Gary Belsky talks journalism, PR, and telling stories

Connections are funny. And whether we want to believe it or not our personal, physical, soul connections are what make the world go-round. This is an easy thing to forget in our hyper-connected, tech-driven, amped-up world; but it’s absolutely true.

A decade ago (while living in Chicago where I worked with an entertainment development startup) I met a young, talented writer named Chris Sprow who had founded a sports magazine in Chicago. He would frequent events we produced and venues we owned, and I always enjoyed our conversations – funny, snarky, insightful, and sometimes serious.

He went on to sell that publication and has since become a Senior Editor at ESPN. I still see him nearly every time I visit New York, and he has been an integral part of my “grown up life” as an entrepreneur in the PR space.

During my last trip to New York he introduced me to Gary Belsky, ESPN’s former editor in chief, and now columnistfor Time.com. We immediately hit it off, and I see a bright future full of many interesting, compelling, and thoughtful conversations.

So 10 years later, after meeting Chris (and countless hours spent over drinks talking baseball), that connection has lead to this amazing and insightful interview with one of the best in the biz.

Enjoy…and remember…this business, this life, is about relationships.

In your opinion, what is the No. 1 misconception about Journalism?

Gary Belsky: That there is such a thing as a mainstream media…or at least a mainstream media conspiracy. There are, of course, cultural and hiring tendencies in all organizations, but journalism is broadly subject to the same market pressures as other industries. If a bias or perspective is not in demand among large enough audiences, the market will correct for that. This has happened, to some extent, of course. But if there was a demand for more right wing or conservative media outlets, believe me when I tell you, entrepreneurs would be starting them.

What makes for a great story? In other words, what are the key components to a writing something people will care about, be inspired by, etc.?

GB: Tension, foremost, and uncertainty of outcome, along with relevance. In other words, there needs to be conflict and consequence. Which is what drama is about, essentially. There’s a reason they’re called stories.

Do you think the PR industry is “broken?” What would make it better?

GB: I don’t think there is one Public Relations industry, actually. I think there are various different businesses that are grouped together as “PR,” all at different places along the efficacy spectrum. That is, some are more useful and efficient than others; and, oddly, some of the ones in which players are struggling are still the most powerful when they work (i.e. old school media placement). [PR] is harder than ever to do, but possessing of great potential when done right. The same holds true for social media, which is a part of PR. Some of it works, some of it is a waste of time. I have a theory about one aspect of PR, but people pay me a lot of money to help them implement it. I’m too expensive for this interview space, alas.

Who is one of the best publicists you know, and why?

GB: There’s a woman named Amy Stanton in L.A. She would probably be annoyed that I gave her name as a top publicist, because she doesn’t really see herself in such simple terms. But as much as anyone she understands the need to cultivate media contacts on a granular level, i.e., she tries to understand the human beings in positions of power in media, as well as the necessity to understand the problems each individual content outlet faces, so she can tailor her clients’ story to solve them.

The best PR people are always trying to solve a media person’s problem first, using their clients; rather than trying to solve their clients’ problem first, using the media. Amy Stanton understands that as well as anyone. The best in-house PR person I have ever met is Patti Strauss. She was at Time, Inc. for years and is now at Bloomberg. She never tried to get attention for ideas that didn’t deserve it, or try to get her clients – the journalists working for her publications – on the air who couldn’t carry their weight; so TV and radio producers always respected her and even took her advice. That’s when you know a PR person is good: when journalists trust him or her not to screw them or waste their time. That’s Patti’s calling card.

Do you think social media has killed the art of journalism?

GB: No. The art of journalism is finding and telling stories. Social media is, for the most part, a technology for sharing stories. While there is grassroots journalism involving social media, for the most part its effect is much more pronounced on the media business than it is on journalism.

What does the future of media look like? Where is it all going? Will print die?

GB: I don’t know, forward, and no: the automobile didn’t kill the carriage industry, which exists as a niche business; and TV didn’t kill the radio business, which is still quite robust. Print media will fall somewhere between the spectrum of those two zombie businesses, i.e., still kicking long after their supposed death was supposed to happen.

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Gary Belsky HeadshotAbout Gary Belsky

Gary Belsky, a columnist for Time.com, is the former editor in chief of ESPN The Magazine and espninsider.com, one of the world’s largest paid-content websites in the world.  He is the author of several books, including the bestselling Why Smart People Make Big Money Mistakes And How To Correct Them: Lessons From The Life-Changing Science of Behavioral Economics. A partner with Elland Road Consulting, a content strategy consultancy, Belsky lectures frequently on decision making to business and consumer audiences around the world. From 2007 through 2010, Belsky was co-host of a weekly sports radio show on Sirius, and prior to that he was a regular commentator on CNN’s Your Money and a frequent contributor to Good Morning AmericaCBS This MorningCrossfire and Oprah.

A St. Louis native, Belsky graduated from the University of Missouri in that city in 1983 with a BA in speech communication and political science; he currently serves on the Leadership Council of the Pierre Laclede Honors College at the University. Before joining ESPN, Belsky was a writer at Money Magazine and a reporter for Crain’s New York Business and the St. Louis Business Journal. In 1990, he won the Gerald Loeb Award for Distinguished Business and Financial Journalism. Belsky, who lives in Manhattan, serves on the board of directors of Urban Pathways, one of New York City’s largest providers of services to the homeless and mentally ill; and the New York Neo-Futurists, an award-winning East Village theater company.