Shift to PR Concerns U-T’s Top Editor

Tony Manolatos Tony Manolatos 17 Comments


U-T San Diego's Jeff Light and Voice of San Diego's Scott Lewis at the San Diego County Taxpayers Association breakfast forum on Wednesday. Photo courtesy of SDCTA.


Politics & Media Mashup: your weekend news aggregator leads off with a look at the reporter-to-PR shift. Also included: Links to some of the week’s best stories about local, state and national politics as well as social and traditional media.

Jeff Light, executive editor at U-T San Diego, is concerned about the reporter-to-PR shift. So concerned that he put together this chart showing how much things have changed.

I’ve been to two breakfast forums recently, including one on Wednesday hosted by the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, that featured Light as a speaker. He brought his chart to both events. At the Taxpayers’ breakfast, Light closed by saying the increase in government PR professionals “is a story the public should be aware of.”

Since 2003, according to Light’s chart, the reporter to government spokesperson ratio has shifted from 4-to-1 to 2-to-1, and he thinks we’re headed to 1-to-1. He also thinks there will be a correction, meaning government PR professionals should expect to see fewer opportunities and more pink slips.

Fewer reporters and more media relations professionals is a bad thing in Light’s world. I get that, but I don’t agree there will be a correction. If anything, I think we will continue to see a shift toward more communications experts.

Nothing is ever going to completely replace top-notch news and feature stories written by veteran reporters, but let’s be honest — newspapers, and even TV and radio news stations, aren’t what they used to be.

Along with fewer reporters and editors, news holes (space earmarked for stories and not ads) are smaller than ever. Online news sites like have presented alternatives to traditional news outlets but most of those sites are struggling, too.

The problem is just about anyone can be a publisher now, meaning advertisers have a sea of choices. Add to that the explosion of social media, including Twitter, and blogs and it’s easy to see why politicians, government agencies, businesses and non-profits have hired so many former journalists to help take their message directly to their audience. The days of relying exclusively on the daily newspaper to reach the public (and smaller media operations who use the paper as a source) are long gone.

Locally, the U-T’s financial troubles have been a boon to the PR/media relations industry. Some of the paper’s former reporters, such as Jennifer Davies, Rachel Laing and Alex Roth, work at City Hall. They take calls from reporters, develop talking points, write op-eds, and use the web to deliver their boss’s message.

I do the very same for my clients. I understand how valuable former reporters and editors can be to people who deal with the media but have never been inside a newsroom. Before starting my own business, I worked at City Hall. That was after 13 years in newspapers, including about four at the U-T.

As for Light’s research — it drew swift reaction on Twitter during and after the Taxpayers’ breakfast.

Reporters “have no bandwidth to cover anything but “failure” stories,” tweeted Laing, press secretary for Mayor Jerry Sanders. “Who’s talking about what’s WORKING?”

Laing then tweeted that when she was a reporter she had the time to cover positive civic developments and did so. Greg Moran, a longtime U-T reporter, then tweeted: “And they were so memorable, too.”

Panelists at the breakfast disagreed on whether good news is worth reporting.

Light said the paper strives for a balance between good and bad news. Deanna Mackey, station manager at KPBS, said the station’s most popular stories are the ones about people. Scott Lewis, the CEO at Voice of San Diego, said in a world of rapidly growing PR pros delivering good news his site can’t afford to focus on anything other than hard-edge investigations.

“Media is going through an incredible change, disruption and correction right now,” Lewis told the crowd.

Here is a roundup of some of the best stories of the week:



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Tony Manolatos is a communications strategist. You can follow him on Twitter or LinkedInYou can hear Tony talk politics and media with KOGO’s LaDona Harvey every Friday at 3:35 p.m. on AM 600 and FM 95.7.

Comments 17

  1. Gerry Braun, a longtime Lion of UT politics and election coverage, was also working with Mayor Sanders the last time I heard. Braun earned respect among Political professionals through his conscious efforts to be FAIR and even-handed.

  2. Mayor Sanders has some very skilled and high-quality people doing PR for him. But that says less about the quality of his ideas than the paucity of alternatives in the private sector.

    Sanders’ recent petty swipe at VOSD for its budget problems was disingenuous: As a private company, VOSD doesn’t get compulsorily collected revenue from taxes and fees like the city of San Diego does. VOSD relies entirely on donations.

    I’d love to see Sanders put together a budget under VOSD’s circumstances.

  3. This issue raises only one question in my mind: So what. If newspaper executives are so concerned about reporters gravitating to PR jobs, they could stop eliminating the jobs of people who have been loyal to their companies for years and even decades by the hundreds. Many of my former colleagues both at the UT and other newspapers took jobs they would not have considered a few years before — perhaps you’re one of them — because after round after round of buyouts and layoffs they saw no future in a business they loved.

  4. Tweet questions I posed during the forum (140 characters only, but you get the gist, I hope)…

    So, is that an increase in PR folks, or a decrease in reporters? Maybe only a decrease in MSM* reporters?

    Is increase in PR peeps a gov’t response to perception of less historical knowledge among decreasing MSM ranks?

    *mainstream media

  5. Post

    There are numerous former reporters working in PR, here and elsewhere.

    I wouldn’t have made the switch in the late 90s/early 2000s. All I wanted to do back then was work at a big daily. I ended up working at two – The Detroit News and the U- T. Years ago, those jobs would have lasted decades or led to a spot at the NYT or Washington Post.

    I got to a point where I was done moving around, and it also was easy to see where things were headed. So I interviewed for a job at City Hall, accepted an offer and put in my notice at the paper.

    Several of my friends made similar decisions. One of them said to me: “I didn’t leave newspapers. Newspapers left me.”

