Why So Many Idaho Journalists Leave News For Public Relations

Oct 17, 2014

Former Idaho Statesman journalist Dan Popkey (right) pictured with Idaho First Lady Lori Otter.
Credit Otter For Idaho Twitter

The news business as we know it is in crisis. It's been well reported that revenue has been drying up as advertisers move online, causing newspapers to shrink their staffs. Something that's less-often reported is how much the public relations business has been booming.

While journalism jobs have been disappearing over the last decade, public relations has grown to the point that there are now nearly five people in PR for every one working reporter, according to the Pew Research Center. In Idaho that ratio is more like two-to-one, but closer to three-to-one in the Treasure Valley.

A few months ago, we told you about veteran political reporter Dan Popkey leaving the Idaho Statesman  to work for Rep. Raul Labrador. In journalism, as well as in political and public relations circles, that announcement was met with shock. It was hard to imagine Popkey doing anything other than poking at politicians, let alone helping one deflect those pokes.

However, his jump wasn't uncommon. Reporters in Idaho leave the news business to work in PR all the time. Just about every government agency, and many private companies in Idaho, have ex-journalists answering the phone when reporters call.

Sometimes it seems every Idaho reporter eventually goes to work in PR.

“Kinda looks that way, huh?” says Todd Dvorak, communications director for the Idaho attorney general.

“Or in journalistic parlance I’m the flack,” he says.

Last December Dvorak left a 20-year journalism career. The last seven years of that he headed the Boise office of The Associated Press. Dvorak talks about wanting new experiences and new challenges. But he admits a big part of his career change was because he wanted a life.

“I used to sleep with my phone on right next to my pillow because I never knew when news was going to break and I needed to be ready,” he says.

Covering the Idaho Legislature was two-or-three months of 12-hour days, but at least he got a Saturday or Sunday off. That wasn’t always the case. Take August 2013 when a kidnapped girl was found in the Idaho wilderness.

“And then that went right into the wildfires up in Sun Valley,” Dvorak says. “I worked a span of 16-straight days, and those were long days. That kind of work takes a toll.”

Dvorak looks up at the decorative molding around the high ceiling of his Capitol building office. He says being a journalist now is harder than when he started.

Todd Dvorak left a 20-year career as a journalist to lead communications for the Idaho Attorney General's office.
Credit Adam Cotterell / Boise State Public Radio

“Now journalists are being asked to take photos, shoot video, edit video, write stories throughout the day for the website,” he says. “Journalists in general are all being asked to do more with less.”

Journalist burnout is by no means a new phenomenon, but Dvorak thinks it’s gone from common to nearly universal.

“If you look back in journalism 30 or 40 years ago, you had a lot of people who retired,” Dvorak says. “And the demands that are being placed on journalists now, it’s really difficult to imagine being a career journalist."

When reporters leave the profession, Dvorak says PR is a natural fit. You know what media outlets need and how to get it to them. But he says it’s hard to replace experienced journalists.

“When you’re a veteran reporter you develop a legion of sources that trust you and provide you with tips on stories that can change the way government operates, change a political campaign, change the way we view something,” Dvorak says.

Seth Ashley, who teaches journalism and media studies at Boise State University, thinks the loss of veteran reporters is a big loss for news consumers. He says, for example, when Popkey left, Idaho Statesman readers lost an invaluable source of knowledge about Idaho politics.  

“And sure maybe the Statesman will hire some new folks to come in, maybe fresh out of journalism school, maybe they’ll have 10 years under their belt in another town, but they’re not going to have that background that Dan had,” Ashley says. “It’s going to take them, to get to where he was, a number of decades.”

Ashley says the main thing he laments is the lopsided reporter-to-PR rep ratio.

“The imbalance between independent investigators sorting through all the information out there and presenting it in some attempt to be non-biased and non-partisan and objective and independent, versus those who are definitely out to sell a point of view,” Ashley says.

So if a stampede of reporters going to PR is bad for journalism how is it for PR?

Mary Francis Casper, who heads Boise State’s PR program says, ex-journalists are valuable in the branch of PR that deals with the media. And she says the two fields require many of the same skills.

“If you’re in journalism, it tends to be because you’re a really good writer,” Casper says. “And the most important thing in public relations is writing.”

Casper makes a distinction between public relations generally and media relations. She says many people in PR don’t deal with the news media at all. She says the advances in information technology that are hurting the news business have created a lot of new ways for companies and organizations and governments to get their messages out. That's what's driving the growth in PR she says. 

Casper was 2013’s president of the Public Relations Society of America, Idaho chapter. She’s a big advocate for the PR profession but, turns out, she’s also passionate about journalism. 

“If we’re a democracy, we need journalism,” she says. “We need it, it’s not an option, it’s a requirement. And if we’re not supporting that, it’s a problem.”

And she doesn’t think Idaho is supporting journalism. Along with the veteran reporters, Casper sees a lot of young Idaho journalists going to PR. She says to be a young reporter here is to work very hard and be poor. She says Idaho news outlets tend to hire people right out of college.

“Until they decide to buy a home or whatever and then we replace them with someone else right out of college who we can hire for next to nothing,” she says.

The average Idaho PR starting salary is more than 60 percent higher than the average starting reporter salary. That gap doesn’t narrow much as time goes on. And Casper says PR firms are hiring.

“If I want to stay here and I want to do something that involves writing and storytelling and interacting with my community, what’s my options?” Casper says.

Podgorski reporting on a drowning in 2011.
Credit Ty Brennan, courtesy Natalie Podgorsky

Natalie Podgorski took that option after just two years in Boise TV news. Podgorski now works for a PR and consulting firm in Boise. She says she was prepared for the long hours and low pay as a journalist, but she wanted to do it because she thought she could make a difference in people’s lives. And sometimes she says, she did.

“Every reporter has those moments where they feel like ‘this story that I did today it’s really really making a difference in our community,’” Podgorski says. “The problem is, with daily news cycles you don’t get to do that every single day. You do have those days, but maybe they’re just not close enough together.”

In between those days that made Podgorski believe she was on the right path, she was doing a lot of stories that made her question that.

“Arrests, car crashes, house fires. Some of them are important and people need to know about them,” she says. “But the really good news stories -- you didn’t always feel they got the coverage they deserved.” 

She believes TV news teams in Boise are mostly trying to serve the public, and mostly succeeding. But she says industry realities make that difficult. Podgorski doesn’t want to speak for anyone else, but maybe she says other young reporters leave because they’re not getting what they wanted out of journalism.

“These things that you’ve dreamed of, you really want that to be a reality and when it’s not, maybe you know, some people feel disillusioned,” she says.

Podgorski left has a message to young people thinking of going into journalism: please do it. You can make a difference, she says, and your community needs you to try. And she hopes some of those who heed that call will be able to stay in for a long time.

Find reporter Adam Cotterell on Twitter @cotterelladam

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