressive reporter and pass it on to a captive reporter, who gets the story first and kills the first reporter’s momentum. Another variation of this: When you get a query on a sensitive topic from a reporter, immediately issue a preemptive  press release about the subject and let the other media beat the enterprising reporter to the punch.

Lesson Seven: Always have a press conference on a Friday morning if the topic is something you don’t want to talk about. Because Fridays and weekends are when the public doesn’t pay attention.

Lesson Eight: Put up barriers to everything. Make reporters use the Freedom of Information Act to get the time of day.

Lesson Nine: Always feed complex stories to the print reporter first so television reporters will have a reference as they prepare their standups and B-roll. Also, remember to play reporters off each other knowing print reporters generally are introverts, and TV reporters showboats.

Lesson Ten: Either cultivate reporters through exclusives and vague promises of a potential job, or belittle them in public when they make the smallest of mistakes. Either way, you take them mentally out of the game in a business where everyone already is demoralized. When circumstances permit, go over the meddlesome reporter’s head and have a “we just can’t work with this person” conversation with the top editor or publisher. Just a friendly “thought you should know” talk between equals.

Failing all this, use the the University of Louisville’s brilliant media plan on the proposed hospital merger – they refused to discuss any issues, claiming the high moral ground of, “This is too complicatedfor you to understand/sensative.”

Sure, the merger failed. This time. But really, in public affairs, it’s just a waiting game till the next opportunity arises to get everything you want.

To paraphrase the late, great Molly Ivins, “It’s bad enough watching the media die. But what’s really painful is watching it commit suicide.”

 

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