ELAYNE RIGGS: Polly wanna press release!
When I was first offered the position as ComicMix‘s news editor, Mike Gold outlined his vision for how I was to treat press releases. Rather than parroting verbatim everything I read or was sent, I should first determine the release’s newsworthiness, then I should rewrite everything that I felt merited ComicMix‘s attention in my own words wherever possible.
I could not have been more delighted.
I think you readers probably sense how rare this is, particularly in today’s media-saturated and propaganda-laden world. To be fair, the notion of a supposedly free press on bended knee before the people and stories it covers has been spoken of in the U.S. since at least the Reagan era if not before, but the lapdog evolution seems to have accelerated exponentially under the current administration. So, now more than ever, it behooves journalists to try to shoot down that sorry legacy wherever possible.
But hey, this isn’t world-shaking events, it’s pop culture. What’s the big deal?
The big deal for me has to do with the constant conflation of providing actual news with filling the need for websites to have new content on a daily, even hourly basis for fear of losing eyeballs and facing a corresponding drop in ad revenue. And that’s a by-product of, and to be expected in, our hyper-capitalist society. But that’s presumably where the difference between quality and quantity comes to the fore.
At this point I feel I should step back and assure you that I believe press releases have their place, and I don’t blame other pop culture news sites — many of which are run by personal friends — for repeating them verbatim. That’s one reason I don’t feel the need to; so many others have already done that job. I don’t consider my standards to be necessarily higher, just different. This could be due to my ready admission that I’m an opinion writer rather than a trained journalist. (No, not all bloggers are automatically journalists, although there are any number of writers out there who are good at both.) So perhaps I approach press releases differently than someone with more journalistic experience.
For instance, when I read a press release from a big comics company whose entire point is that such-and-such a book has sold out its print run, the first question I ask myself is "What was the print run? How many actually sold?" After all, this information is readily available after the fact from a number of sources (ICV2 comes to mind), so it shouldn’t be any sort of secret. Yet of all the press releases I’ve read in the two months I’ve been at this ComicMix gig, only one has given an approximate number for the press run which sold out, and that was the item I ran because that was actual news.
Without that vital bit of information, an announcement of a sold-out print run becomes virtually meaningless — is it truly newsworthy if a well-heeled company only prints around 20,000 copies, or a smaller company only 5,000, and demand happened to exceed supply? The companies know it isn’t, so they obscure the actual facts in favor of making themselves look good. Result: There’s no "there" there, and I probably won’t report on it.
Likewise, a press release announcing an upcoming Event, in this age of Event over-saturation, usually isn’t newsworthy either. Comics companies announce upcoming titles at most every convention, and that’s where the initial reports are posted on the usual websites. Unless something changes, I don’t treat "Ground-breaking Event coming soon!" press releases as news either.
Lastly, I recognize a lot of what comes out of comics companies as of interest only to a very specific audience that sometimes doesn’t consist of readers. I may mention that a title will have sales incentives and discounts for retailers, but I probably won’t publish too many intricacies because those retailers will likely have already received the information as well, and most readers who aren’t retailers will doubtless find their eyes glossing over a table of ratios.
So much of what comes into my in-box seems to be PR as opposed to news! As a pop culture enthusiast I certainly have no problem with the idea of fluff, but what I’ve found out is that in trying to reinterpret much of the fluff I find it turning to nothingness, leaving nothing more to write about than something along the lines of the obvious — "Company A thinks its stuff is cool and wants you to buy it!" And that doesn’t do service to anyone.
What do you think? Is wanting to report actual news instead of regurgitating spoon-fed propaganda a sign of naiveté, or canniness? Is it all so much pointless grumbling about a system that’s not going to change and therefore leaves me out in the cold, or is there still some value in distinguishing oneself by separating the wheat from the chaff? (And don’t threshing machines do all that now anyway?) As long as pop culture sites don’t go overboard as paeans to power in a Fox News-like manner, isn’t it okay for them to be E! or CNN and read what they’re given instead of having to interpret everything? Isn’t putting things in your own words just too much work, even if most of your items are short snippets? Aren’t we getting just a little carried away here?
I can’t help it. I think I’ve imprinted on Keith Olbermann. Darn him for being an actual skilled journalist.
But what it really comes down to is, chacon a son gout. To everyone according to their own taste. Some folks like meat, others like cotton candy, and then there’s folks like me who look at press releases skeptically and with not a little snark and who go for sushi every time. Go figure. Bonjour, and bon chance.
Elayne Riggs is news editor for ComicMix, where she writes just about all her news item copy that isn’t in quotes or added by Mike Gold. She also blogs daily at Pen-Elayne on the Web, also pretty much in her own words.