Supply and Demand
There are a lot of people in the world -- editors and writers among them -- who spend a big chunk of their time pursuing information. And there are a lot of people -- publicists, media specialists, PR folks -- who spend their time dispensing information. Sounds like a great arrangement. You just hook up the gatherers with the providers and everybody is happy.
Unfortunately, it's not that easy. The information the PR types are trying to disseminate is usually not what the journalists are after. From the journalism side, it always feels as though you're outnumbered, especially if you are part of a small staff where there's no place to hide.
It's easy to become jaded -- and truthfully, a little arrogant -- and assume that everybody in the world is out to pitch a story. This is especially true on a day when the phone rings every five minutes and e-mailed press releases pop up constantly on the computer screen. Everybody is looking for his 15 minutes -- on your nickel, or so it seems.
Sometimes, a little lesson in perspective -- to say nothing of humility -- is in order. I had a pretty good one several weeks ago when we were working on the December issue.
That particular issue included a story on wealth management -- a straightforward "service piece" designed to provide useful information to our readers. Matthew Monroe, an Atlanta freelancer, had the assignment. We had agreed he would interview several wealth managers around the state, ask them what advice they were giving to their clients, then write up their responses.
Not long after we talked, I got a phone call from a man who identified himself as a wealth manager and asked me to confirm that a writer named Matthew Monroe was working on a story for us. Yes, he is, I told him.
The man wanted to know what the story was about. Fair enough. I gave him the general drift and was waiting for him to say, "Great. I'll be happy to talk to him."
Instead, he wanted to know if he would get to read the story before it appeared in print.
No, I said. It doesn't work that way. He seemed surprised. Why not? Because credible, responsible publications don't allow people they're writing about to read the copy before publication.
He wanted to know how he could feel comfortable talking to a reporter. How did he know we'd get it right?
Because we work hard and take a lot of care to get things right, I said, a little snappishly.
Feeling as though I was speaking to a Journalism 101 class, I talked about the process of reporting, writing and editing stories. I talked about the differences between journalism and public relations. I talked about being fair to readers, giving them our best, most accurate effort. That includes verifying information but not allowing anyone in the story to "spin" or censor it. I was on a roll.
I concluded by saying if he felt uncomfortable being part of the story, then he should simply decline to be interviewed and we'd find someone else to talk to.
He asked again how anyone we talked to would know he or she was going to be quoted accurately.
At this point, I departed from my standard spiel and said something like, "You know, we don't just walk out in the parking lot and ask if there's anybody there who wants to write a story for us. We use staff writers or experienced freelance journalists."
I suggested that he read a copy of Georgia Trend. "We are a serious magazine, " I said. "We treat serious subjects seriously." We do our work carefully and if we make a mistake, we own up to it.
I even said to him that it was strange to be spending time trying to convince someone to be in the magazine, especially in such a "low risk," non-controversial story. We're usually trying to fend off people who would stand on their heads for such an opportunity.
We ended our conversation amicably, but neither of us quite understood the other's point. He was not quoted in the magazine.
The story, however, turned out well. There is a large pool of well-informed wealth managers willing to talk -- and they had interesting things to say.
But I failed in my efforts to win over one particular source, and that still rankles.