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Friday, April 22, 2005

Between writing computer programs and books about computers, Paul Graham has turned out an essay on the symbiosis between journalists and the public relations industry that should get him a degree in mass communication research... not that he needs another degree.

Graham proposes an online sport that he calls "PR diving" -- using Google to find key phrases from press releases as they make their way through magazines, newspapers and websites. Journalism students should give it a try.

His example is a "trend" story about men supposedly wearing suits more -- a story picked up by wire services, national magazines and newspapers from Boston to Detroit.

"I doubt PR firms realize it yet," Graham writes, "but the Web makes it possible to track them at work. If you search for the obvious phrases, you turn up several efforts over the years to place stories about the return of the suit. "

Graham's comments on the professions of journalism and public relations are sharp and thoughtful. As someone whose startup company was helped by a major public relations firm, he knows the benefits of a good publicity campaign as well as the phoniness of "buzz" like that dress-suit story.

He observes, correctly, that publicity campaigns work because some reporters are lazy, some are overworked and some are vain or have other weaknesses for PR pitches, and that some publications still have higher standards than others.

Finally, he poses the interesting idea that an honest, natural style of writing found on weblogs might be less susceptible to PR's buzz and spin:

"Whatever its flaws, the writing you find online is authentic. It's not mystery meat cooked up out of scraps of pitch letters and press releases, and pressed into molds of zippy journalese. It's people writing what they think."

Since, as Graham notes, the public relations industry already has blogs in its sights, maybe bloggers will wind up feeling like Evan Hill did 50 years ago, when he complained of that era's equivalent of spam in Handouts to the Country Editor.

7:25:06 PM    

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