It’s not lazy journalism, but it is ROI journalism – and that’s got PR implications

I hate the phrase lazy journalism.

It suggests that an undercooked story is because the journalist doesn’t work hard. Many times that’s not true.

Mind you the reality isn’t much more attractive to lovers of the old school journalism of contacts, beats and knocking on doors. But it does have big implications for PRs.  

A more accurate description of what we’re seeing today is ROI journalism – where efficiency with scarce journalistic resource means that journos are spread thinner and have more ground to cover than ever before.

So how does ROI journalism work? The biggest difference is that you only start chasing a story if you’re sure it’s going to end up in print. You need to be certain of a return on your investment of time.

Let me give you a couple of examples.

On Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings, I’m frantic. I aim to send out our newsletter email by lunchtime (by the way, if you don’t already subscribe, stick your email address in the box towards the top right hand side of this page – it’s as easy as that).

Now at other times of the week I can afford to be more leisurely in building stuff up, but in those last couple of hours, I may need to write another four or five pieces. The only stuff I’m going to work on is the stuff that’s going to make it. If your press release drops in my inbox and everything I need isn’t right there, I’m putting it to one side. It’s not going on the site in time to catch the newsletter. I might look at it more fully later on, if it’s not already out of date. But the chances are, things will have moved on.

The thing that got me thinking about this was a conversation with the boss of an industry organisation. Shortly before I pressed send on the newsletter, a press release dropped in my inbox. They were launching an initiative of some description. The release was a bit bland. One potential way of making it relevant enough for our audience was to get hold of him and to explain what issue they were responding to.

Sadly I had other stuff to write, and had no idea whether I’d be able to get him straight away, so I sent the newsletter without it.

He later had a moan, having gone to the trouble of getting the release to me in time for my deadline. A former journalist himself, h e even mentioned why it was a potentially bigger story – exactly the sort of thing that if it had been in the release would have made it in.

He saw it as lazy journalism, or tourism, as he put it. I saw it as pragmatism.

I’m looking at a current example. A PR sent me a two paragraph press release last night. The single fact is interesting, but it contained no quotes from the two parties involved, explaining the background. So if it’s going to make it, I’m going to need to talk to them myself. Yes, that’s good old fashioned journalism. And the story would be better for it.

But it’s not going to make it into today’s newsletter, because I haven’t got the time to be tracking down both parties, who may or may not be available. I could spend an hour on it, and never get to talk to them.

So his client has missed out. With luck I’ll have more time tomorrow.

Now ROI journalism hasn’t compeltely taken over. The large dailies and the TV companies clearly still have enough resource to chase hunches. But for smaller titles and B2B, I reckon this is becoming a reality.

For PRs, it means they have to know the publications they are targeting better than ever before, as they may get only one shot at delivering what the journalist needs. Otherwise, they’ll move on to an easier win.

For today, for me, it was more efficient to write this.

That’s ROI journalism.


Tim Burrowes


  1. Malkuth Damkar
    2 Sep 09
    9:54 am

  2. “For PRs, it means they have to know the publications they are targeting better than ever before”

    I think that quote sums it up so well. Being overworked, and time poor isn’t a unique situation – I am constantly amazed how busy people think no one else is.

    I always assume its a PR job to make a story easy for a journalist to understand, and potential run a story, or follow up for a larger piece.

  3. Jack
    2 Sep 09
    11:17 am

  4. That’s an EXCELLENT thought-piece, Tim.

    It’s highly relevant to the time-poor journos of today who are forever being told to do more with less, work smarter etc.

    (As well as the latest trend: we want you to file for online as well as print – different versions of the story, please – and if we toss you a digital tape recorder and a camcorder, could you also upload an MP3 of your interview plus an edited video package on your way back to the office?).

    I think there’s also more scope for ‘ROI journalism’ in specialist areas rather than general news – such as the ‘softer’ lifestyle beats covering fashion, wellness, computers, travel etc. And this will be driven by PRs – because as much as ROI is about efficient reporting delivering return-on-investment for the journalist’s time, ROI will also be about which journalists can give the PRs the ‘best’ coverage – the most positive, the most faithful repetition of their marketing message and cut-and-paste from the press release – for the PR’s “investment” in the journalist by way of freebies, junkets etc.

    So the PR gets a good ROI for their outlay, and the journo (and this I’d truly quality as being a ‘lazy’ journo) gets good ROI by being spoonfed everything he or she needs for their story.

  5. PrueC
    2 Sep 09
    11:25 am

  6. Get an intern in to do follow ups.

    I am sure there are hundreds (well, tens at least) of journalism students who would gladly sit there making phone calls and getting the chance to actually do some real digging and interviews, rather than the coffee-making and shit-kicking that most internships entail.

