Wires Getting More Useful for Journalists

By: Steve Outing

As a journalist, I find press releases a mixed blessing. I appreciate them for tipping me off about story ideas, and as a pointer to individuals with expertise on a certain topic. They play a vital role in keeping me informed of new developments.

But there are some problems with today's system of getting press releases to reporters. In the fast-paced industry I cover -- interactive media -- I need news from companies to get to me fast. A few companies still send me press releases by postal mail. By the time they reach my paper-mail box, the contents are usually old news, already reported by others. Some companies fax me releases, but I'm more apt to lose them when in paper format. (I much prefer e-mail, which I can file for future reference and search for when needed in the future.)

The traditional newsroom systems for disseminating news releases have their flaws, too. At many news organizations, editors simply scan the incoming PR wires, forwarding relevant releases to appropriate reporters. Too often, a reporter will miss relevant releases because a clerk or editor didn't understand the reporter's interests.

Personalization trend

The Internet and the World Wide Web are making things better for reporters, and the PR wires are becoming a more useful journalistic tool. It's beginning to get to the point where a journalist can tell a PR wire service what he's interested in, and receive only relevant press releases.

Recently I started using PR Newswire's (PRN) new service for journalists, called The Press Room, and it's a useful reporting tool. It's not all that it could be yet, but additional features are in the works or contemplated. And the price is right; there is no charge for any service on the site.

The Press Room is a service restricted to qualifying journalists, according to PRN's editorial director, Ken Dowell. (This is a separate Web site from PRN's main site, which serves the larger business community.) It requires registration in order to use, though anyone visiting the site can sign up to access it. But when someone registers to use The Press Room, the individual's data is forwarded to several PRN staffers, who look over it to make sure that the person appears to be a legitimate working journalist -- including checking submitted phone numbers against news industry directories.

The reason for the security measures, says Dowell, is because the journalists' site contains real-time news release coverage, whereas PRN's corporate site runs with a 15-minute delay. PRN does not want people in the financial industry accessing the real-time feed, for securities law reasons. (Because this is a Web site, you won't see real-time news flash on your screen, of course; you'll have to hit the "Reload" button on your browser to get the most current news.)

One of the most useful components of The Press Room site is the ability to search PRN's database of releases. A reporter doing a story about a particular company, for instance, can quickly view the firm's news releases over the last several months (back to January 1997). That's a great tool for quickly getting up to speed on a company's recent activities and announcements. Add that to a similar search of a multi-newspaper archival engine (like New Century Network's NewsWorks or NewsIndex), and you've got a fast but deep backgrounder on the company without having to bother the newsroom librarian.

A feature I like is to receive a daily e-mail with relevant press releases from companies and on topics that I care about. The Press Room has an e-mail delivery service that is the beginnings of that type of service. The "Today's Headlines" service delivers a list of headlines in selected industry categories (e.g., automotive; entertainment; multimedia/online/Internet; etc.). Reporters then can order full text of any release by sending an e-mail message back to the PRN site.

What I really want is the ability to have a service like this send me press releases from companies that I track, or press releases within the last 24 hours that contain selected keywords. Dowell says that capability will come with a future upgrade to the site. He also hopes to let reporters sign up to receive e-mail press release summaries for releases from companies within a specified geographic area.

Another "coming soon" feature is an interactive daybook for reporters, in which media event information will be put into a database. Journalists will be able to specify a geographic area and a date range, do a search, then see all the local media events listed in PRN's database. Dowell says that feature should be ready before the end of the year.

A future service that will be useful for reporters is a guide to media-only Web sites operated by companies. Dowell says that increasingly, large companies are setting up separate Web sites to deal with press inquiries. Not only are these sites sometimes difficult to find (since they are not advertised to the public), but most are like The Press Box and require user registration and qualification. Dowell envisions a system where a reporter could use the same password to access any corporate media-only site.

And another future feature is an international site, which eventually will bring together live feeds from many news agencies and original-source wires. According to PRN's Bill Adler, in many countries the leading news agency also operates a PR wire of some kind. "I think the comparison of news coverage and source materials is useful to journalists," Adler says.

A pleasure, not a pain

Enhancements to the PRN site should make receiving press releases a more pleasant experience, because reporters will be able to personalize their interactions with the wire service and receive only news releases that they want. Yet despite the obvious advantages to using the Web and e-mail to receive press releases, the percentage of journalists using the service remains modest. The Press Box, in operation since September, has signed up journalists from about 600 news organizations, says Dowell. "But a lot more people are receiving (our content) the traditional way than you'd expect," he says.

Last year, the wire service did a survey of journalists' use of the Internet for receiving press releases. While the percentage of journalists having Internet access is now much higher than when that survey was conducted, many reporters still haven't figured out that the Internet is a useful tool for them.

Dowell says that newspapers seem to be heavier users of Internet press release services than TV and radio. A recent trend seems to be heavier use of the PRN Internet services by journalists at smaller papers in remote areas, who are discovering that the Web is a convenient way to tap the resources of the PR wire service.

While PRN is concentrating on e-mail delivery of press releases to reporters initially, Dowell says he's also investigating other "push" techniques for serving journalists. The problem with most of them is that the various push technologies are not ubiquitous in newsrooms. While a personalized Pointcast-like service that "pushed" relevant press releases in real time to a reporter's workstation might be nice, that would require that software be installed in all newsrooms. For now, the wire service probably will focus on e-mail as the portal of information to individual reporters.

Contacts: Bill Adler, bill_adler@prnewswire.com
Ken Dowell, ken_dowell@prnewswire.com

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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at steve@planetarynews.com

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company


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