Cut and paste content: the good and the bad

by | May 1, 2009 | Recent Writing | 0 comments

Publishers’ Auxiliary/May 2009

Electronic delivery of information has revolutionized how newspapers collect and disseminate information.

Reporters can research, request and receive information critical to a story in minutes and hours compared to what might have taken days not that long ago. News releases are retrieved by simple “cut and paste” functions on the keyboard to include in print editions and post on the Web for instantaneous distribution.

The Web is a boon to newsmakers as well. Any number of news sources can localize releases and distribute them with ease, allowing messages to reach mass audiences within minutes. The examples are numerous.

A state agency announces annual funding allocations to local public safety departments. A statewide recycling initiative is launched, and local drop-off centers are listed. A commentary advances the benefits of a legislative transportation funding package by identifying local highway projects on the radar.

“Cut and paste” has inherent pitfalls, too, if editors don’t read stories closely and are simply looking for “filler” for their pages that requires minimal staff work. Editors must give these releases the same scrutiny as they do to their own reporters’ copy.

I speak from a special perspective. As an editor, for many years I sorted and sifted through a steady flow of press releases. Today, I oversee communications for a statewide trade association. Though I rely on electronic dissemination of press releases to advance the mission of our organization, I’ve witnessed how the practice can diminish the quality of newspapers if newsrooms don’t exercise precaution.

Don’t misunderstand. Press releases from a variety of sources provide ready-made content to assist newsrooms that might be short on resources. At minimum, these missives are a springboard for story ideas that can be pursued locally.

University extension departments offer household tips for everything from insect eradication to proper lawn care. The nonprofit Legal Aid Society publicizes its resources for those unable to afford legal help. The Kids Count Data Book produced by the Annie E. Casey Foundation offers myriad statistics on the health and welfare of children.

As convenient as this information might be, these releases – like any other story sent your way – still require due diligence on the part of editors and reporters to ensure accuracy and to make the information relevant to readers. Everyone’s “to do” list should include:

  • Call the source to verify the release and the data. The Internet makes it all too easy for anyone to distribute bogus information.
  • Check all web sites for their legitimacy and that the links work. If a site raises red flags, don’t recommend it to readers.
  • Take the extra step. Even if a release is localized, make the additional contacts in your communities to make sure the story is distinctive to your readers.

Many releases are timely and warrant an immediate turnaround. In addition, the information often provides fodder for an in-depth look at an issue or maybe a commentary.

A word of caution, however, if releases are shelved for later consideration. Always note the date of distribution, and carefully reread them for their relevancy.

Two examples bring the point home – both which originated from the desk of my “day job.” The first story localized findings of a statewide economic development program. The second, a commentary, endorsed passage of a proposed constitutional amendment to increase transportation funding.

It was gratifying to see these releases published as we advanced our causes. But, as a former newspaper editor, two of the instances were disconcerting and unfortunate examples of exercising “cut and paste” with little oversight.

The economic development report was published four months after the fact. The newspaper published it verbatim – complete with the paragraph that noted the date of the annual meeting where it was released.

Seeing the guest commentary published was a bright note as well – or, it would have been. Imagine my surprise when the op-ed surfaced nearly two years after its submission and voters had long ago weighed in on the transportation amendment.

The lesson? Don’t let the ease of “cut and paste” result in journalistic laziness.