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Press Releases: They're Not Just for the Subversion of Journalism Anymore

  • March 9, 2001
  • By Michael Hall

I live in dread of press releases.

There's a general kvetch most writers (and readers) aim at them, which is that they're representative of a sad trend in the news media today, and one that a lot of journalism schools are complicit in. They appropriate "journalese" and turn it toward providing the antithesis of good journalism: directed, focused spin that encourages the lazy writer (and reader) to decide that because the language used is so similar to what a reporter might write, they're reliable sources of information.

A good friend of mine who earned his journalism degree several years ago complained that his j-school classes were as oriented around training flacks to use newsy language in their press releases as they were in teaching budding journalists the nuances of reporting the news. His complaint was that his professors were encouraging the subversion of news writing by teaching flacks how to weasel past the filters many people have against obvious marketing language. If an advertisement reads like news, he argued, many people will take it as such out of simple conditioned response to the rhythms and cadences of writing style.

I agree with him, but my real dread doesn't come so much from the part they're playing in the big blur between marketing and news writing as the form they tend to arrive in: horrible, bloated HTML spewed out of the many HTML editors out there today. I have to wade through that every time I post a release to LinuxPR, for instance, and they're often a nightmare of useless and redundant tags, or tags that have inexplicably been left in place even when the text they enclosed was removed.

It's usually easier to just render the PR in a browser, cut and paste that into a text editor, and add the minimal amount of tags needed to make the thing presentable again. Problem solved, and it beats deleting the references to non-existent stylesheets (or, worse, stylesheets loaded from another server altogether), font-specifying tags that begin and end every paragraph, and so on.

As tempting as it is, though, to mutter curses at the flack dutifully cranking out megabytes of questionably-constructed HTML documents with Word or StarOffice, I try to take a deep breath and remember that a lot of people, right or wrong, are simply stumped by actually using a markup language. It doesn't fit the dominant paradigm of computing over the last ten years, which involves providing buttons and WYSIWYG feedback to do everything. Remembering tags is harder for most than remembering to use an interface they're familiar with from their word processor. Is it the wrong way to do things? I think so. Is it a fact of life? Yes.

So I look askance at a lot of HTML editors, wishing that they'd make at least make an attempt to bridge the gap between WYSIWYG simpicity and the generation of clean markup. Being afflicted by a dollop of laziness, myself, I tend to use GNU Emacs and a handy extension for it: html-helper-mode for my markup. It spares me having to type

every time I want a new paragraph by providing ALT-p as a shortcut to produce the tag, it has a bunch of handy tools for providing datestamps, enclosing a URL in an anchor tag, and shortcuts for most of the tags you'll need. It even defers to good HTML practice by breaking out logical and physical styles ( as opposed to ). It's ideal for light markup, or for a quick jog to the memory for how a forgotten tag should work.

Emacs, though, isn't the answer for everybody. In fact, there are few things more cruel than hyping it to the ceilings to a cherished friend and then disappearing for a week while they go through the process of training their fingers to cope with the sort of digit acrobatics required to make things work.

A good partway solution would be to leverage the sort of comprehensive and consistent look and feel a GUI can bring to the computing experience without introducing the dumbing-down (and bad-HTML-inducing) elements of a lot of HTML editors. A hybrid between the friendlier interface provided by GUI's and the economy provided by a plain old text editor with good shortcuts, or even just a plain old text editor.

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