The 16 Things Reporters Find Newsworthy

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on December 2, 2014 – 8:38 pm

Editor’s note: Three years ago, I published a post containing 11 things that journalists find newsworthy. Since then, many readers have added their thoughts to mine—so today, this list becomes the 16 things reporters consider newsworthy.

If you’ve ever pitched a story idea to a reporter by phone, you know how hard it can be to succeed.

When reporters say “no,” the person pitching them on the other end of the phone often protests, “But this issue is so important!” They’re probably right. But there’s a big difference between what you consider important and what the reporter considers newsworthy.

As an example, more than 35 million people are living with HIV worldwide. That’s an important story. But in the eyes of reporters, that story will be no more important tomorrow than it is today—unless something happens related to HIV today. If physicians discover a new vaccine or a drug company pledges to provide free drugs to one million HIV patients in Africa, the “important” issue will suddenly become “newsworthy.”

As a spokesperson, it’s important for you to understand what reporters consider newsworthy. You can often propel your story from important to newsworthy just by highlighting a different angle.

News

So take out that story you’re about to pitch and see which of the following 16 elements it has (hopefully it has several). If you’re not prioritizing those elements enough, turn them into your lead!

1. Conflict: Reporters are professional storytellers, and good stories contain conflict. If you disagree with a competitor’s approach, for example, you’re more likely to receive coverage than if you agree.

2. Local: Most news organizations cover a specific geographic range. A newspaper in Iowa may report on a local charity event, but is unlikely to report on a new condo development in Florida (unless a well-known Iowa entrepreneur is the development’s lead investor).

3. Incident: Anything that goes wrong has the potential to become newsworthy, such as an industrial explosion, a car crash, or a school shooting.

4. Extremes or superlatives: Reporters love extremes or superlatives: the first, the last, the best, the worst, the biggest, the smallest. If your story contains one, highlighting it will usually make it more newsworthy.

5. New: It’s no coincidence that the word “news” contains the word “new.” News stories have to answer the question, “why now?” Stories that don’t are considered “old news”—or worse, “no news”—and usually receive little coverage.

6. Clickable: This is a new category, spawned by the popularity of news and entertainment websites such as BuzzFeed and Upworthy. Because they depend upon clicks to draw readers, and thus advertisers, they’re more likely to run your story if it helps them attract a large audience. Think in terms of provocative, highly emotional, and downright weird stories, images, and videos.

7. Timely and Relevant: Timely stories, often about an upcoming event, are often considered newsworthy, as are stories relevant to the news organization’s specialty. An upcoming hearing at your local statehouse about a topic that affects the state’s senior citizens, for example, is a good example—and the story will be of greater interest to a news organization that covers local politics than one that doesn’t.

8. News You Can Use: Reader Fletcher Doyle, a former journalist, recommended this category. He writes: “Tell me something that will help my readers, and tell me how it will help them.” For example, if a local Department of Motor Vehicles introduces a new auto registration process that helps drivers avoid standing in line for two hours, local outlets might be interested in the story.

9. Scandal: The Congressman who hides money in his freezer, the hedge fund manager who rips off his clients, and the music mogul who murders his companion are almost guaranteed to be deemed newsworthy.

10. David vs. Goliath: In many stories, there is a “big guy” and a “little guy.” Since the media often view their role as being the protector of the exploited, the little guy usually receives more sympathetic coverage.

11. Incompetence: The corporate executive, politician, or celebrity who can’t seem to get it right will almost always draw the critical eye of the press.

12. Surprising: Stories with an unexpected hook are candy to reporters. If your study discovers that fried foods have previously undiscovered health benefits, you can bet the media will lavish your work with coverage. That story, incidentally, would also make me very happy.

13. Hypocrisy: Say you’re an anti-gay rights politician who gets caught with a gay lover. Or the president of an animal shelter who’s caught abusing animals. There are few stories as delicious to reporters as powerful people betraying their own publicly-stated positions—and they’re almost guaranteed to remain in the headlines for several days or weeks.

