Seven tips for working with reporters

Hi all! Ever have an archived piece that you don’t remember writing or publishing? This one was written several years ago but doesn’t appear to be online anywhere anymore. As a journalist and editor, I’ve seen all of these situations firsthand. If you have occasion to work with reporters–as an interviewee, or as part of your promotional strategy–keep some basic professionalism in mind.

Don’t come to them without a story

Has a client of yours developed a new product? Do you have an upcoming show in their region? Are you holding a contest open to local entries? That might be news. Write up a professional news release, or hire someone who can. Include a few pithy quotes from top company honchos, add your contact details, and send it out. Follow up with a phone call or email if you don’t hear back within a few days. You may learn that the reporter didn’t understand the relevance of your story, or you may discover that the publication doesn’t cover your target market.

If you don’t have any real news, and just want some attention for free, sorry, we can’t help you much. Journalists are trained to sniff out your sneaky request for unpaid advertising in seconds, so if you have nothing of substance in your press release, don’t bother. At best, you’ll get a call from the publication’s ad rep. At worst, you can have all your messages rerouted straight to the trash bin.

Plan ahead

Media professionals draw a distinct line between what is considered “news” and what is deemed “advertising” that should be paid. Timing is a major factor when it comes to situations that are worthy of coverage but promotional in nature. When it comes to promoting events, most reporters follow this general guideline: “If it runs before the event, it’s an ad. If we cover it after the event, it’s a story.” Will they break this rule? Yes, often, if it’s for a charitable cause or even just a slow news day, but not for the same source every time. You should have a small ad budget for your events, and be prepared to dip into it now and then.

But there are other ways you may be able to get your message out for free or at a discounted rate. If your client is a nonprofit or someone working with a charity, ask whether the publication offers nonprofit advertising rates. Some papers devote whole pages or sections to religious, community and charitable activities, so your chances of getting free coverage are considerably better if your event qualifies. Many papers also devote regular space to a calendar of upcoming community events; this may or may not be paid. And it never hurts to ask about web content.

For major events, it’s best to initiate contact several weeks in advance. This gives the journalist time to assemble a compelling story and get it out early enough for readers who may need to travel, find sitters, take time off work and so forth to learn about your event and schedule around it. It’s early enough to get things done, but not so early that everyone will forget about it when the day of your event arrives.

Don’t expect them to drop everything

Remember, you’re talking to perpetually caffeine-deprived professionals who have a lot of other work to do. If you want them to cover your story, you need to keep things on your end as quick and simple as possible.

News media are all about speed. It’s up to you whether to hand-deliver or mail materials, but most journalists today prefer to deal with e-mail submissions. For quickest response time, it’s best to introduce yourself with an e-mail, include your press release and check in after a day or two. Your media release should be strong enough to publish as is, but if it’s a good story idea, reporters will usually call for additional information and write their own versions.

Anticipate follow-up questions

Assuming you’ve submitted a compelling story idea, odds are that the journalist who receives it will prefer to use your release as background for an article containing additional perspectives and research. Be sure to provide plenty of up to date contact information for yourself or someone else who is qualified and prepared to field additional questions from the media. Include your e-mail address and at least one working phone number. Check your messages frequently and if you miss a call, return it as soon as possible. Depending on their schedules, journalists may literally have only one day or a few hours to worry about reaching you before more pressing work comes along.

Skip the corporate jargon

If there’s one thing every reporter hates, it’s dealing with talking heads who insist on spewing an incomprehensible and insubstantial collection of buzzwords at every given opportunity. Our primary job is to boil down a ton of complex information and make it quickly digestible to a lot of people. The average news reporter is writing for readers at a middle-grade level, and if we don’t understand your comments, our readers sure won’t either. Frankly, we don’t have a lot of time to sift through the word vomit for something that makes sense to the average reader, so it helps if you choose to be as up front in your responses as possible. Hiding behind a veil of important-sounding verbiage will just turn us off.

If it’s a complicated subject, think about how you would explain it to a total outsider. A foreigner. A fifth-grade class. Your grandma. Then give us that explanation, not whatever mumbo-jumbo you’ve plucked from the company brochure.