  6. Tony, you are right on target. When I left broadcasting in 1994, it was a choice. Now it’s about survival. All those talented reporters who have been laid off need to work somewhere.

    With the news hole shrinking at the same time technology is making it possible to circumvent the mainstream media entirely to get your message across to your target audience, those reporters become extremely valuable. Savvy organizations are setting up their own news operations. SDSU and most of our major hospitals have incredibly talented former journalists on their staffs, doing the same job they always did. Now they’re doing it on behalf of individual organizations, governments, or elected officials. Look at what the NFL is doing. They have virtually no need for traditional media other than the actual broadcasts of their games, and since the Super Bowl was streamed live online this year, how long will it be before the NFL kisses off their pricey contracts with Fox, CBS, ABC and the like?

  7. One interesting aspect is that we now pay government workers high wages and huge benefits to get “the best and the brightest” as our “public servants.” But is this in itself good policy?

    Is it wise to have our best and brightest in government? Or should they not be in the private sector where their talents are more productive and (dare I say it?) less harmful to the rest of us.

    As I see it, government functionaries should be mostly mediocre folks holding mediocre jobs. It is truly sad to realize how many bright people are wasted in government jobs. In economics, this is called a “misallocation of resources.”

    Perhaps nowhere is this misallocation more evident than in our urban union firefighters. Not only are today’s firefighters over-educated for their occupation — they “crowd out” other less educated folks who could do the job — and used to.

  8. The shrinking news hole, in my opinion, has directly led to the increase in reporters going to government PR. The new model of government PR is not simply spokesman, reacting to reporters’ questions. With fewer opportunities to get in the newspaper, we are working on alternative and proactive ways to get our message out through email, social media and community pipelines.

  9. Post
  10. As newsrooms shrink, their overworked reporters are increasingly dependent on Public Information Officers to help them gather and understand information they once had the time and resources to gather and understand on their own. This shifts some of the costs of news gathering from the private sector to the taxpayer. And it has been accompanied by a conscious decision of many news organizations to no longer do tough watchdog reporting on private institutions that have no legal obligation to cooperate, or to respond to Public Records Act requests.

    Investigating the Catholic Church, for example, in labor-intensive and is only done by the largest and most financially secure news organizations. Investigating a water district, by contrast, is easy. Public Record Act requests can be dashed off in 15 minutes, and then the water district officials must spend hours/days/weeks gathering and arranging the records and ensuring they do not include confidential information that the agency is legally bound to protect. If the water district does not have a PIO, the work is often done by the executive director or outside counsel, at a higher cost to taxpayers. But if a government mentions any of those costs (as a county official did recently) the news organizations jump on their First Amendment soapboxes and rhapsodize on the virtues of a free and open society.

    So the dynamics of this situation are complex and cannot be done justice in a Bureau of Labor Statistics graph, or a Tweet, though I do not doubt the sincerity of those who would try to do so.

    I say all this as a witness, not a participant, these past three years working as the Director of Special Projects for Mayor Sanders. I don’t do “government PR,” but I doubt the San Diego public knows how reliant their local news organizations are on the hard-working professionals who do.

    Also, a long overdue hello to Jim Sills, whom I first met when he worked for county Supervisor Paul Fordem and I worked for the Escondido Times-Advocate. It’s nice to be referred to as a “Lion” — capitalized no less — even if only a former Lion.

  11. Someone, although I forget which media pundit, once said something akin to, “The greatest knowledge in the world is found sitting around the copy desk at any major metropolitan newspaper.”

    The “shrinking news hole” that Jonathan references has decimated the ranks of those with institutional knowledge in the mainstream media. If the copy desk still exists, those sitting there would unlikely be able to identify the Paul Fordem that Gerry mentions.

    Just look at the host of talent and knowledge commenting on this post, many once a part of the institution, if not a part of the copy desk itself. They’ve all departed, to the public sector or to become consultants. They’ve been replaced with young talent, much of it good but underpaid and overworked, and in many cases presently without cultivated sources and historical frameworks of understanding, or the colleagues to assist them in developing either one.

    The “old” talent left out of necessity or because they saw what was coming. The government entities that grabbed them were blessed to do so. The new guard at the “copy desk” or in the glassed office should consider themselves equally blessed to be able to rely on these folks for knowledge, history, perspective and guidance.

  12. If newspaper executives are so concerned about reporters gravitating to PR jobs, they could stop eliminating the jobs of people who have been loyal to their companies for years and even decades by the hundreds.

    The editors have little choice. They don’t control the companies they work for. And the companies themselves are constrained by shrinking print ad revenues.

    Finally, media companies have a long way to go with online journalism and advertising. I think much of the problem lies with tradition-minded journalists who complain about Internet journalism, often without knowing what they’re talking about:

  13. It’s a big loss for the public, though we all have to eat. It would be better if more experienced journalists could freelance and provide genuine reporting. Plenty of outlets hungry for their work though health insurance ain’t part of the deal. FYI: the IRS has held up approval of all new tax exempt media until they develop new standards. They don’t want an entire industry to become tax exempt which was previously taxable. Lots of horses are already out of the barn so this could get interesting.

  14. Slightly off point but it’s worth keeping in mind that elimination of jobs and growing lack of long-term job security is not limited to the newspaper business. For better or worse, it is how the world now operates.

  15. Alger, I think the greatest positive to come out of the pain and turmoil of the past few years are the lessons learned.

    Individuals should remember not to ever rely on someone else to provide a paycheck every other Friday, but rather to take on a greater degree of responsibility for their own well-being.

    Businesses, both those currently in operation as well as those that are still a dream, should remember to stay lean and efficient, and not to become bloated and weighed down with unrealistic long term obligations.

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