Jul 19, 2011

Journalism: Stealing News


News Analysis
VETERAN COLUMNIST FIRED BECAUSE HE PLAGIARIZED A NEWS RELEASE      It has now been over a week since the Kansas City Star publicly flogged and then fired 31-year veteran Steve Penn for plagiarizing information from press releases and running it pretty much "as is."

    Penn was never going to be confused with Ernest Hemingway. His columns focused on the inner city (see Lewis Diuguid) and often sounded like they came from puff news releases generated by minority PR firms. 

    But that still didn't reduce the shock that he was fired. That the Star did it so publicly was even more shocking.

    It clearly sent a message that there is a new sheriff publisher at the helm of the Star.
    It would be almost unthinkable that former Star President & Publisher Mark Zieman would have done this to a minority columnist during his reign. 

    It was Zieman who instituted a policy where if three people are quoted in a story at least one must be a minority or female. It made little difference if they actually said anything quotable. They just had to be quoted for "diversity" reasons. He also pushed the disastrous "Rise Up" magazine that focused on diversity and disappeared in a few months. 

    But, I digress...

    As one who has been in the news release writing game for three decades all I can say is: "Journalists can get fired for stealing information from news releases?"

    Holy crap!!!  I bet there are literally hundreds of journalists shaking in their boots today with that news.  

    I contacted a friend who has been in this PR racket for even more years than me and he was equally stunned by Penn's transgressions. 

   "Well, hell, I thought that's what we supposed to do as PR pros. We write stuff, send it out, and let the media do with it what they want," he responded. 

   "I never expected to be attributed and when a release ran verbatim, it was a small, quiet victory for me. We believed we were helping both our clients/companies and the media." 
    In reality, on the PR side of the business, the definition of a good news release is one that could be virtually cut and pasted into a newspaper story.  

     During my career I have had news releases quoted almost verbatim from start to finish in newspapers with no attribution whatsoever. While this has been particularly true in smaller newspapers with limited staffs, it certainly has occurred in major newspapers across the country.  

    If I managed to get a president of a company to say something of interest (not an easy task) in a news release it was common that some reporter would simply plug it into his/her story.
   Attribute it to my news release?  Dream on! 

   Would I care if I was given credit?  Never!

   With media outlets shrinking on a daily basis and reporters often called on to write on topics they have virtually no knowledge of, a well-written news release can make all the difference whether a company is quoted in a story or not.

    Note to all journalists: Feel free to steal every piece of information from my news releases. Don't even bother to mention that the info came directly from my release. I just want your story to be accurate (and hopefully mention my client positively). 

    If the information that appears in a newspaper comes from a news release I wrote and been approved by my client, I can guarantee it will be accurate. Use it any way you wish.

    It will be our little secret.

Hmmmm.  Coincidentally, PR Guy John Landsberg wrote these same words 8 hours earlier.

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