14. Emotion: Reader William Runge added a category he called “heartstrings.” Juliet C. agreed, pointing out that many stories are neither surprising nor new—but that by digging deeper, you can often uncover a story worth telling. For example, imagine you released a new product two years ago. It’s no longer “news”—but if you’ve just learned of someone using the product in an unexpected, potentially life-altering way (e.g. a technology product that unexpectedly helped a hearing impaired child hear for the first time), reporters will eagerly share the news.

15. Milestones: Reader Susan Pepperdine suggested this category, pointing out that “the seven billionth baby on Earth” was newsworthy, but “the baby born just before seven billion and the next one after were not newsworthy.” Some anniversaries are inconsequential—few journalists care that your business just celebrated its 35th anniversary—but others, such as 9/11, will be noteworthy for decades to come.

16. Narrative Extenders: This new category is most often seen in politics. For example, a small political gaffe might not normally receive much attention—unless it’s committed by someone with a long history of committing gaffes. Or perhaps a politician with a bullying streak gives a sarcastic answer to a constituent, confirming the “bully” narrative the media had already established about that person.

What have I missed? Please add your thoughts to the comments section below.

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Delta Airlines: Is This Spin, Good Marketing, Or Both?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on October 15, 2014 – 7:44 pm

If you’re an occasional Delta Airlines customer, you’re going to find it harder to reach “Medallion” frequent flier status in 2016. If you’re a frequent Delta Airlines customer, you may find it difficult to retain the status you’ve already earned.

Delta Airlines announced big changes to its 2016 frequent flier policy late last week which, in aggregate, reduces benefits to customers. In one article, The St. Cloud Times characterized the changes rather negatively as, “New Delta Policy Further Squeezes Economy Travelers.”

Delta sent an email to customers late last week to announce the change and help control the message. The manner in which they did so caught my eye; here’s the email I received:

Delta Exclusivity

Delta had two options: They could have written a letter to customers defending and justifying their new policy (economic realities in the airline industry necessitated the change, blah blah…) or spun it as a positive.

They chose the second option. They wrapped their announcement, which would widely be seen as a negative (it’s tougher for me to accrue points!) and presented it as a positive (our frequent fliers deserve to receive exclusive treatment).  

Their email continued:

Delta Exclusivity 2

I saw right through this PR approach immediately, but I’m not sure I disagree with it. They wrapped the changes around a virtue—our best customers deserve the most exclusive service—and I suspect their best customers will appreciate being prioritized even more.

It’s a fine line between spin and straightforward communication, and the lines are often blurry. Some of this blog’s readers might view this PR approach as spin that intentionally buries the lead and ignores the bad news. And I’m not sure I find the memo entirely credible (when they write, “That’s why we’re adjusting the 2016 Medallion Qualification Dollars thresholds,” I’m skeptical—I suspect the changes were simply the result of a strategic business decision).

But in the end, I’m with the Delta PR team on this one. I support their approach of using exclusivity as the mechanism to announce these changes, and believe they made the most of a tough announcement.

But that’s just my view. What do you think?

What Do You Think Of Delta's Approach?

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A Surprise For People Who Think They Hate Reporters

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on October 6, 2014 – 12:07 am

I’ve worked with many people who don’t trust or like the media. But one recent group of trainees from a public entity was more emphatic in their hatred of the press than I’d ever encountered before. 

This group constantly felt besieged by a rapacious press corps that couldn’t be satiated, and they believed that reporters were far too busy pursuing their own predetermined agendas to give them a fair shot.

Given the hostility of this group toward the press, I decided to try something different. The result was striking, if not outright shocking.  

Press Conference

Instead of playing the role of reporter (as I usually do in media training sessions), I decided to divide the group in half.

The first group played their usual role of serving as corporate spokespersons. I gave them a scenario to work with, asked them to develop their messages and media strategy, and told them to assign a person who would deliver a press conference.

