Economic crisis hits both writers and praisers

MISERY LOVES COMPANY, and if journalism plays a significant role in your professional orbit, there’s going to be plenty of it to go around.

Loyal readers know this column is seldom the happiest place on Earth for publicists, but rather a zone many approach with fear and loathing. Yet while 2008 was a terrible year for newspapers, the trickle-down effect of thinning the journalistic herd will make life equally hellish for those who regularly interact with the press — beginning with publicists, to whom we extend an uncharacteristic note of sympathy, along with their bosses and clients who are sticklers for accuracy.

The fallout from widespread layoffs at newspapers is patently obvious: Fewer reporters, working harder and faster, while checking their facts less. A tremendous amount of institutional knowledge has been bought out or elbowed toward retirement. Journalists who endure are desperate to garner attention by yardsticks that don’t generally foster restraint and sobriety — namely, Web traffic and online hits. Cue the dancing cats.

The days of the specialist are rapidly dwindling, as will be evident at the Television Critics Assn.’s slimmed-down winter tour, otherwise known as “Survivor: Universal City.” That means more stories written by reporters who parachute in for the day, trying to grasp a situation or industry’s complexities while running at full speed.

This has become a common lament among journalism veterans. As Roger Ebert noted on his blog regarding the dismissal of seasoned movie critics, newspapers have become infatuated with celebrity culture and thus “want to devote less of their space to considered prose, and more to ignorant gawking.”

HOLES IN THE journalistic safety net, meanwhile, continue to fray and widen. Editors can be a pain in the butt, but they save reporters from all manner of embarrassment, from stupid typos to asking pointed questions that prevent hoaxes and howlers from finding their way into print. Indeed, cutbacks have eliminated layers of quality control all over, as bogus memoirs and unverified letters pass through presumably reputable venues, from publishing houses to the New York Times.

Against this backdrop, even journalists can wince at what further reductions in our ranks augur for poor, downtrodden publicists, who are apt to be pilloried for mistakes over which they possess even less influence than usual.

Admittedly, for them the news isn’t entirely bad. Publicists will exploit overworked, wet-behind-the-ear reporters, hoping to capitalize on their ability to spin the bejeezus out of them. Enterprising flacks will befriend harried journos, and if the benefits include having press releases run practically verbatim and getting “expert” clients quoted under a time crunch, so much the better.

Fatuous “first-ever” claims will be swallowed with less skepticism. When those announcements boast about a 300% surge in Internet traffic or burgeoning ratings for a second-tier cable network — which often amounts to little more than “exploding” from a puny base of two viewers to eight — such naivete can be a blessing.

ANY CELEBRATION, however, overlooks this scenario’s double-edged sword. Unschooled scribes will be more eager to pursue a titillating premise — and amid rising pressures, less willing to abandon one that’s being pushed from above, no matter how strained or dubious it might be. Buying your malarkey means they’ll be similarly gullible about self-serving pitches emanating from competitors that make you look bad. Thanks to their “Everything old is minty fresh again” inexperience, ideas that cranky old pros would have rejected become brave new trends. Even the temptation to fudge facts to fit a story’s contours will grow.

As bad as it’s been for journalists, then, ink-stained wretches can derive perverse consolation from the collateral damage and sharing of pain inherent in our symbiotic dance — exacting a kind of “Revenge of the Scribes.” Because however irritating we might be, believe it or not, you’ll miss us when we’re gone.

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From the shameless self-promotion file: I’ve begun a blog on Variety.com, BLTv — a name that combines my initials, vocation and, coincidentally, love of fatty foods. If you get enough of my blather through existing channels, I can’t blame you. But for those interested in additional rambling on TV and its broader impact on culture, please stop by.

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