The evolving distribution and role of press releases

With fewer and fewer journalists working in newsrooms, press releases have a very different audience from what they had about two decades ago.

According to the data I could cobble together, the three largest press release distribution services (PR Newswire, BusinessWire, and Marketwire) sent out roughly 642,000 press releases in 2013. If you’re keeping score, that’s about 1,759 press releases a day. Too much of a good thing becomes a bad thing. You can quote me on that. Put a half-gallon of rocky road ice cream in front of Fat Albert, and even he’ll turn away before he hits bottom. Exacerbating this dynamic, the ranks of journalists continue to decline. The number of reporters toiling in newsrooms is actually lower today than in 1978, according to the Pew Research Center. The upshot: More press releases are raining down on fewer journalists. Explaining the dispensation of the press release as a form of supply/demand economics misses the fundamental issue. When distribution of the press release reached only the domain of the media, journalists enjoyed a free lunch. With little effort, they could write stories based on a press release, and those stories appeared fresh to their readers because they couldn’t find them elsewhere. This advantage disappeared around 1996 when press release distribution services started flinging out press releases to the masses via the Internet. Stepping back in time for a moment, the timeline below shows how press release distribution has evolved. Journalists had a 90-year run of adapting the press release as non-public information. When the gravy train ended in 1996, it changed everything, though it took some time to erode the status quo. Muscle memory doesn’t change easily in the world of journalism.

Given that journalists rarely write from press releases these days, why does the massive effort behind press releases continue—figuring around 10 person hours per press release at $175 per hour translating into $3,078,082 of cost last year? That’s a good question. Disclosure requirements explain only a small percent of the total pool. Plus, I’m sure this $3,078,082 number doubles or even triples if one takes into the account the press releases not earmarked for paid distribution. Perhaps the PR industry has its own challenge with muscle memory. Lou Hoffman is CEO of the Hoffman Agency a global communications consultancy. He blogs on storytelling in business at Ishmael’s Corner, where a version of this article originally appeared.


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