A veteran producer lays it out: Economics are changing journalism

November 27, 1991|By James Warren | James Warren,Chicago Tribune

NEW YORK -- If you doubt that economics are changing journalism, listen to the veteran TV producer Janet Pearce counseling big-time magazine publicists on the best way to "pitch," or suggest, story ideas to talk shows.

Don't merely pick up the phone and throw out an idea for a story or prospective guest, said Pearce, until last month a longtime supervising producer of NBC's "Today" show.

No, she said, go and do the actual legwork.

Legwork is the crux of what print reporters and TV producers are supposed to do. It includes basic research, procuring clippings of past stories, names and phone numbers of people to interview, and, for TV, usable video footage.

"People are very overworked. Segment producers and writers are overworked," said Pearce, referring to the impact of budget cuts and rising productivity demands on everyone from "Today's" smaller, more inexperienced library staff to its producers and writers.

In detailing striking change in her business, Pearce was addressing a room full of magazine publicists attending a Magazine Publishers of America symposium on public relations. It was one of many insights in a day devoted to several aspects of a world that, unknown to most consumers, plays a significant role in what they read and watch.

It's the world of the publicist. A publicist may increasingly inspire, even influence, coverage, whether it's a puffy celebrity profile in a magazine; a newspaper story about a law firm's big courtroom victory; a profile of a new residential real-estate development; or softening the image of a notorious businessman.

Magazine executives told how publicity can shape a corporate image. Francis Pandolfi, president of Times Mirror Magazines, and Linda Wallen, its public-relations director, said they're positioning their magazines, which include Popular Science, Field & Stream, Outdoor Life, Golf, Skiing and Home Mechanix, as environmentally oriented. That has meant everything from starting an environmental group to giving new employees a green orientation folder to get them to "think of us first as an environmental company," according to Wallen.

Pearce candidly advised publicists to seriously consider lobbying their bosses to create their own video-production units.

"TV will accept materials that it would not have 10 or 15 years ago," she said. "If you can save a producer a trip to Cleveland for B-roll [generic background footage], that will help. Perhaps even send a crew and do an interview there."

What might have been deemed unseemly, even journalistic prostitution, not long ago is the new pragmatism among many media owners. Pearce's former employer, NBC, is especially aggressive in creating an environment friendly to advertisers -- and painful to some old hands.

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