  7. Robyn
    2 Sep 09
    1:25 pm

  8. Tricky for journos, undoubtedly, but as a PR, I’ve yet to come across a client who is prepared to pay for customised versions of their news to go to each different outlet they want to cover. So do I hope the journo will make the effort to read the release, identify what’s relevant to them and do the follow up to create their own angle, or do I individually research each publication, for each client, across each industry, and write separate media releases, every time, for each…and do it all for nix?

  9. Scott Pettet
    2 Sep 09
    1:29 pm

  10. That’s a courageous piece to write Tim. I’d like to see some editors fess up in this fashion. Whilst not perhaps a wide-spread practice, it is my understanding that some journos have ‘press release re-writes’ as part of their employment KPIs. It may be a hard truth to swallow for some, but sections of the media are becoming more reliant on PR than ever.

  11. Grace
    2 Sep 09
    1:39 pm

  12. Poor old time-poor journo! Seems to be a recurring theme Tim – dare we say it’s verging on a whinge?

  13. anne
    2 Sep 09
    1:42 pm

  14. I think its the reality of journalism today – less writers, more stories needed in a shorter period of time and a PRs job is to provide the info needed rather than worry about what’s lazy or not.

    As more online outlets and blogs cover stories, we’ve been delivering Social Media News Releases (SNRs) for many of our clients who are particularly targetting online outlets. The idea is to provide a packaged ‘online’ story. They include the ol’ fashioned basics of who, what, how, where and when and quotes plus relevant hyperlinks to videos, pics, extra materials

  15. Ian Rogers
    2 Sep 09
    1:56 pm

  16. Tim – while sometimes derided as churnalism, plenty of industry titles generate their bread and butter content from public relations. If it’s interesting it’s interesting, simple as that. And thus potentially news. The point is to be discriminating, which I’d say you are, and to save your readers time, which you are.

    I wonder why you’d rather have manufactured quotes in PR output though? My rule is to ignore them where possible and never to write that anyone “said” anything if sourced from a media release (and to be clear about the source).

  17. Alf Santomingo
    2 Sep 09
    2:02 pm

  18. I LOVED this.
    Agree with you completely.

  19. Glen Frost
    2 Sep 09
    2:12 pm

  20. Hey Tim, it’s called Churnalism, so I guess you’ve been reading Flat Earth News by Nick Davies 😉

    reminds me of Sir Joh’s comment that his media interviews were simply “feeding the chooks”

  21. Anonymous
    2 Sep 09
    2:16 pm

  22. Tim – hire some help! Surely this website is generating enough $ and interest now to justify a junior burger appointment 😉

  23. Glenn Hansen
    2 Sep 09
    2:27 pm

  24. Tim, I find that journos simply pick up the release as you describe…it has all the information for today’s newsletter…except no company puts its competition’s perspective on their PR. What is your recommendation to such a competitor who has a very different side to the story? (Keep in mind the competitor is very likely to be of the opinion that damage has already been done due to simply repeating the PR.)

    If you are ready for that junior burger, I’ll buy, next Tuesday.

  25. Misha
    2 Sep 09
    3:13 pm

  26. Sorry, what does ROI stand for? Am I the only person on the planet who hasn’t tripped across this acronym?

  27. Katy Denis
    2 Sep 09
    3:57 pm

  28. Great….has got me thinking. Being a PR lady myself, a very interesting read! Thanks Tim!

  29. karalee
    2 Sep 09
    4:21 pm

  30. Interesting piece Timbo. Allow me to defend us ‘PRs’ for a moment.

    I’m curious though. It sounds like niche titles, whether they are online or print, are resource poor and content rich. So what we need to do is present you with a tailored angle which usually is in the form of a pitch or media release, which has the quotes, has the background information, but most importantly has the details for further comment and a clear process that the spokespeople be available in a timely fashion?

    I’m struggling with this. Who isn’t already doing this for you with their pitches?

    To put all of ‘us’ in a basket which infers that we don’t understand unique needs including deadlines and capacity within a specific title (particularly when most media relations and publicity or PRs – your words – specialise in these areas and only work with media for their clients), that we don’t attempt to provide all of the content you would need including immediate access for comment, amazes me.

    Yes, there are some bad eggs out there. But the bad eggs are in all industries including journalism. Why do we focus on these, and not actually focus on and promoting professional behaviour? Where’s the story about ‘gee this – PR – did this for me, gave me this tailored story with access to three different commentators and all within my deadline and a smile..’ surely you must have had an occasion like this?

    If not, then there really are more bad eggs out there in public relations and media relations than I thought, and it might be time to jump ship.