The second group was tasked with playing the role of reporters during a press conference. I told them that their job was to do everything they could to get the facts the spokesperson was reluctant to offer. I instructed them to get past the spin, challenge evasive responses, and do whatever they could to get to the truth.

The second group took their job seriously. When the press conference began, they were unforgiving of anything that remotely bordered spin. They asked tough follow-up questions, used evidence to contradict some of the spokesperson’s claims, and adopted an almost hostile tone. Frankly, they were tougher than most of the reporters I’ve ever seen at press conferences.

Microphones Over White Background

 

The “Aha!” Moment

When the press conference ended, I asked both groups what they were feeling. The group representing the company said they felt exhausted and beaten up. But the group of reporters was pissed. They felt that the company was being evasive, and they resented the company’s lack of candor.

I didn’t have to say anything. My takeaway message seemed to wash over everyone simultaneously: Reporters aren’t always being jerks just to be jerks; sometimes, they just resent that you’re not being straight with them.

That profound realization, which reminded me of the old adage about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, changed their perspective. Suddenly, they understood how they were complicit in the media’s reaction to their attempts at media management—and they recognized the need to begin doing things differently.

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Bad PR: A “Fun” Pitch For “National Beheading Day”

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on September 4, 2014 – 5:07 am

The Islamic militant group ISIS released a video on Tuesday showing the beheading of American journalist Steven Sotloff.

At about the same moment, a PR team representing the Fox television show Sleepy Hollow sent out a media pitch promoting the impending release of the program’s first season on DVD.

The media pitch, as captured by the excellent media website JimRomenesko.com, is below.

Headless Day Two

From: JJ Mariani (sleepyhollowdvd@thinkjam.com)
Date: Tue, Sep 2, 2014 at 12:49 PM
Subject: Sleepyheads Celebrate Headless Day – eCards Available

Hi –

Heads will roll as sleepyheads celebrate Headless Day today, September 2. On this National Beheading Day, viewers everywhere can share in the fun as fans prepare for the release of Sleepy Hollow: Season One on Digital HD now and arriving on Blu-ray and DVD September 16.

We hope you like them and are able to share them with your readers! If you share via your social media platforms, please tag them with #HeadlessDay!

Just 90 minutes later—after realizing their bad timing—the PR team sent an apology:

Dear journalists,

We apologize for the unfortunate timing of our Sleepy Hollow Headless Day announcement. The tragic news of Steven Sotloff’s death hit the web as the email was being sent.

Our deepest sympathies are with him and his family, and we don’t take the news lightly.

Had we have known this information prior, we would have never released the alert and realize it’s in poor taste.

Please accept our sincerest apologies.

Best,
Sleepy Hollow Team

Headless Day One

Read that apology again. The Sleepy Hollow PR team is blaming the incident on bad timing—how could we have known an American journalist would be slain at about the same moment we clicked the “send” button?

But claiming to be a victim of bad timing is laughably false. Days before Mr. Sotloff’s execution, his mother released a highly publicized anguished plea to spare her son from being beheaded, as ISIS had warned he would be. And just two weeks ago, American journalist James Foley was also beheaded by ISIS, cause enough for this ad campaign to have been jettisoned.

It’s possible that the PR team wasn’t up on the news and wasn’t aware of these beheadings. But even if that’s the case—and I suspect I’m giving them and the executives who approved these ads far too much credit—anyone dealing with such gruesome material should, at the very least, have done a quick Google search before hitting send.

The PR team apologized for the wrong thing. They weren’t victims of bad timing but of their own terrible judgment. And until they acknowledge that, their apology accomplishes nothing.

