The Commoditization of News Releases Ends the Free Lunch for Journalists

As best as I can piece the data together, the three largest news release distribution services (PR Newswire, BusinessWire and Marketwire) sent out roughly 642,000 news releases in 2013.

If you’re keeping score, that’s about 1,759 news releases per day.

Too much of a good thing becomes a bad thing. You can quote me on that. Put a half gallon of rocky road ice cream in front of Fat Albert, and even he’ll turn away before he hits bottom.

Exacerbating this dynamic, the ranks of journalists continue to decline. The number of reporters toiling in newsrooms is actually less today than in 1978 according to the Pew Research Center.

Pew Newsroom Workforce 2013 stats

The upshot – more news releases raining down on fewer journalists.

But explaining the commoditization of the news release as a form of supply-demand economics misses the root cause.

When distribution of the news release reached only the domain of the media, journalists enjoyed a free lunch. With little effort, they could write stories based on a news release, and those stories appeared fresh to their readers because they couldn’t find them elsewhere. This advantage disappeared around 1996 when news release distribution services started flinging out news releases to the masses via the Internet.

Stepping back in time for a moment, the timeline below offers the 10,000-foot view of how news release distribution has evolved.

Hoffman Infographic- Short history of distributing news releases

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<div align="center"><a href=" http://www.ishmaelscorner.com/2014/02/26/the-commoditization-of-news-releases-ends-the-free-lunch-for-journalists” title=" The Commoditization of News Releases Ends the Free Lunch for Journalists"><img src="http://www.ishmaelscorner.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/01_23_timeline_newsdist_500pixelswide_zpsc46ad8b2-2.jpg?utm_source=infographic&utm_medium=main&utm_campaign=infographic" alt=" Infographic- the history of distributing news releases” style="border:none;" /></a><br /> <small>The Hoffman Agency is a public relations firm that emphasizes storytelling in <a href="http://www.hoffman.com">business communication</a></small>.</div>

Journalists had a 90-year run of leveraging the news release as non-public information. When the gravy train ended in 1996, it changed everything, though it took some time to erode the status quo. Muscle memory doesn’t change so easily in the world of journalism.

Now, roughly 18 years since earmarking news releases for the public domain, it seems fair to say the commoditization of the news release is complete.

Given that journalists rarely write from news releases these days, why does the massive effort behind news releases – figure around 10 man hours per news release at $175 per hour translating into $3,078,082 of cost last year – continue?

That’s a good question.

Disclosure requirements explain only a small percent of the total pool. Plus, I’m sure this $3,078,082 number doubles or even triples taking into the account the news releases not earmarked for paid distribution.

Perhaps the PR industry has its own challenge with muscle memory.

Update: I rejoiced when I completed geometry in high school and my math education came to an end. So I wasn’t completely surprised when Chris Hogg pointed out that my math went astray in calculating how much money goes into the production of a news release. The correct number is $3,078,082 per day, not year.


Comments

  • Jayme Soulati

    Lou, this is #RockHot! I love it. I wonder if you just let the PRist’s secret out of the bag? Someone continuing to sell news release distribution as media relations?

    Clients are getting smarter and asking the right questions about the value news releases on “wires” brings.

    There are still reasons to write them, but regarding the one-off as success isn’t value.

    Reply
    • hoffman

      Jayme,

      Sorry for the tardy reply.

      You’re right about the news release still having a place in the communications mix. It’s more a matter of emphasis. As best as I can calculate (with help from a colleague) the PR profession spends around $1B in time producing news releases over the course of a year. What percent of this time is wasted? It’s sizable.

      Reply
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  • Joe Kelly

    Agree 100%, Lou. None of this is the fault of the press release or the journalist, of course. Responsibility sits fairly and squarely with the PR ‘profession’ (in-house and agency) which has decided that bombarding the world with nonsense masquerading as news can show we’re busy and can justify agency fee income. Wrote this last year on the topic (http://www.thecommsdept.co.uk/in-defence-of-the-press-release/). Am now working on a blog which I will headline ‘stop stealing time’ because too much of what we do as an industry does just that: It steals the time of already busy people who we define as ‘important to us’. Go figure!.

    Reply
    • hoffman

      Appreciate the perspective Joe. It’s definitely sobering how much money gets wasted on crafting news releases with undeserving content. While the responsibility does fall on PR, I think it’s also fair to say that the executives who demand lame information be repackaged as a news release fit into the equation. BTW, great line in your March 2014 post: “… refashioning the press release as an unloaded blunderbuss in a world that requires marksmen.”

      Reply

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