CMP Media's Information Week caused a stir when it reported on a study by market research firm Outsell that claims technology workers would rather get their industry news from corporate press releases than from the vertical sites and publications covering IT. It would be easy to dismiss the conclusion as self-serving market research, were it not for the apocryphal but persistent tales we hear of semiconductor design engineers who grab all their headlines from the press-release compilations that Yahoo! Finance posts at 6 a.m.
Part of the problem has been the shoddy response of traditional-media journalists to the explosion of novel news sources on the Web. If timeliness trumps analysis to the point where journalists are rewriting press releases to be first online, why should any engineer or programmer care to probe beyond a company's own prepared statements? In theory, blogs, vlogs and multisource RSS feeds have helped traditional journalists by offering new points of view, often delivered by people for whom punditry is not a paying occupation but a labor of love. But if busy engineers don't have the time to slog through a dozen blogs for a particular point of view, what is the point of this do-it-yourself journalism?
There is a second aspect to the problem that is even more uncomfortable to confront, and that is the general tendency to heed the voice of authority over the voice of reason--a trend made particularly manifest in this country in the post-9/11 era. In this environment, the press release is somehow deemed more authentic than the independent analysis.
The cynical response to that observation is the adage, "News is what companies do not want you to know; everything else is marketing." Obviously, that overstates of the case. But it's still true that getting Texas Instruments' official view of its financial results at 6 a.m. won't provide more insight than digesting four business analysts' interpretations of those results by 10 a.m.
Raw real-time feeds of information are most useful when independent observers offer unexpurgated coverage of unfolding events. Press releases are merely regurgitations of the company line. If technology workers think they gain something by downing the industry's daily serving of press statements before they finish their morning coffee, then they may as well depend on President Bush and Exxon's CEO to provide the last word on the political and economic happenings of the day.
And if we think there's nothing wrong with that, then our democratic values truly are endangered.