What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

 


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Classic Post: Seven Times To Turn Down A Media Interview

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on August 26, 2014 – 2:04 pm

Editor’s Note: Since August 2010, I’ve written more than 1,000 posts. Some of the most popular posts have gotten buried over time, so I occasionally unbury especially useful older posts to share with readers who missed them the first time. This article was originally published on December 27, 2010.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’ve seen my regular advice to do almost every media interview you’re offered. But there are times when turning down an interview makes the most sense, and this article will discuss the times when saying “no” is your best move.

Below, you’ll find a list of seven times to turn down an interview.

The original list comes from the IABC (The International Association of Business Communicators). Although it’s a solid list, the tips are overly-generalized, so I’ve added my own commentary to each of the seven suggestions to help make them more complete.

Hand No

1. Employees Have Not Yet Been Notified About a Specific Issue

As a general piece of advice, this is fine. But if a reporter is about to run a story with or without your input – and if you lack the logistical ability to inform your employees directly before it runs – it might make sense to participate in the story to ensure you provide the necessary context. Plus, what is the “specific issue” at play here? Announcing a new product before all employees have been notified (e.g. the iPad) might be strategically sound, while announcing employee layoffs through the press would not be.

2. Employee, Client or Patient Privacy Is Never Breached For Any Reason

Client confidentiality might be waived, for example, if you’re subpoenaed to testify in a lawsuit or before Congress, especially if no confidentiality agreement was signed between the parties.

3. An Emergency Has Occurred; Next-of-Kin Have Not Been Notified

I agree you should not be the first party to announce any deaths before next-of-kin has been notified, but what happens if the media has already announced the names? Do you confirm them then, or continue to wait hours – or days – before next-of-kin has been notified? These cases aren’t always cut and dried, and sometimes confirming the names is the more humane choice.

4. Sensitive Competitive Information Would Be Divulged

In a reputational crisis, there are times you might lose more by NOT divulging a proprietary piece of information. As with any crisis, you have to analyze all possibilities, including divulging competitive information.

No Thank You

5. Security Legislation Would Be Breached

Whistleblowers aside, this is probably good advice. I assume this refers to laws already passed, not pending legislation.

6. Union Negotiations are Underway; An Information Blackout is in Effect

If both sides are honoring the agreement, this is good advice. But what about when one party breaks the agreement and is killing you in the press? You should talk to the media – if not to offer specifics, at least to remind the public that you’ve agreed to an information blackout, that you’re not going to talk for that reason, but that there’s more to the story than they’re hearing from the other side.

7. Legal Counsel Has Advised Against Communications

If there’s one thing on this list that makes me bristle, it’s this one. First, even if counsel has advised against “communications,” you can still communicate. You can almost always offer a generic statement such as, “We can’t offer specifics in this case since it’s in litigation, but I would like to remind everyone that there are two sides to this story, and we’re confident that our side will come out in court.”

Second, legal counsel often advises against communications as a kneejerk reaction, even when communicating makes the most sense. Executives would be wise to consult their attorneys and their communications professionals prior to making such decisions. Sometimes the reputational damage caused by your silence is greater than the financial damage of future lawsuits.

Editor’s Note: A grateful hat tip to a good marketing blog called IMC Intuition by Beth Ryan, on which I originally saw this list.

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As Seen On TV: What Would You Do In This Situation?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on June 17, 2014 – 3:42 am

The season finale of HBO’s Veep, which aired earlier this month, featured a hilarious moment that made me wonder what I would do in the same situation.

If you’re not familiar with the program, Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays Selina Meyer, the nation’s first female vice president. The show revolves around Ms. Meyer and her rather colorful staff.

The moment occurred just after the vice president concludes an in-person interview with an obnoxious Boston newspaper reporter. After the reporter walks away, Meyer and her staff begin discussing a couple of their small-money campaign donors and insulting their thriftiness. They even give their low-money donors a derogatory name—GUMMIs—an acronym for “Give us more money, idiots.”

Just as they finish their conversation, they realize that the Boston reporter accidentally left his phone behind, on which he had been recording his interview with the vice president (it was still recording). The reporter, who realizes his mistake, is on his way back to the office to collect his phone.

