The dark side of custom publishing

It’s no secret that companies are becoming their own publishers. More and more, companies are hiring journalists to write stories, create graphics, and produce video and audio for their websites. That’s creating a great new market and new opportunities for writers.

But there is a dark side of this trend. Namely, it’s killing the traditional communications channels between companies and journalists. It’s taking advantage of and probably hastening the death of traditional media. It gives companies an ever larger megaphone to shout out their news while shutting off communication in the other direction. Given the decimation of independent news publications, it’s getting harder and harder to find accurate information on a company.

If you’re an independent journalist, you may have noticed:

• Fewer press releases. Companies are putting out fewer releases, and some plan to stop altogether. The head of Coca Cola’s digital communications and social media strategy has a goal of phasing out all press releases by 2015. Instead, the company is relying on its own digital magazine, for which it has hired a complete editorial staff, to tell the stories it wants to tell. I won’t mourn the passing of the press release. Most of them are useless. But they do make it easier to check facts when a company makes a major announcement, such as an acquisition or earnings report.

• More corporate-generated “news.” Corporations have always tried to spin the news. But with the emergence of corporate news hubs and digital magazines, many companies are mixing press releases, articles by their own staff, articles by outside magazines, corporate videos, podcasts and blogs. Check out the “newsroom” at Cisco, for example. Unless I hover over the little icon, I don’t know whether it’s a press release, an outside article, or an audio/video clip. It peeves me that I have to spend a couple minutes sorting through a hodgepodge of material guessing what each icon means before I can search the material. Then I have to figure out where the hell the search/sort function is. On the Cisco site, there is no obvious way to call up all press releases and sort them by topic. The other material, with the exception of some of the outside articles, usually offers little value for reporters. And even if a video, webcast or podcast has good information, few reporters have the time to sit through a 30-minute (or longer) presentation just to find out.

• Less, and less independent, coverage of companies by traditional media. There used to be more magazines and newspapers that would report thoroughly and independently, presenting facts, opinions and insights that good reporting uncovers. Today, when I do my initial research for a story on a company, I find a dwindling number of independent articles. Much of what I find links back to the same news story from AP, Bloomberg or Reuters, or even back to a company press release or custom-published article.

• Disappearing media relations people. If I need to reach a company to request an interview, check a fact or just give it a chance to confirm or deny a published report, it’s hard to find the name of an actual person with an actual e-mail. It’s a rare golden day if I find a phone number for someone I can actually call. (They probably won’t answer, but I can at least leave a voice mail, usually.) This information used to be de rigueur, both on press releases and corporate websites, but it’s disappearing fast.

As more companies use their own publications and social media like Twitter as primary information channels, while ignoring phone calls and e-mails from outside writers, what will be the result? Will more writers need to do more old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting? If I can’t get someone from the company to respond, then maybe I go camp out at its headquarters and try to nab the CEO, 60-Minutes style. What do you do when you can’t get reach a live person at a company or even find a press release? What’s the best way to shake a company’s tree? I’m eager to hear about your stories and tips, and will share them in a future blog post. E-mail me at


  1. Howard Baldwin July 16, 2014 at 11:27 am - Reply

    Tam, you make some great points, but I don’t think the obstacles you’re running into are anything new. For as long as I’ve been in journalism, there have been corporate media relations and PR people who keep their workload to a minimum simply by ignoring journalists’ queries. There have always been companies who have to entice journalists to write about them, and companies who are trendy enough that they don’t. The shift in corporate publishing hasn’t changed that.

    As for the web sites themselves, I would advise you to heed the old Robert Hanlon quote, “Never ascribe to malice what can be explained by stupidity.” Cisco’s web sites are notoriously bad for everybody, not just journalists. It would be great if companies thought through how to best make information available to various constituencies, but it’s more likely they’re focusing on customers, not writers.

    If there’s no contact information for PR people (something I’ve also noticed to be increasing), you can go old school – call them on the phone and ask for whoever handles media relations. They can still ignore you, same as always, but you’ve done your due diligence.

    The increase in corporate publishing has, however, increased the need for critical thinking among readers. If you look at the leading business and technology publications, they’re now letting almost anyone contribute material, though their attribution – and hence, their agenda – is frequently difficult to find. That to me is the bigger concern: not the problems custom publishing creates for writers, but the obfuscation it creates for readers.

  2. Howard Rauch July 16, 2014 at 2:31 pm - Reply

    This is a great column! There must be a strong editorial ethics concern somewhere in here that could be developed into an article for the next issue of Ethics News Updates. I am hopeful that you receive lots of responses that might clarify the picture.

    The above comment reflects my interest as ASBPE’s ethics committee chairman. However, if I change roles and put on my consulting hat, I am wondering whether or not we really should be worrying so much about the availability of PR folks.

    As I am sure you will agree, alert B2B editors build direct contact with corporate news sources beyond PR departments or agencies. Even if corporate management decides it need not communicate as much with B2B media, does this mean former valuable sources established over the years will now turn away editorial inquiries???

    Anyway, the message I see between the lines is that any B2B editor who has relied totally on PR connections to provide article input needs an attitude adjustment. It’s called enterprise. True, some editors will say they have no choice when it comes to upgrading connections. Workloads are beyond real and/or travel budgets to support more extensive field connections are a rare event.

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