The invasion of corporate news
FT Magazine19.09.2014Read original
The readers are not prepared to pay for traditional media, therefore a very cosy relationship with the PR people and advertisers is developing. But there is nothing new about this phenomenon.This is getting more and more common. This article fully demonstrates this trend.
The lines between journalism and PR are rapidly becoming blurred as business interests bypass traditional media to get their message across.
High quality global journalism requires investment.
Last January, however, a site called the Richmond Standard launched, promising “a community-driven daily news source dedicated to shining a light on the positive things that are going on in the community”, and giving everyone from athletes to entrepreneurs the recognition they deserve. Since then, it has recorded the “quick-thinking teen” commended by California’s governor for saving a woman from overdosing; the “incredible strength” of the 5ft 6in high-school freshman who can bench-press “a whopping 295lbs”; and councilman Tom Butt’s warning about the costs of vacating a blighted public housing project.
The Richmond Standard is one of the more polished sites to emerge in the age of hyper-local digital news brands such as Patch and DNAinfo.com. That may be because it is run and funded by Chevron, the $240bn oil group which owns the Richmond refinery that in August 2012 caught fire, spewing plumes of black smoke over the city and sending more than 15,000 residents to hospital for medical help.
Its editor, a former San Francisco Examiner reporter called Mike Aldax, works for a public relations firm called Singer Associates, which offers clients advice on “issues management”. At a time when Chevron is planning a billion-dollar upgrade that environmentalists oppose, pitching itself as a friendly voice in the community must look like an appealing way to manage such issues.
In February, for example, an article reassured readers: “The clouds that could be seen above Chevron Richmond refinery Wednesday morning were actually harmless steam clouds.” Another highlighted refinery workers’ volunteer work at an animal adoption centre. In early September, Aldax covered a protest against Kinder Morgan, a rival energy company, over its shipments of “the highly volatile Bakken crude from North Dakota”, reminding readers of the deadly July 2013 derailment of a train carrying Bakken oil in Quebec.
The Richmond Standard website, funded by Chevron which is upfront about wanting “to provide a voice for Chevron Richmond on civic issues” – includes a section called Chevron Speaks where the company has challenged “incorrect and misleading information” in rival local publications by spelling out its argument that its refinery upgrade will reduce pollution and create jobs. When the Richmond Standard questioned the mayor’s ties to a PR firm “suspected of hiring phony protesters to demonstrate outside the Chevron shareholders meeting”, however, the article was tagged as news, not spin. Those ties “raise new questions about how far she is willing to go to battle Chevron, Richmond’s largest taxpayer,” Aldax wrote.
The history of advertorials shows that brands have long wanted their advertisements to look like news, but as the subjects of news increasingly want to decide what counts as news, and as they get ever more skilled at doing so, they are posing a challenge to journalism’s traditional storytellers.