On Thursday morning (9-24), it was revealed that one of the last remaining national voices in music and entertainment journalism was leaving the field to go work for a public relations, or PR firm—the apparatus of the music and entertainment industry that interfaces with media outlets to release information, conduct interviews, and curate exclusive content like song and video releases for artists.
Brian Mansfield, the high-profile music journalist for USA Today for the last 18 years, has decided to leave his post and become the Content Director at Shore Fire Media—one of the world’s top PR entities. Mansfield was the last full-time music writer on staff at the national paper after the publication let go music critic Edna Gundersen in 2014.
Mansfield’s departure is just one of many in the slow and steady march of high-profile music journalists on the local and national level either being laid off or leaving for work in the PR sector before they can be. USA Today is owned by the media company Gannett, which also owns around 90 local newspapers and multiple television stations around the United States. Another high profile music writer, Peter Cooper, left his long-standing post at the Gannett-owned The Tennessean in 2014 to work for the Country Music Hall of Fame.
“I had seen all those things happening, and I wanted to make sure that I got out on my own terms,” Mansfield tells Billboard‘s Chris Willman. “I’ve seen other people in other jobs that are just kind of hanging on to see what happens, and I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want to find myself down the road in a situation where I was waiting to see what somebody else was going to do. I love what I’ve done at ‘USA Today’”¦ and I’m looking forward to a job that doesn’t always involve 14-hour days each week.”
Part of what is driving journalists to hang up their notepads and join the ranks of publicists is the gross discrepancy in pay between the two fields that is growing increasingly pronounced each year. According to a 2014 Pew Research Center report, both the pay and sheer numbers of journalists to publicists is increasingly weighted toward the publicity side.
“The salary gap between public relations specialists and news reporters has widened over the past decade to almost $20,000 a year,” says the Pew Research report. “At the same time, the public relations field has expanded to a degree that these specialists now outnumber reporters by nearly 5 to 1 (BLS data include part-time and full-time employees, but not self-employed.)”
Billboard offered their own assessment between the building discrepancy between journalists and publicists in June, highlighting the differences between the different tiers of journalists, critics, and publicity agents.
So how does all of this affect the music itself, and why is it important to consumers and the industry at large? What does it matter to consumers if they get their information directly through artists and labels via publicists, or via impartial third-party journalists?
“As editorial staffs shrink, there is less ability for news media to interrogate and counter the claims in press releases,” say Robert McChesney and John Nichols in their book The Death and Life of American Journalism.
Long story short, when you’re getting your information directly from artists, promoters and publicists, you may only be getting one side of the story. The facts might not be vetted, and the information may not be presented with the best interests of the public in mind, but the best interests of the people looking to financially benefit from what is being promoted.
Labels and artists in many cases are preferring to hire PR firms to promote and disseminate information about their music as opposed to spending that money on advertising in media outlets that in turn pay the salaries of independently-aligned journalists. Cutting out journalists and critics from the equation is also a way to quash dissent and to control the message making its way to the consumers. With the proliferation of social media, some PR firms are finding a space to work in that does not require the help of traditional journalism outlets, and are figuring out a way to take their message directly to consumers. That is what former USA Today journalist Brian Mansfiled will be doing in part at his new job.
“Part of what I’ll do will be geared toward the professional media,” Mansfield told Billboard, “but we’ll also be wanting to communicate information directly to fans and consumers. A lot of what I’ve been doing at ‘USA Today’ for the last several years has been not only writing stories for the website and the newspaper but also directly addressing the fans of the people I was writing about. That’s something that won’t change. We’ve got to figure out the best way to do it within the Shore Fire framework, but the idea is exactly the same.”
But such enterprises tend to blur the lines even more for consumers, confused on if what they’re seeing is true reporting from a disinterested third-party, or promotional material from a PR firm. Making matters even worse is the presence of the journalism version of “payola.”
Even though some labels, managers, and PR firms might be looking forward to a future where journalism is obsolete and they can take their message directly to the consumers, the allure of objectivity still entices them to work with journalists today. Readers and fans are more likely to believe the hype behind a band, a song, or an album if they think the positivity behind it is coming from someone without any chips in the game. But the use of “sponsored content” and even the buying of positive news stories is becoming more common in the music media marketplace.
In April, CMT cut most of their editorial staff, including 13-year veteran Craig Shelburne, and decommissioned their CMT Edge blog. Radio.com, owned by CBS, also slashed their journalism staff this year. Yet both of these entities continue to publish articles, some of which include information sourced from other places, some of which is simply press releases from artists and PR firms posted verbatim as opposed to being fact-checked by third-party editorial staff or used as source material for more original content.
For example, in August CMT published an articled called Darius Rucker Tapes Hometown Instant Jam. The article looked innocuous enough, until you saw that the author was “Bush Beans,” and you noticed the “sponsored” tag at the top of the piece. This wasn’t an article in the traditional sense, it was an advertisement veiled and framed in the style of an article. In fairness, local newspapers have been engaging in similar “sponsored content” on the back fold of editions for many years. But now instead of being offered as an addendum to the real news and stories, it is being offered in replacement of real journalism content in many cases.
And in some instances, the relationship between PR and media is becoming even more underhanded.
On Tuesday (9-22), Thump reported that the EDM-based music journalism site EDM.com was asking for and receiving bribes from artists, labels, and bands to feature content on the site. In a leaked email, Sales and Marketing Director Dayna Young offers a prospective artist a menu of options of how to get a video featured. An EDM.com article about the video, including a push on the site’s Facebook and Twitter accounts, would cost $1,000. Instagram and Vine mentions would cost $350. And inclusion in EDM.com’s “Slingshot” program would cost $600.
With the amount of money flowing to PR firms who are under high pressure to deliver for clients, it’s not a leap of faith to think this practice is becoming more common in the music industry.
Meanwhile the lack of true transparency, objective reporting, and meaningful criticism of music is making it more difficult for consumers to navigate to the best music in an increasingly-crowded marketplace. In the movie and theater realms, in the food realm, and even in much of the sports world, criticism and dissent are expected, and are commonly served by professional journalists, sometimes making salaries in the six and seven-figure ranges. Criticism in the arts is seen as an important part of the creative process, and sports journalists are regularly the ones exposing scandals or holes in the rules that help keep professional sports honest.
However in the music world, critics are commonly ostracized, made out to be bullies, and are slowly being defunded by the withholding of advertising dollars and the shuffling of money towards publicity. Trade organizations, labels, and publicity agencies set up close relationships with media entities to publish favorable pieces, and music journalism is quickly morphing into nothing more than a promotional arm for the industry, resorting to covering artists favorably or running sponsored content to survive.
Artists, labels, and PR firms being able to speak directly to consumers more than ever through the vehicle of social media arguably doesn’t make music media obsolete, it makes it more necessary than ever to help listeners navigate through a crowded marketplace, and make sure they’re not being misled by an industry trying to deal with their own revenue and contraction issue in the digital age.