Tag Archives: news

Media training: is your news timely or just new?

News, you might imagine, is something that is new. The word itself – although actually derived from the initials of the four compass points – has a clue in the name, a patronising creep of a news editor once told me. (I’m not bitter).

Except when your audience isn’t ready for it. A couple of decades ago, the Internet and email were brand new, or at least just coming into popular public use. I’d been freelance for a few years and was pitching to the Independent.

A story came in from the US, about how the .co.uk and .com addresses were going to run out by about 2001 (we now know this was not right, but we didn’t at the time). I pitched it and then editor of the technology section thought it might be interesting.

I wrote the story and was surprised when something else appeared instead. The editor had spiked my story and put in something about how to set up your email address for the first time, something I’d assumed was already pretty elderly for the national papers.

If it’s news to your audience it’s news

The editor may have been right of course. In 1997 or whenever it was, home computing was just starting. The fact that web addresses may or may not have been in danger of running out may have been a refinement too far for the readership at the time. Many would be buying their first computer, wondering what an ISP was and connecting to the rest of the world for the first time.

If you’re in PR or are pitching stories to the press yourself, it’s worth asking not just whether something is new but whether it’s newsworthy. This means it’s relevant to the readers and not something that may be relevant in a few years. Certainly it shouldn’t be something that they just won’t understand yet.

It’s possible to risk patronising the readers as a result. In 1997 I just don’t know whether that editor was talking down to his readers or whether the story I’d pitched would have been way over their heads (why he commissioned it in the first place is a question I still can’t answer). But always, always try to understand your target outlet and address it rather than address the things that might seem important to you or your client.

Do you need help with your media engagements? Contact me, I can help.

Pitching to journalists: where are you going with this?

Pitching is difficult if you’re in public relations. As a journalist I’m relatively busy I like to think. So when someone who doesn’t know me calls up with a story pitch, it had better be good. “No thanks” is by far the easiest answer as I don’t have to make any effort to produce it.

I was reminded of this today when I had a pitch from someone who’d been trying to get me to meet their client for ages. He would be in my subject area, they told me. He’s interesting. You’d like him. Here’s a list of dates, they said, so I gave in and chose one. Then they asked the deadly question.

“What questions will you be asking and what areas interest you?”

Pitching can be courteous but ineffectual

That just sounds polite. Like a lot of journalists I don’t want to be told what to do. I don’t want to be told “such and such will not speak about such and such a subject”.

However, I didn’t have any strong feelings about the interview. I was going because they’d been persistent, not because I particularly wanted to speak to the client. “Who the hell are you” is a likely first question, not that I’d phrase it as such, and other questions will depend on the response.

I threw it back and asked what their client would want to talk about. They ummed and aahed a bit. In other words, they’d spent ages and a lot of energy setting up a meeting for which they had no real objective.

Know your destination

This approach is often the fault of the client. Get me some coverage, they say, and the PR team finds itself measured by the amount of journalists’ hands that get shaken. It’s a faulty metric but if your client uses it, I’m not going to hurl insults when you adopt it.

However, it’s better if you can work out some sort of game plan beforehand. Journalists are almost certain to ask why they should meet a particular executive, so tell us. We may well be receptive if there’s a good answer. We certainly won’t if there isn’t.

Today wasn’t the worst example of this that I’ve had. Many years ago (that’s right, I’m off again) I was sent to a press trip to America. There was a party, and in the middle of it all the European press were yanked out because the CEO of a company called cc:mail wanted to meet us, we were told.

(Never, ever, drag a bunch of twentysomething journalists out of a party. Or anyone, if it’s phrased like an order. It’s just rude.)

So they dragged us out and put us in a room with this CEO. He smiled at us, we nodded frostily.

There followed 45 minutes of the most strained silence I have ever endured. I imagine he’d been pulled out of the same party and told we wanted to speak to him.

The PR person blamed the journalists of course, it was easiest – I do wonder how much longer she lasted.

If you want to pitch to a journalist, great. Don’t let the fiercer ones put you off, we need interviews or we stop earning a living. Try, though, to have an idea of why we might be interested. You never know, we might even agree.

Can I help share my experience to help you engage with journalists? Fill in the form below and we’ll talk.

How do you write a news story?

I currently write for the New Statesman – here’s a recent supplement I edited – the Guardian, and edit Professional Outsourcing Magazine, just entering my third year, as well as a lot of freelance writing. One of the things I found most difficult when I started up as a full-time journalist was news writing.

I just couldn’t get it. Snappy intros, finishing with a brilliant quote – and then the subs would turn it into what I perceived as mush, and in my view spoil it. Except, of course, they weren’t – they were improving it drastically, and here’s what they were doing.

The rules

The first rule I had to learn was that all of my thoughts about becoming a brilliant, erudite writer, were in themselves a load of mush. If I wanted to become a news journalist I had to keep it simple. That’s even truer now than it was then as we live in an increasingly global environment. Simple phrasing is easier to understand.

Some of the advice was poor, mind you. Always stick to short sentences, they said. Short is better. People won’t read longer stuff. They like brevity. But you can’t develop an idea. Only when you allow yourself a bit of length can you really explore something and open out, as long as you ensure the sentence itself is comprehensible. (See what I did there?)

The big lesson, though, was to consider how people read news stories. Only very rarely will they read right to the end. So the important stuff has to go at the beginning. It’s like a pyramid (see that picture at the top of this post?); if you cut the bottom layer off, it’s still a complete pyramid. People reading a story and not finishing it still need to take away the salient facts. People reading a story that’s been cut for length – and sub-editors will always cut from the bottom in a news setting – still need to understand what’s gone on.

That image has stayed with me for years, even as people’s tendency to read to the end has diminished with the increasing distractions of the Internet. It still works and probably always will. It’s also something to bear in mind if you’re in PR rather than journalism. Adopt that pyramid structure for a press release and a journalist, no matter how subconsciously, will identify that the release has been written in his/her language.

So have a look at your own news output. Could you take off the last few lines and leave the sense of it intact? And if not, should you be fixing it?

Do you need coaching with your writing skills? As a current, practising journalist I can help. Fill in the form below and we’ll talk.