Veep

The staff quickly realizes how much trouble the campaign will be in if the recording of their conversation gets out—small-money donors will pull their contributions, and the campaign will be seen as elitist. They weigh their options: We should destroy the phone with a lamp! We should say it accidentally fell into the toilet!

The reporter enters the office and collects his phone before they can execute their plan (and, spoiler alert, the “GUMMIs” conversation does cause unflattering headlines).

That made me wonder: What would I do in that situation? The choices boil down to these three:

1. Do nothing and hope the reporter doesn’t use that material

This is the option Meyer’s staff took—and it didn’t pay off.

2. Destroy the evidence

This would kill the negative story about the GUMMIs—but it might lead to even more damaging headlines about destroying a reporter’s phone and speculation about what Ms. Meyer said on the destroyed tape. (The phone was password protected, so simply deleting the file wasn’t an option.)

3. Negotiate with the reporter

This is the strategy I would have chosen. When the reporter came back for his phone, I would have asked him to consider all of the material included on the tape after he left the room “off the record.” The reporter would have had no obligation to honor my request—such requests are typically made prior to the interview and agreed upon in advance by both parties—but in this case, the material was gathered without the consent of the taped party (which might even constitute an illegal recording in some states).  His leaving the tape recorder behind might have even been an intentional trick, although the show didn’t address that question.

If the conversation with the reporter doesn’t go well, there could be an either implicit or explicit threat regarding future access—publish that material, and you’ll never speak with the vice president again.  (That’s the “stick” approach; the “carrot” approach of offering increased access could also work.)

What Would You Do?

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How To Change A Reporter’s Description Of You

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on March 13, 2014 – 6:02 am

A reader recently wrote in seeking advice about how to change a reporter’s description of her as an “opponent” of a proposed new middle school. “The label is convenient,” she writes, but “it sounds negative and oppositional.” More importantly, she says, it’s inaccurate.

“Our town is currently locked in an ongoing school bond debate revolving primarily around the construction of a new middle school. The bond has failed three times, but the school board and supporters plan to float it yet again.

A number of us in the “no, not in that current iteration” camp are consistently referred to in the media as “opponents” of the bond…it doesn’t accurately convey our position. We are in fact for the bond in that we support a new middle school. But we disagree with proponents on a number of key issues and want the board to back-pedal and revisit prior assumptions…we aren’t opponents of the bond as much as we are “yes, but let’s do this thing right” voters.

Is there a word, or handy phrase, we can use to better identify ourselves, both as we speak with people individually and as presented collectively, via the media?”

Agree Disagree

1. Speak to the reporter

Reporters might use the term “opponent” for a few reasons. First, it may be an accurate descriptor—you are in opposition to the current plan, if not the entire project. Second, reporters working under a strict word count don’t want to burn up words on your descriptor. “Opponent” takes up one word; “who opposes the current plan” takes up five. Finally, “supporter vs. opponent” plays to the media’s tendency to eliminate nuance and reduce characters to simple archetypes.

In this reader’s case, she did contact the reporter—and got positive results. “I contacted the reporter, thanking him for a well-done, objective piece,” she wrote. “I added that I’m not, strictly-speaking, an opponent as I don’t oppose a new school/alternative bond. He asked how he might better describe me in future articles.” Her non-accusatory tone was perfect.

2. Create an irresistible media sound bite

I’d develop an irresistible sound bite, such as this one:

“The supporters of this bill have consistently misrepresented our position. We are for the construction of a new middle school; we’re against irresponsible construction (or reckless growth, etc.)”

Or, if you want to be more positive:

“The supporters of this bill have consistently misrepresented our position. We are for the construction of a new middle school—but we insist on smart development that serves the community well for many years.”

These sound bites work for three reasons:

1. They oppose something most people would also be against—irresponsible construction or reckless growth—or support something people would be for—smart development.