    And Glenn, if we put our competitor’s point of view in our media releases, then we would really be journalists then wouldn’t we? 😉

  31. mumbrella
    2 Sep 09
    4:42 pm

  32. Thanks for the comments.

    PrueC, That’s a good idea. Up to now I’ve shied away from the intern route, because I wouldn’t want to commit to that unless I could genuinely offer them some tangible experience in return.

    Robyn, I’m not sure it’s about customised versions. Sometimes it’s about having all of the necessary material, so every journalist can pick their own angle out of it.

    Grace, Up to you whether to take that view. More of an observation, really. The one thing I’m never short of is stuff to write about, but I do find it sad when good stories go begging.

    Ian & Glen, I’ve been meaning to read the Nick Davies book for ages. I’ve heard a couple of audio interviews with him, and I’m looking forward to it.

    Anon, the time to hire help is coming. There will be a commercial moment when it comes, maybe even before the end of the year. I’ll be very proud to get to the point where Mumbrella is employing journos, and of course working all the time on improving our output.

    And Glenn H, My apologies! I owe you a reply. I’d love to meet up! Let’s organise that by email.

    Misha, it stands for return on investment. Be proud that you’ve not been so tainted by commercialism that you already knew that!

    And thanks, Katy. I look forward to coffee with you & your clients tomorrow.


    Tim – Mumbrella

  33. AW
    2 Sep 09
    4:46 pm

  34. @ Misha

    ROI = Return On Investment

    And a great little tip – google “define ROI” – it will bring up lots of info on it! In fact, that’s great for any term you hear and don’t know.


  35. mumbrella
    2 Sep 09
    4:47 pm

  36. Thanks for your comment, Karalee,

    You’d be surprised at the mixed quality of submissions. But you’re right, there are many very good PR operators, who both work in-house and for agencies.

    There are many stories that have made it into Mumbrella only because of the diligence, persistence and diplomatic skills of a PR behind them. But that sort of proves my point. They were the ones who understand the nature of ROI journalism, and made it work for themselves and their clients.

    The trend is one that presents PRs with a whole new set of opportunities, but only if they’re good.


    Tim – Mumbrella

  37. karalee
    2 Sep 09
    4:58 pm

  38. Phew, glad to hear I might not need to jump ship just yet 😉

    But you are right Tim. If – PRs – are not moving with the game, then they and their clients will suffer (and our industry will as well) and it is up to us to ensure we understand the needs of the media.

    Perhaps though it is a partnership? If media make their needs clear, like you have done with this post, then we know what the parameters are and can ensure we work with you to get the best result. We can’t just work in a silo. The reality is media (online and off) need us, and we need you!

    Good points, well made.

  39. Corrina
    2 Sep 09
    5:08 pm

  40. A thought provoking topic. The issue that journalists have with the word ‘lazy’ is that they are in fact ‘very busy’ meeting multiple deadlines for print and online editions with less and less manpower (aren’t we all?) But I think when the news head gets checked in at the door in exchange for time management skills, this is when journalism – the age old art of story telling, asking questions and finding unique angles for your audience – suffers. I’m all for making it as easy as possible for a journalist to pick up my clients’ message – heck, it’s in my best interest (who hasn’t written entire features for journalists at times?) – but it’s frustrating when meatier news-worthy issues, which may even require an interview, get overlooked due to the inability of time-poor journalists to delve deeper. Perhaps it’s not lazy journalists, but at times it certainly reeks of lazy journalism.

  41. Marina Go
    2 Sep 09
    8:01 pm

  42. Tim,
    Isn’t the answer to go for quality over quantity? If you want to see great editing and writing in action, drop by Zoe Foster’s We run the site on tight resources and the team can’t cover everything. So they use their prerogative as beauty experts to choose the stories and ideas that will best serve, inform and entertain their audience. And yes in the process some stores don’t see the light of day, but that’s the difference between a well-edited product and one that throws everything that comes through the door in the mix .
    This best-practice journalism has the knock-on effect of encouraging PR companies to deliver their best ideas to Primped first.

  43. Marina Go
    2 Sep 09
    8:03 pm

  44. Correction: that should be ‘stories’ not ‘stores’.

  45. Asher Moses
    2 Sep 09
    8:24 pm

  46. You’re forgetting Tim that while media companies have fewer resources, unlike in the past, today you don’t necessarily even need to beat down doors to chase down stories. Most people you would need to contact are only a phone call or an email away. There is plenty of time to chase down hunches while working on other things.

    This is a good article but much of it centres on press releases and, really, how many good, unique stories do you get from press releases?

    The web, blogs, twitter, aggregation sites – and the mobile phone – allow us to find so many stories that are for more interesting than anything out of a press release.

    Not everyone is practising ROI churnalism. Although I admit there is less time to work on each individual story than before.

