Why Journalists Aren’t Loved

The first reviews for Loose Wire the book are beginning to trickle in and I’m beginning to get a sense of what it’s like on the other side of the fence. First off, you can understand why us journalists aren’t well liked: If we are pleasant to people when we interview them the interviewee goes away thinking that a good write-up is assured — what sicko would be nice to someone in person and rude to them in print? Secondly, we can so easily make mincemeat of a product, a book, a service, a company that may have taken years of sweat, toil and marital peace to create. A few clicks on our keyboard and all that seems to be undone.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly for the growth of the blogosphere as a form of journalism, there’s a growing blur online between the subject and the writer. No longer, it seems, are writers constrained by conflicts of interest or the appearance of conflicts of interest: We write about anything and anyone, whether or not we have an interest, such as a friendship, a financial stake or whatever. (And yes, lots of people declare those interests, but that doesn’t stop them writing about it.) Nowadays, smart PR people woo journalists and influential bloggers in the hope that when the time comes to write about their product/service/company, they’ll feel inspired by the friendship to write something nice, or constrained by the friendship to not write something negative. This may not be a conscious goal, of course, but the assumption can easily be proven once the article is out: Did they feel a tad hurt that they didn’t get special treatment for all that prior relationship building?

In my case, the first three reviews have been written by people I know — one of them a long-standing friend — so perhaps, like any interviewee, I couldn’t avoid the feeling that this person will do me a favor by writing something nice. Now on the other side of the fence, I can see how people might feel journalists are a two-faced bunch, being friendly over the phone or in person and then not writing something so friendly in print. But of course, our job is not about being nice, at least once pen hits paper. Then we need to think about our relationship with our readers, not with the person we’re writing about.

That said, you’d think I was setting up a posting that said the reviews were awful. They weren’t. The first batch of Jakarta reviews were not bad (the book is available on Amazon already,  but our first two launches have been in Indonesia cos that’s where I and my publisher live. More pix of the launches here.). Two of them are in Indonesian, one from the country’s largest circulation daily Kompas and one from Sinar Harapan, an afternoon paper, both of which did a fair job.

The only English language paper (OK, there’s another, but I’ve not seen it yet), the Jakarta Post, ran a review this morning, based in part on an interview I gave last week. The writer, young Australian journalist Jonathan Dart, felt that “it is full of useful tips and insights — but an advanced manual on modern technology it is not.” Fair enough; we make no claims to being that. His conclusion, however, is a positive one:

he’s also managed to do something which few technology writers — or species nerdus to be exact — have managed, a feat which is quite possibly a world first: He’s built a loyal fan-base of readers, many of whom would be comfortable in a social environment.

Jonathan did a pretty good job, and, I’m glad to say, didn’t appear swayed by our pleasant 90 minute chat during which I promised untold riches if he focused on my rugged good looks in his review. I’ve learned a lesson or two, though: Maybe we journalists need to manage the expectations of our subjects better — to prepare them for the reality that however much we like them as people, we’re not being paid to like them. We’re paid to represent the interests of our readers. But it might help to warn folk beforehand.

PS, thanks to the very nice and interesting Sharon Bakar, with whom I shared a panel recently, who recently wrote up her thoughts about the discussion here.

15. October 2006 by jeremy
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