2. The lead sentence places the blame for misrepresenting your position on the supporters of the bill, not on the media (which might bristle at the accusation).

3. The “for-against” construct of the first sound bite plays to the media’s preference for two-sided conflict, increasing the odds they would choose to use it.

Finally, if you don’t want to come across quite so aggressively (or, if you don’t want to use the term ‘supporters’ in your sound bite), you might choose more neutral language instead:

“Our position has been consistently misrepresented. We are for the construction of a new middle school; we’re against irresponsible construction.”

Thank you for your email, and good luck!

Do you have a question about public speaking or dealing with the media that you’d like answered on the blog? Please send it to Contact@MrMediaTraining.com.


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In Defense Of That Cleveland PR Pro

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on February 28, 2014 – 2:25 pm

By now, you may have heard about a Cleveland PR pro named Kelly Blazek, whose harsh rejection letter to a young public relations professional made the rounds last week.

Here’s the summary, as reported by Mark Naymik of the Northeast Ohio Media Group:

“[Blazek] produced and distributed a popular email that culled job openings from online job sites and from her own contacts. She worked hard for 10 years building her contacts and curating the list of people who receive the email, limiting recipients largely to those with experience in the field.”

The trouble started when a 26-year-old named Diana Mekota sent a LinkedIn request to Ms. Blazek along with a request to join her email list. Mekota was shocked when she received the following reply: 

Blazek Message

After her vicious broadside went viral, Ms. Blazek offered a chastened—and seemingly genuine—apology, which reads in part: 

“My Job Bank listings were supposed to be about hope, and I failed that. In my harsh reply notes, I lost my perspective about how to help, and I also lost sight of kindness, which is why I started the Job Bank listings in the first place.

The note I sent to Diana was rude, unwelcoming, unprofessional and wrong. I am reaching out to her to apologize. Diana and her generation are the future of this city. I wish her all the best in landing a job in this great town.”

I do not and would never support Ms. Blazek’s approach. Not only is what she wrote awful—but as a purely tactical matter, it’s also dumb to risk one’s entire reputation by committing such thoughts to print.

But I do understand her frustration. I’m regularly contacted by people I’ve never met whose approach to networking similarly turns me off. 

In some cases, someone I’ve never interacted with before writes, “Hey, I’m going to be in NYC tomorrow. Want to meet for coffee and talk about how we might work together?” (No. If you’re not serious enough about a potential partnership to contact me more than 24 hours in advance of a requested meeting, you aren’t serious enough about working together.)

Or it might be a person asking me for a job via a Twitter direct message. (If, instead of putting a thoughtful cover letter together you choose to send a casual 140-character tweet, you’re too casual about something I take seriously — my company.)

If we’re going to work together, I want a little courtship. I hope you know something about my work and are serious enough about your approach to put together a serious pitch. The young woman who contacted Ms. Blazek didn’t do that. Here’s Ms. Mekota’s original message:

Mekota Message

Notice how she doesn’t express any knowledge about the Job Bank or its author? Notice how the entire message is self-focused and impersonal, with many of the sentences beginning with “I?”

Yes, Ms. Blazek’s nuclear response to a mild infraction was wildly inappropriate, but it should also be pointed out that this was not exactly the best pitch. A more humble approach from Ms. Mekota about forging a relationship with the more experienced pro would have been more effective. (I do, however, give Ms. Mekota enormous credit for her high-ground response to Ms. Blazek.)

Ms. Blazek’s approach is never acceptable. I would never treat someone who wrote to me so disrespectfully. But I do understand her frustration.

What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

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  • About Mr. Media Training

    The Mr. Media Training Blog offers daily tips to help readers become better media spokespersons and public speakers. It also examines how well (or poorly) public figures are communicating through the media.

    Brad Phillips is the Founder and Managing Editor of the Mr. Media Training Blog. He is the president of Phillips Media Relations, a media and presentation training firm with offices in NYC and DC.

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