  47. mumbrella
    2 Sep 09
    8:24 pm

  48. Hi Marina,

    I totally agree. The best stories, the ones that drive the most traffic and generate the most debate, are usually the ones that are exclusives. The piece on ‘supplied persons’ that is currently generating our biggest debate is a good example of that.

    And if something isn’t good enough it shouldn’t go in. And that’s one of the points I’m making. Sometimes, that means that a story that could have made it with more work on the PR’s part, doesn’t go in because it’s not good enough and there’s no time to do it properly.

    Being online, at least I have that luxury. If you’re the editor of a B2B magazine with a tiny editorial team, you have a certain number of pages to fill regardless, so you may not.


    Tim – Mumbrella

  49. mumbrella
    2 Sep 09
    8:29 pm

  50. Hi Asher,

    Thanks for your comment. I’d probably exclude Fairfax and News Ltd’s larger brands from this list. Happily they’ve still (just about!) got enough resource to make those extra calls.

    But i’d argue that a well researched press release, with all the facts, stands a better chance of making it in any title than one that does not. Journalists are pragmatic, and with a marginal story, that might be what makes the difference.


    Tim – Mumbrella

  51. Charlie
    2 Sep 09
    9:55 pm

  52. Great post – I agree. A press release should contain all the factual information needed including quotes, and there are some instances when this is all the information that is needed (but of course, often not). I guess the upside of all of this is that PRs are becoming better writers – and that can’t be a bad thing!

    Although more and more I’m noticing (especially in trade magazines) the PR/writer element creeping in. Which seems a bit controversial to me.

  53. Glenn
    3 Sep 09
    11:37 am

  54. Hi Tim – Very insightful write-up, I agree entirely.
    Like anything, you need to be able to make a buck out of whatever business you’re in – magazines and websites need to make money, and that means creating the content that advertisers want to be seen in.
    In many cases, especially in online, it’s about finding a balance. Sure, press releases are all too often pure puffery, but sometimes they’re also newsworthy. While many of us on the editorial side like to deride PRs as useless spin doctors, journos and PR practitioners really do have a symbiotic relationship – it’s amazing what a boon a good PR person can be for a journo – and on the flipside, it’s amazing what a thorn-in-the-side a bad PR can be for a journo.
    I’m enjoying the newsletter – congrats on the venture, might get in touch again soon as I’m now back in Oz from Dubai, albeit momentarily.

  55. Holly
    3 Sep 09
    12:12 pm

  56. Hi Tim,
    I agree with most of your observations, but would offer an anecdote on the intern option as a cautionary tale (which is neither a general sledge of all cadets or the Gen Y’s yapping at everyone’s heels!)
    While working on another paper I was contacted on deadline (pet peeve of time-poor “churnalists”) by an intern working the phones for a then leading Sydney PR agency.
    After pitching a story for a round I had long moved on from, I recommended the caller read the paper then get back to me with where they thought the story would fit and we could take it from there.
    The response? “I don’t actually read your paper, so why don’t you tell me in 25 words or less what it is that you all do…”
    What I did was end the call and call her boss who promptly took her off the phones.
    Not really the best advert for your agency or fostering media relations, I would have thought.
    Few “take home tips”: read/watch/listen to your media target before picking up the phone to pitch; never call in those bewitching hours of deadline (call the editorial desk to be sure when that is); and finally, lose the “25 words or less” speil from your show reel!
    Churnalists will love you for it!

  57. Rae
    4 Sep 09
    9:42 am

  58. Journos expecting PRs to write the entire stories and do all the research are working themselves out of a job.

  59. mumbrella
    4 Sep 09
    10:22 am

  60. Hi Rae,

    I agree with that point. But on the other extreme, I often get press releases where the most basic background infromation on the company in question is missing.

    Sure, I can go and find it, if the story’s good enough. But equally, if there’s another story to chase, I might go after that one instead.


    Tim – Mumbrella

  61. observer
    4 Sep 09
    1:47 pm

  62. ……and if anyone doesn’t like it, they need to be willing to pay for their news!

  63. Wjat time is it?
    7 Sep 09
    5:20 pm

  64. I was putting together a regional daily Sunday and copped this one – BankWest put our region as the second worst performed employment corridor in the country but the detailed report wasn’t where it was promised to be.
    Story was put aside to wait for access to greater local detail today – When we finally got access there was no more detailed info by region \and the metro’s have already run with it – next!
    There simply isn’t time to waste chasing this stuff and when the moment has passed the PR opportunity is missed.
    Mind you – there is an increasing amount of time wasted assessing the merits and methodology of ‘surveys’and ‘research’commissioned for publicity sake. They sound got and make a great headline but are often based on very little.


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