Don’t offer gifts for stories

If you’re used to dealing with writers who think nothing of accepting free stuff to write promotional articles, it may startle you to learn that most mainstream media professionals frown on this practice. That’s because traditional journalists pride themselves on staying independent and objective, avoiding even the appearance of outside influence. They aren’t out to provide you with free PR. So don’t dangle sporting tickets, expensive meals, exclusive fashion or high-end gadgetry in exchange for favorable publicity. It’s considered akin to bribery in the news business and can get reporters in trouble.

After a story comes out, it’s all right to express your appreciation for a journalist’s time and professionalism, within reason. Be certain your gesture is not, and is not likely to be perceived as, a quid pro quo arrangement dependent on the outcome of coverage. Thank you notes, follow-up calls or e-mails, and letters to the editor are best.

Become a ‘go -to’ source

The biggest trick to making the most of your media interaction is getting those repeat reporter calls for future stories. Leverage your expertise and make it clear that you and your clients welcome journalist questions for any stories related to your field, not just your own news. Reporters are always on the hunt for experts they can call to discuss business topics, pending legislation or anything else on their beats. Be that expert, and they’ll start coming to you.

When Life Throws You Lemons, Add Sugar and Whiskey

If you’ve been following the blog over the past year, you’ll know I originally set out to have a rough draft of my debut novel ready for revisions by February 2017.

And then life promptly threw us a few curveballs. I battled a medical issue. We let a foreign student move into our home. Work got stressful.

I kept changing my story setting, and topic, and characters, and genre. Eventually, I had four or five projects going. I lacked focus, to say the least.

That’s when things really got crazy for a few months. When we finally came out the other side, I was no longer a high school mom. I was a kindergarten mom with a houseful of little ones. I had just published my first gourmet cooking column, and now I hardly had time to warm up leftover mac and cheese. None of my kids wanted to eat my fancy food, anyway. My column went on temporary hold, although I’ve maintained the connection well enough to revive it when things calm down.

In the past year, I’ve gone from a childless wife working from home to an exchange parent to a foster mother of three. Yet somehow, I’ve dreaded having to admit failure on this one. I didn’t get that dream project done by my self-imposed deadline. I can’t stand blown deadlines.

What I do have is a handful of miniature beta readers. The children’s market is the fastest-growing segment  of American publishing. While my primary goal of completing a full-length novel that anyone will actually want to read remains unmet for now, my secondary desire–to pursue a publishing deal this year–is still achievable.
To that end, I’ve pulled out an existing project, run it past my tiny critics, revised the story, and begun querying agents. A children’s picture book proposal isn’t exactly the same thing as a full-length manuscript, but it’s a start, anyway.

You know what they say. When life throws you lemons, add sugar and whiskey.

Kate

*This post was originally published in 2017.*

Tap Into Your Inspiration Element to Combat Writer’s Block

Sapphire Pool, Yellowstone National Park. C. Kate Wehr, 2010

The ancients understood the interconnectedness of life through the four elements: earth, stable and physical; air, fluid and mobile; fire, energetic and transformative; and water, flowing and dynamic. Today, we still recognize these elements scientifically (solid, gas, plasma and liquid) as the four states of matter.

The pagan concept of individual elements — sometimes four, sometimes five or more — while certainly nothing new, does tap into a universal truth. Our bodies and our world are made up of these things. As writers, we recognize the soul, that part of humanity that drives us to spend our days attempting to communicate with one another and leave a memorable legacy through our work. One simple method for dealing with writer’s block, then, is to study the relationship between the soul and the classical elements that affect our day-to-day lives. If you’ve been searching for inspiration, study the list below and find the element that speaks most to you. Regardless of your personal spiritual leanings, you’ll at least be doing something different.

Earth

Create yourself a garden space and work in it, every day.

Scatter potted plants around your home.

Walk quietly in the woods or through a meadow or hayfield.

Get a little Zen rock garden for your desk.

Clean. Pick up excess clutter around your house. Scrub your bathroom. Vacuum your floors.

Bake bread. Find a simple yeast recipe and knead the dough.

