Who Wants to Know?

John Martellaro

What is a media outlet? Who is a journalist? Whose questions should you answer, and whose can and should you ignore?

The answers used to be easy, the lines solid and distinct. Not anymore.

The days when you needed a printing press or a transmitter to be a significant player in “the media” are over. On the national level, The New York Times has a paid circulation of about 876,000. Charlie Sheen, meanwhile, has more than 3.9 million followers on Twitter.

Locally, Tony Botello is a one-man operation who brags about operating his blog from his mother’s basement. His Tony’s Kansas City site is filled with gossip, innuendo, unsourced conjecture and unverified “news tips” – and lots of photos of busty, scantily clad women. Yet he is generally regarded as the city’s most influential blogger, breaks stories that send traditional print and broadcast media scrambling to catch up, and was the subject of a recent cover-story profile in the alt-weekly The Pitch – the publication that used to represent the radical fringe of Kansas City media but has been pushed into near-respectability by new-generation one-man bands like Botello.

Is Botello a journalist? Certainly not in the classic definition. He makes no qualms about holding grudges and going after those he dislikes with undisguised and unmitigated fury. Once he turned against former Mayor Mark Funkhouser over Funkhouser’s refusal to remove a park board appointee Botello considered anti-Hispanic. Botello launched a relentless anti-Funk crusade that launched his reputation as Funkhouser’s fiercest and most frequent critic.

Now, political figures across the spectrum respond to Botello’s questions, and see their policy statements and speech excerpts displayed on his site in between photos of British cheesecake models Lucy Pinder and Sophie Howard.

Who, exactly, is a journalist these days, and deserves to be treated like one? Everyone is wrestling with that question right now.

An unaffiliated blogger, Stephanie Wei, caused a stir at the last U.S. Open golf tournament because, as an inexperienced rookie, she wandered into the no-press-allowed players’ lounge and tried to interview golfer Ian Poulter, who wasn’t pleased with the intrusion. Writing for the National Sports Journalism Center, veteran sportswriter Dave Kindred observed, “An admitted neophyte, Wei yet had a working press badge for the nation’s biggest golf tournament.” She had one because her blog, Weiunderpar, averages 150,000 to 200,000 page views per month.

Is James C. Fitzpatrick a journalist? One would be hard-pressed to say no, given that he spent more than three decades as a reporter and editor at The Kansas City Star. But after his retirement from The Star, Fitzpatrick still felt his journalistic calling and started a blog, Jimmy C Says.

When Fitzpatrick thought the death of a Lenexa high school student in a car accident on a residential street in Olathe was suspicious, he started asking questions – including approaching the dead young man’s parents. That move prompted a warning to Fitzpatrick from Lenexa police to stay away from the family – something that would have been inconceivable had he still been working under the aegis of The Star. The incident stirred up no shortage of controversy and criticism – some saying Fitzpatrick had overstepped his bounds, some saying the same of the police.

One thing was clear to all: We have entered new and uncharted territory. Who is a journalist? No one can answer that question definitively anymore.

What does that mean for your organization and its media strategy? It means that there are no hard and fast rules to apply to most situations now. Each media opportunity, every request for information or comment, has to be judged within its own context. There are times when you may want to decline an interview opportunity with The New York Times but accept one with Tony’s Kansas City. It’s all about timing and context, what questions are being asked, and who is doing the asking.

But this much you can carve in stone: You never, under any circumstances, want to sit for an interview with Charlie Sheen.

— John Martellaro, TCG Senior Account Manager

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One Response to Who Wants to Know?

  1. jfitzpatr says:

    Thanks for the “black and white,” John. Good piece. Jim Fitz.

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