Paddy Manning's article in Crikey yesterday that prompted his dismissal by Fairfax goes to the heart of the relationship between public relations and journalism now that the newspaper business model is being destroyed by the Internet.
No doubt it makes a lot of sense to the management of the Australian Financial Review to run a series of 'soft' interviews with business leaders with sponsorship from the Commonwealth Bank. But it is advertising not journalism, because the point of the column seems to be about associating the Commonwealth Bank brand with 'business leadership' rather than holding business leaders to account or at least probing beyond the usual corporate media release guff.
The problem is, as Manning points out, that journalism sells newspapers not the advertising content:
It is reporting with fear and favour. And you know what? Nobody reads it. Educated readers -- The AFR's demographic -- hate it. Ultimately, even advertisers shun it. It's a business model for business journalism that had been tried at both The AFR and The Australian. It doesn't work.Business readers are not fools. Very often they know more about a given story than the journalist. They want the facts, balance and genuinely independent analysis and commentary. Tell it like it is.
Manning also had this broader swipe at the AFR:
The AFR's business journalism is built on a fundamental contract between company and reporter: high-level access in exchange for soft coverage.
Too often -- even for many of its own hard-pressed reporters' liking -- the result is PR-driven "churnalism" which shows up as "drops" (the poor man's exclusive, or as Verrender once wrote, the press release a day early), "herograms" for business leaders, unreadable roundtables and conference-linked spreads featuring plenty of happy snaps of business leaders with a glass of champagne or mineral water in hand.
Manning is no doubt right. The 'creeping advertorial' approach may bring in more advertising dollars in the short-term, but longer-term it corrodes the reputation of the journalistic content and, therefore, the reason why people buy the paper in the first place.
On the other hand, these are desperate times - and short of a miracle, there may not be much of a longer-term for newspapers and particularly titles like the AFR.