I’ve known Pete Lewis for some time, going back to his days laying the groundwork for how The New York Times covers technology.
After Pete moved to Fortune to practice long-form journalism – or at least a longer form than The NYT – and later took up teaching at Stanford’s J school, I lost touch.
Until we ended up sitting at the same table at the 2010 Innovation Journalism Conference put on by Stanford and David Nordfors.
It turned out that Pete had conducted training sessions to help scientists communicate their stories. As I learned more about Pete’s curriculum, his work sounded similar to our storytelling workshop.
Later chats at the Coupa Café spiraled into a conclusion –
If we combined our curriculums as well as our expertise – a mashing of journalism and public relations – the result would be a killer workshop on storytelling.
And we’ve been jointly conducting these workshops ever since.
To delve more into Pete’s way of thinking, he was good enough to answer a few questions.
Q: Do you think there’s a greater emphasis on today’s business journalists to entertain as well as inform and educate compared to when you started at The Register in 1980?
A: It’s complicated. The media landscape was quite different when I put out the Farm/Business section at The Des Moines Register. I don’t recall the terms “entertain” and “business journalism” ever being uttered in the same sentence, perhaps because it’s a challenge to be entertaining when writing about pork bellies and soybeans.
Today, three decades later, business news is a commodity just like corn and hogs. People looking for business news have literally hundreds of news sources available 1,440 minutes a day. The basic news is all the same: The Dow rose or fell X points, Company Y reported earnings, Joe and Martha opened a new store. Basic accuracy in reporting is assumed, so news providers need to differentiate themselves to be heard. Some choose speed, some choose analysis, some choose entertainment.
Q: Is there a psychology to this issue?
A: When confronted with seemingly limitless amounts of news and information, human nature is to choose the easiest path. For a distressingly large percentage of citizens, this means celebrity news and passive entertainment. Publishers recognize this and begin pandering to the Click Monster. Our media moguls select and package the news accordingly. That’s why Steve Jobs is regularly on the cover of Fortune, why The New York Times rarely writes about Silicon Valley companies other than Google, Facebook and Apple, and why The New York Post covers the recent stock market turmoil with Page One headlines like this:
Sidenote: On the positive side, it’s good to see even The New York Post has embraced infographics.
Q: When you reflect on your interactions with public relations while writing for The New York Times and Fortune – hopefully, not a painful exercise – are there a few common themes of PR consistently missing the mark?
A: None that hasn’t been belabored already. I could not have done my job at The New York Times or Fortune without the help of PR professionals to call potential stories to my attention. The very best of them followed my writing, knew the kinds of things I write about, and didn’t waste my time or theirs by pitching too far outside the strike zone. They were prepared and could answer basic questions or put me in touch with people who could. They built a long-term relationship by passing along newsworthy tidbits that had nothing to do with their clients. Horror stories? “I’ll do anything to get this story in The Times, Mister Lewis … anything!” Or, “My boss is going to fire me if this story doesn’t get in The Times.” Or, “Listen, Pete, I’m offering you a cookie … the vice president of marketing wants to give you an exclusive.”
Q: A cookie?
A: Yes, a cookie.
Now, there’s an ominous note to end the first part of the interview.
I’ll post the second half of my interview with Pete on Thursday.