Uncovering the weird news

(Or letting someone else do it for you.)

Romenesko has a piece about the public information officer of the Madison (Wis.) police department:

Joel DeSpain knew his Denny’s story was a winner when the national media — including NPR and the Huffington Post — started calling him about it.

“That was the first time I’d seen that happen,” he says of the national media’s inquiries.

DeSpain’s post about the well-dressed 52-year-old man who walked into Denny’s, claimed he was the new general manager, then started cooking his own meal became an instant online hit.

“It’s just one of those water-cooler talkers,” he says.

And it is a great story. A lot of newscasts, a lot of papers, have kickers like that. The thing that is interesting, telling, is what Joel DeSpain used to do. He’s a former TV reporter, now working for the city. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. It happens frequently. But what follows should give readers pause:

DeSpain’s work has become more important to Madison media in recent years.

“It used to be that reporters would come down here and go through the logs,” he says. “But now, with all of the downsizing of the newsrooms, there’s nobody here.” Reporters now rely on DeSpain’s postings for their police news.

Cuts are often a reality. More work for less people, are often a reality. In the purest sense of journalism, however, you’ll want to resist this temptation — no matter how well intentioned DeSpain is, this is still reporting from a public relations official.

As some papers like the News Tribune have remembered, there’s a great value in returning to the police blotter.

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