Category Archives: newspapers

Five things not to say to editors

What should you never say to an editor if he or she is commissioning you?

I’ve been involved in setting up a new website for the New Statesman this month, editing numerous supplements for them and also editing Professional Outsourcing Magazine for more than a couple of years. It strikes me that there are still some pretty fundamental mistakes being made by a minority in the PR and business world.

Let’s make this clear: this is about people pitching commercially-driven articles rather than independent journalists or members of the public being interviewed. Journalists will know how we work and members of the public shouldn’t have to.

So, some pretty fundamental errors I’m still hearing:

  1. That’s the deadline? I’ll try. You’re trying to be helpful, I understand that. But if you’re going to struggle with a deadline, the longer I have to plan, the easier my job becomes. Editors get so close to the job (as do other professionals) that we assume you understand this – so when you say “I’ll try” we hear “I’ll definitely have the piece with you in plenty of time”.
  2. The deadline is difficult for us this month; can we go into next month’s issue? The chances are this is a “no” because I’ll already have the next slot filled. It gets worse. The person who asked me this recently was asking about a specific supplement for a specific magazine, so there would be no repeat of an appropriate slot in the immediate future; not only that but the magazine is weekly. The magazine I actually edit is quarterly. Anyone asking me about “next month’s issue” goes straight into my mental “not a clue” file. (I do stress I’m talking to people who are pitching to me for their own company or client’s gain – so I have the right to expect them to have done the basic research; readers and members of the public can make all the mistakes they want without prejudice).
  3. I’ve written over length, that’s OK, isn’t it? Yes it is as long as you don’t mind me making all the cuts I fancy. Editors, when they ask for 1000 words, mean precisely that. Technically you can indeed go over length on the Web, but if our house style is for shorter pieces we won’t accommodate longer pieces. And on the printed page we don’t have the flexibility. I’ve actually had people send 800 words for a 600 word slot and failing to understand that we can’t fit it in.
  4. I’ve got a colleague/associate to write this. This is probably fine as long as I know about it in advance. Next week there’s a supplement coming out from the New Statesman. I’ve edited it and there’s a piece from an academic; it was prompted by an interview with one of his colleagues, who I initially approached. It was clear very quickly that choice 1 wasn’t going to be able to fit it in, while choice 2 was probably a better expert anyway. They kept me fully abreast of this and re-confirmed when they’d made a firm decision; the resulting article is utterly superb. I’ve had other instances in which, at the last minute, having the layouts done including a headshot of the contributor, copy has come in by someone who’s been a complete stranger to me.
  5. I decided the subject wasn’t interesting enough so I’ve written about something else entirely. Genuinely, I had this only the other week. Now look, guys, I’m the editor – and if I’m expecting an article on a given subject I don’t want to be surprised at the last minute. Nor do I want to read an article that appears completely irrelevant after discussing it with you. If you find there isn’t enough substance in the original idea I’m fine with that – pick up the phone, talk to me, it proves you’re thinking about it and engaged! That’s a great thing. Never, though, decide you’re going to do something else and forget to tell me. For all you know I’ve commissioned someone else to write about something identical to, or too close to, your new idea, rendering it unusable.

The majority of people get it spectacularly right, most of the time. The guy in point 4 has written one of the best pieces I’ve ever commissioned, seriously. If you’re one of the small number who do otherwise, please take note!

Do you need help engaging with the press? Contact me via this form and we’ll talk.

Tip Sheet: Before the media interview

Let’s assume you’ve done the tricky part and attracted the attention of the media. Whether local or national, you now need to prepare for the interview. Don’t assume you’ll get to see all the questions in advance (depending on what you might say, we don’t actually know all of them yet). It’s a free country and we’re going to feel free to ask whatever occurs to us on behalf of the reader.

So here’s a quick checklist of things to have ready before your interview.