Build something. Wood and stone are solid and come from the earth, making them especially appropriate media. Try mosaics, carvings, furniture and small woodcrafts.

Air

Go running.

Purchase a stationary bike, rowing machine or elliptical.

Ride a horse or a bicycle.

Stand outside on a breezy day.

Switch on some sort of fan.

Fly kites.

Simmer something on your stove and inhale the aroma.

Adjust your thermostat, adding heat or air-conditioning as the season warrants.

Practice simple breathing exercises. You can make this one part of your morning spiritual routine.

Fire

Light a candle. Better yet, light several and scatter them around the room, just be sure to set them in stable places and snuff them when you leave!

Burn incense or fragrance oils.

Cook dinner on a grill.

Install a fire pit or chiminea in your yard.

Buy a lava lamp.

If you have a fireplace, build a fire in it and keep it going throughout the day.

Play with a woodburning kit.

Work with tools that involve heat, sparks and ovens. Try light metalsmithing or pottery. You could learn to solder, weld or use a grinder disc.

Water

Take a long shower.

Go for a walk in the rain.

Place a portable fountain somewhere in your house.

Soak in your bathtub.

Do laundry.

Watch a thunderstorm.

Make soup or chili and leave it simmering for hours.

Give yourself the spa treatment! A steamy facial or warm foot soak would be good choices.

Hand-wash your dishes.

Pour yourself a glass of water and drink it slowly.

Visit the neighborhood swimming hole.

Stroll a lakeshore or river bank.

What’s your inspiration element? How do you tap into it?

Kate

*This post was originally published in August 2012.*

Top 10 Reasons We Still Need (Human) Writers

Within the last few weeks, a large but relatively obscure media company which shall remain temporarily anonymous has been drawing headlines for laying off an undisclosed number of people.

I was one of them.

We were given no explanation, no warning, no severance. Just a mysterious email from our supervisors dropped into our inboxes over the weekend asking us to call in to discuss “the week ahead.” I guess that’s the corporate idea of breaking things gently.

Before the ax fell, though, projects were underway to revamp the company’s proprietary software and content generation systems. It seems I’ve been replaced by a machine.

Modern technology, combined with offshoring, has made it possible to generate ever-cheaper forms of content to clutter up the Web. Some of the stories in your own newspaper may not even have been written by a real person. We journalists are now literally competing with computer programs. Or so we’re told.

No wonder the job market stinks.

There’s still hope for writers, though. Here, in no specific order, are my top 10 reasons why it’s impossible to fully replace us for the foreseeable future.

1. Emotion. Although an advanced program may be able to simulate emotion, it doesn’t actually possess any depth of feeling. By the way, robots, readers can tell when you’re faking it.

2. Creativity. “Fiction,” Mark Twain reminds us, “is obliged to stick to possibilities.” Your computer could mix a ton of hypothetical situations together in what looks like a creative function, but true creativity comes from considering –and pursuing — the impossible.

3. Voice. Perhaps a writer’s most valuable asset, an author’s voice embodies a perspective unique to that individual, forged by culture, circumstances and life experiences.

4. Clarity. We’ve all seen scads of those junk articles from non-native speakers. The word choices and grammar are so confusing that these pages don’t attract readers for long. If people cannot understand what an article is trying to say, they complain. They don’t link to it and they certainly don’t make an effort to find more stories from that “author.”

5. Sensitivity. When it comes to handling race relations, religion, politics or any other emotionally charged subject, the computer loses. Artificial intelligence cannot even begin to replicate the shared understanding of your fellow human beings.

6. Research. Again, creativity and perspective come into play here. Machines can make predictions and draw conclusions from data provided, but they don’t know how to pursue new information from offline sources.

7. Fact checks. Could you tweak a program to flag suspect numbers, names and other data for accuracy? Sure, but as the techies say, garbage in, garbage out. Software capabilities will be limited to sifting through information given and comparing it to reference databases you provide. If somebody’s name got misspelled by whoever stuck it in that file, too darn bad.

8. Analysis. No matter how many facts you input, the computer cannot generate meaningful, informed  commentary laced with a nuanced historical perspective. Graphs and illustrations, yes, insight, no.

