Archive for June, 2007


Press Release Journalism

Michael asks:

“I am working as a newbie freelance journalist and I recently got the idea to ask PR firms to send me their releases. The first one I called thought it was very strange and unprecedented.

Is this a professional gaffe to call up a PR firm for inclusion on their mailing list?

Secondly, do you have any thoughts on pitching story ideas that, in part, originated from PR? (I wouldn’t be doing abhorrent “press release journalism”, but I can see story ideas for trend or topical biographical stories that might stem from a PR release). ”

Michael,

First, of all, no, it isn’t a professional gaffe to call up a PR firm to ask to be included in their mailing list – especially if you’re developing a specialty area and the firm has a client or more than one client in your area of expertise. I’m surprised the PR firm hasn’t ever had a journalist ask to be included.

On your second question – ah, the old press release journalism. There’s quite a difference from developing story ideas from press releases and practicing press release journalism, which means just basically re-writing the release and putting it into the paper. Many more smaller papers are doing this now due to the drastic cuts in the newsrooms.

But this isn’t what you are wanting to do.

As a freelancer, I can’t spend much time, as I did as a beat reporter, walking the streets of downtown, popping into coffee shops to chat with local officials or talking with local business owners about what’s happening. I also don’t have access to some of the gossip my staff colleagues do in the newsrooms (although I do have long time sources who still do call me or email to give me a tip). We have to learn of stories and get story ideas from somewhere. I’ve found one of the most economical ways is to receive press releases and I develop (and the key word is develop) many of my story ideas from these releases. Many times for me, covering an event or doing a profile on a person or business means me pitching the idea to my editors before their staffers get wind of it. And I can only get the story and thus, make the money, if I receive the press release first.

One of the papers I worked for in the beginning of my career had a way to distance itself from press release journalism. Reporters were forbidden to use any quote that was in the release or, if the subject had been coached by the PR rep to give that quote as a standard answer in interviews – using that quote even if we took it in our notes. I’ve personally pretty much stuck to that rule.

There’s nothing wrong with learning of, or developing stories from press releases, as long as that’s all you’re doing.

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Breaking into Online Publications

Renee Schafer Horton asks:

“I’ve spent my life freelancing for print media. I’d like to break into the web, but I’m having a hard time figuring out the best way to approach editors of websites about working for them. Does anyone have any advice? I’m speaking of online sites that do not have a print counterpart, i.e. Huffington Post, Slate, etc.   Thanks.”

Renee,
Breaking into quality online publications is much like breaking into quality print publications. Your sales pitch, or your query, is going to determine whether you land the gig. What I do when I have set my sites on a couple of “dream markets” is study their content and make sure I know their departments and which accept freelance submissions – you can usually find this in the writers’ guidelines. I come up with what I think are a few good ideas and I write a well-crafted query letter. Sometimes a little good old fashioned networking can help on writer’s forums by asking if anyone has written for this market and getting tips from those in the know.
Something else you might consider to give you more of a platform if you’re developing an expertise (i.e. political, social or environmental issues, for example) is to create a blog. While blogging for yourself doesn’t make you much money, it could create a platform for you and land you future online and offline gigs if it is written well and managed properly. Be careful, though, if you’re writing news, that writing opinion pieces on your blog on the same subject might actually not be good as potential editors will see a lack of objectivity.
-Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell
Anyone else have any advice for Renee?
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