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“Study us, watch us, know us”

After 37 years working in news shows Kerry Weston must have explained how to get your story on TV a million times, but you’d think you’re the first. Flanked by a newspaper reporter and a radio producer, she replies, “Study us, watch us, listen to us, read us. Know us. Time us. Know what we cover, who covers what, and what each reporter tends to cover.” Her TV station, Miami Local 10, produces more newscasts than any of its ABC network peers in the nation at over 54 hours per week, and every day she gets 600 emails with ideas and requests.

Pointing to a two-page press release in her hand, Weston says, “I don’t need all this.” She will read your email, just not for fun: make sure to enter the day and time of the news on the subject line, followed by one sentence with the who, what, where and why in the body of the message. Yes, the “WH” formula you learned in your first journalism class will help you stand out from your competition: the thousands of Miami neighbors who send her their action-packed witness videos telling her to just use them.

Caitie Muñoz of Miami National Public Radio (NPR) station WLRN on 91.3 FM agrees that her favorite pitch has one sentence with the WH and links to resources. It’s OK to pitch your favorite person at her station but she asks that you always copy their general news inbox to avoid overlaps. She’s a producer of Sundial, an hour-long news show airing live daily Monday-Thursday at 1pm telling “The Stories of South Florida” through interviews. She’s noticed that you always add spokesperson quotes to press releases and she says they can’t use those: at Sundial, they need to get their own quotes.

Brittany Wallman says she avoids opening the obligatory attached press releases entirely in her email because of computer viruses. She is investigations editor for the Sun Sentinel, the top newspaper in the Miami metro area by circulation with a 230k Sunday print run, which won the 2019 Pulitzer Award for its series on the Parkland school shooting. Instead of attaching a release to your email pitch, she recommends a clear subject line and less of a focus on the writing because that’s what they do at her newsroom.

Weston, Muñoz and Wallman shared these tips at a PRSAFTL panel full of PR pros from agencies, brands and local organizations, moderated by NSU’s Joe Donzelli. It was a lively exchange with dozens of questions from curious PR pros who all have found it harder to find interest in their stories. For example, somebody asked how to know what’s news anymore when a $5 million donation to a local nonprofit by Mackenzie Scott, former wife of Amazon’s founder Jeff Bezos, didn’t get a lot of attention.

In reply, Muñoz offered an insight about a trend affecting all newsrooms. She said that public officials are generating a lot of high impact news, between pandemic lockdowns, vaccination mandates, testing requirements, social distancing rules, and polarized activism by politicians reaching deep into our everyday lives in areas like education, gender, and job policy. To cover the donation, WLRN would have needed a good conversation to put it in context for their audience, or if it were a national donation, to provide a local angle.

Weston added that TV is all about pictures and video, even if it comes from a private home security camera. She said that if a car was broken into and perps are on camera on the neighborhood app, that is news. But a conference where people are sitting in a meeting room—here she pointed at us in the audience—even if it’s a great presentation, that is not news.

Wallman said that her newspaper is no longer primarily focused on the kind of local stories that Weston described and might carry a story like the Mackenzie Scott donation if they knew where the story was heading and had a tweak to add to it. When considering a story, Wallman said that her team is mindful that readers are “time starved.” On top of that the Sun Sentinel has less staff, 15-20 people in total, to cover hurricanes, condo collapses, and all news across three counties with six million people.

Another question was how valuable online clicks are to identify a story’s potential. Wallman replied that even when her team has very detailed online metrics, including how long readers spend on any given story, if a story made it into the paper that’s still a better indication of its potential than any online repercussion. Everything that’s in print is also online, but not the reverse.  

Wallman also said that online clicks are important to advertisers, and that everyone is more sophisticated now about online metrics. For example, in the past she used to have a story about a banana pudding recipe that would be at the top of the traffic chart all day whenever they refreshed it, and for the longest time it was fun for her to have a mega hit as easy as that. Now the Sun Sentinel cannot chase clicks, what they want is subscribers, and advertisers want local people who will buy their products.

Muñoz said that they don’t use online metrics for editorial decisions. You can still get recordings of her show Sundial in podcast format if you’re outside Miami or busy at 1pm. Weston said that her station’s website, Local 10, has 175k views a day, and they do look at stories getting interest online to decide if they stick to them on TV, and on social media. Weston explained the night news shows follow a different logic, because there is intense competition for ratings on the news of the day, whatever that might be on any given night.

The rest of the questions were about relationship advice and proper pitching etiquette. The three reporters agreed on the importance of long-term relationships and becoming the go-to person for your topic. If the relationship is close enough to text each other, when your email shows up it has a better chance to be opened. Plus, with less staff in all newsrooms, there are more general assignment reporters: a close reporter could forward your pitch to a colleague if they can’t cover it. 

Strong relationships could also result in compelling partnership opportunities around feature stories. Weston said that she could help you formulate the story if you have the lead but need to connect all the different parts. She used the example of a bridge construction project, where you have the builder, but there’s also the contractors, the city, the neighbors, the developers, the traffic, the funding, all good potential angles for a feature story. She said that features like this need at least two and up to four weeks to develop, as they cannot let you do all the reporting for them.

The three reporters encouraged everyone to not just offer the boss for interviews, but anyone in the organization with relevant expertise. They said helpful pitches offer to contact expert spokespeople directly, not through PR. They recommended to send the contact info as part of the pitch instead of offering to arrange for an interview or meeting. For example, Muñoz said that for a food drive story, she’ll want to talk to people lining up to understand why they need it.

Follow these tips and you won’t be Weston’s “morning-after call,” telling her your story was on TV but didn’t mention the client. Whatever you do, Muñoz said to never start your pitch by saying, “stop covering the sad thing, cover my thing.” We are all news weary after the crazy two years we just had, and while it is OK for each of us to stay informed at whatever level we can, she says that if you can’t hear it, that doesn’t make it not news. It is what it is, she concluded.

The panel was organized as an opportunity to meet local news media in the Miami/Fort Lauderdale area, but it really delivered on its promise to show what makes headlines news today in any market. Our friends at Muck Rack just run a column by Cristal Steuer with 5 ways to make your pitch newsworthy to your niche and we feel we hit on some of the same points. Hey, if it were easy, anyone could do it!

Desiccated withering sound from Netflix

Stone, Staffordshire / United Kingdom -July 29, 2019

Netflix was in the news last week after reporting that they lost less subscribers than everyone expected (that’s a free WSJ link for you.) Their stock went up, but we liked the Netflix story from our writing muse Ann Handley better. She wrote in her newsletter about the subtitles in the hit Netflix show “Stranger Things,” which in case you haven’t noticed, are almost its own literary genre with all the dripping, moist, or crackling horror of the show brought down to text.

True to her journalistic background, Handley didn’t stop at commenting on the subtitles but found the style guidelines that made them possible. Be inspired, she says: Netflix subtitles are “a celebration of writing itself! And of you… and me… and the difference a good writer can make to… well, anything. Especially when the writer has creative free rein. Which only happens when someone has that writer’s back.”  

Sparkling smooth sound from clean freezer

Sample and equipment of experiment in refrigerator

The AI journal reported on a call to scientists to fight climate change by cleaning their lab freezers. It was from Verb customer Elemental Machines, a sponsor of “The Freezer Challenge,” an annual competition which aims to reduce carbon emissions from millions of labs in 195 countries. According to Elemental Machines’ latest sustainability report, each of those labs consume five to ten times more energy per square foot than a typical office space. The idea is to help scientists develop climate-friendly habits, and the first habit that will help a lab win the challenge is a periodic full defrost of freezers.