9. Typos and homonyms. Ever missed a semi-colon or gotten words like “form,” “from,” “eliminate” and “illuminate” garbled in your spell-checker? Imagine that on a global scale.

10. Search engines. Duplicate content, irrelevant and nonsensical content, keyword-stuffed content — all of these can get your business dinged by the likes of Google. When it comes right down to it, bad writing doesn’t pay.

Artificial intelligence is increasing rapidly, though, to the point where some scientists think we’ll all just morph into cyborgs someday. Is it only a matter of time before the machines take over once and for all?

Kate

*This post was originally published in August 2012.*

Pitch It to Me

This one’s an oldie but goodie that I originally published online at Freelance Writing Source. Since the site appears to be down now, I thought I’d share it again with you here. 

Sooner or later, nearly every freelance writer will need to produce a written pitch. Perhaps you have a compelling story idea that won’t work for the publications you usually submit to, or maybe you just want to break into a different market or genre. In any case, there are a few simple guidelines you’ll need to follow to maximize your chances of landing a gig.

Cover the basics
Do a little research before trying to sell your article. Not all publications are created equal, nor will everyone be interested in your idea. Take the time to narrow your targets down to one or more blogs, newspapers, magazines, journals or other publications that you can reasonably expect to be interested in the theme or topic you plan to pursue.

Never address your pitch to a generic, unknown audience. Every pitch needs to be sent to a specific editor at a specific publication. Check each publication’s submission guidelines to find out whether e-mail or postal mail queries are preferred. Include your contact information, and be sure you know both the editor’s gender and the proper way to spell that individual’s name. Anything less is unprofessional.

Unless submission guidelines specify otherwise, do not send copies of past work, drafts of the story you’re pitching, research notes or a full manuscript. Editors are busy and don’t like to deal with stacks of unsolicited paper. Selling them on the article is the whole point of your pitch. Your letter has to give them all the information they need to decide whether they want to consider publishing your story. It’s all right, however, to include a stamped envelope addressed to yourself for replies; many magazines actually require this.

Pre-report your story
You have to pitch a viable story, not a general topic. “I would like to write about prison inmates” is a topic. It conveys little to no useful information to the editor who is attempting to evaluate your submission. Worse, it signals that you actually have nothing and are fishing for ideas. From the editor’s perspective, you’ve just eliminated the reason to hire you — you don’t really have a story to sell. Nobody likes a poser.

However, “I have completed a series of exclusive interviews with a condemned inmate who claims to be innocent” might be a story. Then again, it might not. That’s where your advance reporting work comes in. You should know whether you are likely to be able to get the interviews, documents and other data you’ll need to complete a solid draft by deadline. You also have to check whether competing writers or publications have beaten you to your story within the past few months (in some cases, even years). If they have, can you select an approach that will be different enough to be worth publishing anyway? Your editor will definitely check for similar stories, and will be irritated if your pitch proves to be a waste of time.

Give ’em a taste
For journalistic writing, you should work your proposed lede and a nut graf into the beginning of your pitch. Editors want to get a feel for your style. This is where all that pre-reporting comes in handy, since you’ll actually begin writing the introductory portion of your article.

Your lede (pronounced “leed,” but traditionally spelled this way to avoid confusion with printers’ lead type) is the most interesting thing in your story, the “hook” you plan to use to grab your readers’ interest. Put another way, it’s the opening sentence of your proposed piece.  The “nut graf,” typically the third or fourth paragraph you’ll write in organizing your article, explains the point of your story — why it’s newsworthy, and why readers should care.

Sell them on it
Your pitch should be one page, between 250 and 450 words. That’s not a lot of time to sell a complex, detailed article. Get to the point, fast: Tell the editor exactly why your story is going to be relevant to that publication’s readers, and why now is the time to write it.

Include a ‘brag graf’
Never forget, when you’re pitching to a new editor, that in all likelihood the publication doesn’t know who you are and doesn’t care. It’s your job to sell yourself and establish your credentials. Why should you be hired to write this story? If you can’t answer that question quickly and succinctly, you’d better rethink your pitch.