  • Three clear messages. Ideally these should be tied to your desired outcome. If you’re looking for customers, tailor the messages around why buying from you is a good idea (but don’t be too salesy). If you’re looking for investors, prepare messages about financial solidity, and soforth.
  • Prepare techniques for getting back to your messages every so often. Don’t ignore our questions, you’ll look untrustworthy – but come back to your points, as you would in any business discussion. I look at techniques for doing this in my media training sessions.
  • Interviewed by phone? Great – have a list of your company’s figures and facts, and everything you really ought to know by heart but you know you’re going to be nervous.
  • Even if you’re going to be in vision, prepare a list of likely questions and make sure you can answer them.
  • Then prepare a list of questions you hope they won’t ask and prepare answers to those, too. If the journalist doesn’t ask, fine. If they do, you’ll be glad you prepared.
  • If you’re going to be seen on screen, remember patterned shirts and jangly jewellery can be distracting – blocks of colour and simple apparel is best.
  • If you’re getting a new suit/dress/haircut for the event, get it a few days beforehand so you’re used to it. Feeling self-conscious is the death knell for so many interviews.
  • Try to video yourself answering questions and without being overly critical, watch out for repetitious phrases and physical habits people might find irritating.
  • Take all the advice you’ve ever had about how to sit up straight and keep your hands to your side in an interview, and bin it. As long as you’re not actually assaulting the journalist you’re better off being natural.
  • Ask the journalist what his or her first question is going to be. If you’re live on a streaming audio or video show there’s nothing worse than the first response being “Umm…..” – I’ve been there, done that, it doesn’t end well!

Do we need a new newspaper?

Photo Trinity Mirror

Two significant things have happened lately in the newspaper world and I think they’re more related than people have assumed. First, the Independent has decided to start publishing online only. Second, we’re expecting the first issue of a new paper, the New Day, in less than a week.

So what’s going on?

First it’s important to deal with the Indie. I have to say I’m sad but not at all surprised. It’s been years since I wrote for it, partly because one of my commissioning editors was unbelievably rude (she had a reputation for telling everyone they couldn’t structure an article, that everything they’d written was unrelated and incoherent…then publishing anyway, which is what happened to me) and second because the absolute last time I wrote for them, they decided to cut their freelance rates without warning. There was no point in objecting, I was told, there were new people in charge.

That’s not how I do business. I took the loss and worked elsewhere. It’s not how anybody does business. It may have been unrepresentative and I have no idea how many sections of the paper were affected, but I wasn’t surprised to hear it was going.

It will be interesting to see whether the digital version is successful. Taking away the overhead of printing certainly sounds like a positive move (and following journalist cutbacks of 20% a few weeks ago I imagine my Guardian friends are watching this like the proverbial hawks) unless you’re employed by the printer; whether the brand is as easy to sustain without the print version as a flagship or even loss leader remains to be seen. The Daily Mail has done extraordinarily well on the Web, but would it work without that printed flagship?

New Day

My guess is that it wouldn’t work for people my age (50) but younger people won’t mind so much about the printed stuff – they’ve grown up with screens rather than learned them in adulthood. So it’s arguably an odd time for Trinity Mirror to be launching New Day, which emerges on the 29th.

The BBC suggests the difference between this and the I is that the I is a cut-down version of the Independent, whereas New Day will be a standalone title.

This is where they miss the point and where there is a link between the two. The I won’t be a cut-down version of the Independent when it’s owned by Johnston Press, and especially when there is no Independent in hard copy form (even if it retained its ties, it’s going to be standalone as far as the hard copy buyer in the newsagent is concerned).

So New Day has an opportunity in appealing to time-poor people whose views don’t coincide with those of the relatively liberal Independent stable. At the moment, though, it’s aiming to be politically neutral and will not have a leader as such, but a selection of easy-to-digest news.

And this is where the real risk is going to emerge; never mind a new title, they’ve come and gone before and will continue to do so as the digital world makes further inroads. What’s new is that we’re all so used to the papers being so strident about their views (Guardian to the left, Telegraph to the right, Mail even further to the right and soforth) that something genuinely neutral could risk looking pretty bland by comparison. Oh, and did I mention this one won’t have a website so if you want it you’ll have to buy it? Or just log on to something else.

I wish the new launch nothing but well – why would anyone say otherwise? But they’re going to have to find an attention-grabber other than “neutral” to sell in the number they’ll need to make it sustainable.