Local newspapers hate missing things. They hate getting complaints that they missed something too, yes, but they actually hate missing things even more.
Part of the problem is that, while people seem happy to complain about a news outlet missing a story, they sometimes seem reluctant to call ahead of time and tell the news outlet about the story. They shouldn’t be! We appreciate the help.
Here’s how to get a story into the news, and some tips for dealing with reporters.
1. Call or email the news outlet with story ideas. Yes. Simple as that. Call them, and pitch the story. Be nice! Be accurate! Make sure it’s local, give several possible angles to take (if possible) and give specific contact information. We like getting story ideas! While we can’t do them all, we do like getting suggestions.
2. If a news outlet leaves you a message, call back quickly. Quickly does not mean “in three days.” If you’re calling a daily newspaper or radio station, it doesn’t even mean “tomorrow.” It means “today,” and preferably “immediately.” Dailies are called “dailies” for a reason, you know–not “occasionallies” or “when we feel like its” or “at your conveniences.”
3. Do not ask if you can read the story before it is published. The answer to this is no, and it’s not because we don’t like you. It’s because that would be surrendering editorial control–something no reputable news outlet wants to do. It’s also because we’re on a deadline (“daily,” remember?) and may not have turnaround time.
4. If you’re in a public meeting, don’t tell us “Don’t write that down.” It only draws attention to what you’ve just said, and if it’s newsworthy it’s newsworthy. If it’s newsworthy, not putting it in would be mean being a bad reporter. If it’s not newsworthy, we’re not going to write it down anyway. I understand that people do get very self-conscious about what they say at these things, sometimes, and I think that often, the “don’t put that in!” is more of a reflex than a serious request anyway.
5. If you’re in an interview, you probably sound better than you think you do. People also get very self-conscious about interviews, but the truth is, most people do pretty well in them! They sound more articulate than they realize they do. Relax, it’s okay! You don’t need to say “make me sound good!” because chances are, you already sound pretty good.
6. Be nice. Reporters are people, and we appreciate politeness just like everybody else. The “hard-boiled reporter” may be a real character somewhere, but in real life, even tough crime reporters sometimes hide in the bathroom to cry after viewing brutal crime scene photographs, or after talking to someone whose house has just burned down. Be nice to us; we try to be nice to you, too.
7. Don’t say “just make something up that sounds good and put my name on it.” We… really can’t do that. We don’t make things up. Sometimes we make mistakes, yes, but we can’t just make something up. We can paraphrase you and not put quote marks around it, yes, but we can’t say you said something you didn’t say, and the paraphrase had darn well better be accurate, too. This is why nonfiction is harder than fiction writing–you can’t change the facts to make them fit a story better. The facts are the facts.
8. Don’t give one-word answers. Granted, sometimes we’re looking for a simple answer to a yes-or-no question, but those times are maybe 5-10 percent of all the calls we make. Most of the time, we want some detail, some color, and some relevance to the people in our coverage area. That means we’d rather have you talk more than less, provided it’s relevant to the topic at hand. It’s hard to make a story out of “Yes. No. It worked good. I’m not sure. Yep, sporks. Albatross.”
9. If you’re in an interview with several people, be sure that everyone talks. I try to keep interviews to three people or fewer, but even then, sometimes I’ll have one very talkative person and two shy people. That means I’ll spend a bit of time trying to draw out the shy folks, so that I can quote everyone I spoke with, making for a more rounded story. Sometimes that’s hard–extroverted people can be so excited to talk they sometimes drown out their more introverted friends. This also happens a lot with parents, who will sometimes answer questions for their kids when we’d really rather have the kids talk themselves.
10. What you are doing is probably way cooler than you realize it is. I’ve done some really fascinating stories on all kinds of topics–scientists studying cranes, a woodcarving group, making pens, paddleboarding, the mechanics of windsurfing. Most of them were confused as to why I was doing a story–it was just their hobby, just their job. No big deal. Except that not everyone has that job or that hobby, and what they were doing was actually really neat! Teachers, I find, are especially prone to thinking what they’re doing isn’t special. It might not be front page news, but that doesn’t mean we don’t want to hear about your cool in-class science experiment or your rocketry hobby. That’s the kind of stuff that makes reporting fun!