This is the place to add what my journalism professors termed a “brag graf,” a few quick sentences describing your qualifications and past accomplishments. Keep it short and sweet. The information you include here should be relevant to the story you’re pitching. If you want to write about public school teachers, editors like to hear that you come from a family of teachers, have been granted special access to observe a class or recently won an award for education reporting. Telling them all about your old garden column instead will probably prove to be less than impressive.

Wrap it up
Type your letter neatly using a standard font such as Times New Roman in size 10- or 12-point. Check carefully for spelling and typographical errors. If sending e-mail pitches, concentrate on mailing one at a time and personalize it as much as possible — batch submissions can be embarrassing if you get caught!

Not every situation calls for a full-fledged professional pitch. Bloggers who are actively seeking guest posts, for example, will frequently accept a brief note of introduction that mentions one or two ideas targeted to their readers and provides links to past work. Although the blogosphere is culturally less restrictive as a rule, you must still maintain a professional demeanor and deliver original, well researched content in a timely fashion.

It’s quite likely, of course, that you’ll eventually get an opportunity to meet with a potential editor. If you want to do a less formal oral pitch, go for it! The basics of having a pre-reported story and a ready argument in favor of your hire still apply.

If you do thorough research, pitch compelling pieces to targeted markets, and demonstrate an ability to deliver quality work on deadline, you’ll be that much closer to a successful freelance career. Happy pitching!

Kate

*This post was originally guest-blogged for Freelance Writing Source and later republished by the author in August 2012.*

Avoid the Author Pudge!

I call it the “author pudge.” Or the writer pooch, the blogger bulge, the reporter gut.

Whatever you’ve dubbed it, it’s that stubborn five, 10, 20 pounds that creeps onto the front of your waistline, that not-so-welcome physical reminder of too many hours spent stuck in front of the computer screen trying to beat deadline. 

Most of us have been there one way or another, it’s a common enough desk-work complaint. But when you’re working out of a home office with nobody to hold you accountable and no real need to dress like a civilized adult (if you want to skip the shower, work in your underpants and eat ice cream for breakfast, who’s going to notice, anyway?), suddenly that “freshman 15” you battled in college starts to look like a cakewalk compared to the “freelance 30.”

What’s a poor writer to do?

Take breaks
At least every two hours, make sure you get up from that desk (or couch). Instead of eating, try making this chore time. Throw a load of clothes in the wash, vacuum your living room, make your bed. If you have animals or children at home, spend ten minutes playing with them before going back to work.

Get a drink
On those breaks, make sure you top off your coffee, or better yet, pour yourself a glass of water. Drinking something helps control food cravings, and giving yourself a mental break every so often helps you regroup so you can stay more productive.

Go for cardio
At my house, I have to contend with ice in winter and hay fever in the spring and summer. I prefer low-impact exercise and am also not a big fan of sweating in public, so we opted to spend a couple hundred bucks and get a home elliptical machine. It’s bulky and takes up most of my dining room, but it’s awesome. Twenty minutes on that thing is a whole-body workout — abs, arms, legs. I don’t have to pay for a gym membership, but if I do want some outside time, I can always take my dog for a run.

Avoid liquid calories
Sodas, juice, creamy coffee drinks, booze, shakes… so many choices, and all so full of extra calories. If you can do it, try saving the fattening drinks till evening, and stick to water, tea and coffee during the day. I don’t recommend diet sodas because the artificial sweeteners can trigger sugar cravings, but if you must have a soft drink during the day, have one, and make sure it comes in a portion-controlled can, not a Big Gulp.

Watch the snacks
If you’re a natural snacker, don’t worry. I am, too. We’re not talking about skipping snacks, just choosing the right snacks. I do my best to make this easy on myself by keeping healthy choices on hand: nuts, dried fruit, cheese, lunch meat and an assortment of raw dipping vegetables (cucumbers, baby carrots, bell peppers, mushrooms, celery). If you’re getting enough protein, you won’t want to binge on the junk.

Now it’s your turn. How do you combat the pudge?

