Public relations firms and the rise of 'product journalism'

News stories about products sell more far more products than advertising. Public relations has helped create a new form of journalism, one that's best suited to their client's needs.
Written by Tom Foremski, Contributor

Why has tech reporting become such tedious product journalism? Why are reporters competing to scoop each other on news that is essentially a spec sheet about a mass-produced product?

Why are we reading about products as a news story and not in an ad?

Whenever I look at the tech press it is heavily focused on product reporting; about gadgets, features in apps or online services, and details about underlying technologies in software, hardware, and the Internet.

Product launches, especially by industry heavyweights such as Apple, are examined in great detail; before the launch, in live reports from the launch, and for weeks afterwards.

The product is weighed, it's specifications checked against the specifications insiders thought it would have; it's measured and compared endlessly with other products. It's taken apart and each component catalogued, and journalists report estimates of how much money it cost to make.

Even a product's color is questioned in news stories, as in the white iPhone that some said was more beige than white.

Vast amounts of product journalism are being produced. Many mainstream newspapers and magazines are beefing up their product news. And multitudes of reporters race to be the first to write up the product specs of a new device.

When and why did this start?

When did journalists decide that it would be a great job, reporting about products?

When did readers start to think it was cool to read endless news stories about products?

There was a time when it wasn't like this. Reading about products was usually done by reading advertising - reading news about products was rare. How did it change?

Tech journalism became product journalism for one simple reason: it was created.

Tech companies spend 40% and more, of their annual revenues on marketing. Their cost of sales is very high and it amounts to billions of dollars in marketing. But the problem with advertising, as we can see thanks to the Internet, is it doesn't work that well.

Over the past two decades tech companies have been steadily shifting their substantial marketing funds into public relations, with the express goal to have news stories published about them and their products.

The reason is simple: Advertising is only one-third as effective as a news story about a company or product.

PR is much more efficient than advertising, you get far more marketing bang.

You sell far more product through news stories and that's what public relations firms do for their clients, they get their story into the media - and these days - into social media too. They help companies sell large amounts of products.

PR spending continues to increase, every PR company I know is booming, hiring like mad. And it's because the PR firms do their job well, and the tech industry gets what it pays for: lots of news stories about their products. It's not because the media are independent thinkers.

You'd think the media sites would prefer advertising money for product launches rather than writing about them for free. After all, there are far more interesting stories to write. I'll share some ideas over the next few weeks. The future of tech journalism is certainly not in product journalism.

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