Kate

*This post was originally published in August 2012.*

Getting Your Financial House in Order

There’s a pumpkin-spiced chill in the air that can only mean one thing: tax season is fast approaching. Photo credit: Randy Heinitz via VisualHunt.com / CC BY

It’s full-blown winter for many of my pals up north already, but here in the Rockies, fall is in full swing. There’s a pumpkin-spiced chill in the air; the leaves are turning; the bears, pronghorns, deer, and elk are out; and all anybody really feels like doing is taking long naps and eating all the food. It’s also the perfect time to take a hard look at the books before the holiday season hits and all the quarterly and year-end filings come due.

As we discussed last time, running your own business, even a tiny home business, necessarily generates a ton of paperwork. A whole lot of that is going to be financial records: receipts, bills, pay stubs, bank ledgers, tax forms, more tax forms, and still more tax forms you probably never knew existed before. If you hire anything out, you’ll enjoy a whole new level of record-keeping that occasionally results in random visits from people who want to inspect all of that stuff to see if you’re doing it wrong.

To that end, it’s a good idea to take stock of your business’ performance by getting your financial records in order a month or two before the year ends. This not only lessens your tax prep workload later but also enables you to determine whether you should make changes to your operations before the tax year closes. You may find that you should be holding additional funds to cover tax bills, or that you need to update your insurance coverage, or that it makes sense to purchase deductible equipment.

Part of this process, if your business is old enough, should involve a tentative year-to-date profit and loss comparison with the previous year, and perhaps the last five or 10 years, if applicable. How does your performance compare overall? Are your numbers on par with past years’? Are you surpassing them? Where do you see the most significant changes? What’s driving those figures?

If you have employees, check to see how your payroll expenses may have changed. How will that impact your tax obligations and insurance costs? Can you afford to give holiday bonuses? What about accrued leave and holiday time?

Keeping things organized and checking up on your P&L stats at regular intervals is generally proper practice, but an in-depth analysis is especially important to complete before the end of the year. Give yourself a little extra time to make changes and plan for additional expenses. You’ll save a lot of headaches later on.

Kate

*This post was originally published in October 2015.*

Why This Millennial Writer Struggles With Queries

Not for the first time, it’s been dawning on me lately that my millennial writer status may be putting me at something of a competitive disadvantage.

I’m not referring to my relative (though rapidly disappearing thanks to student loans and the looming inevitable death of all we hold dear) youth, or the metric ton’s worth of crappy expectations and stereotypes previous generations have dumped upon mine. I’m simply pointing out that my patience level is, shall we say, not high. In this business, that’s not exactly an asset.

A millennial writer’s true nemesis, you understand, is not crass commercialism or an uneducated public or even a literary archrival. No, it’s that danged refresh button.

“Come on, come on, it’s been like half a day already. Has she seen my e-mail? Surely she’s seen my e-mail. Read the query, read the query, READ THE QUERY, READTHEQUERYREADTHEQUERYREADTHEQUERY!”

It’s just so freaking easy nowadays for millennial writers like me to click back and forth between windows, hitting “refresh” on blog stat trackers and e-mail inboxes every 30 seconds.

“What do you mean there’s only been 10 pageviews so far? That was a brilliant post! How do all those spam marketing sites with people who can’t write in English get so much flipping traffic, anyway?”

We may be getting a tad obsessive. Also, that little nervous habit is cutting way too much into our writing time.

This millennial writer can't stop hitting the refresh button.
This millennial writer can’t stop hitting the refresh button.

There is no way I would have survived trying to make a career of writing back in the good old days when everything always got lost in the mail both ways. If I make a change to the blog settings, my brain does know that it’s unrealistic to expect such minute tweaking to instantly boost my readership. Does that ever stop me from frantically doing CPR compressions on my refresh button? Heck no.

Nor does my complete lack of control over when other humans send e-mails even slightly make a dent in the number of times I’ve checked my messages since lunch (approximately 347, in my not-so-scientific estimation). There’s an old Calvin and Hobbes cartoon that opines, “The longer you wait for the mail, the less there is in it,” and right now I really feel like reaching through my screen and giving my inbox a good bopping.

Sure, the usual advice given to millennial writers in my situation is to write something else, or query someone else,  or do something else. And I’ll totally do that, right after I refill my coff–REFRESHREFRESHREFRESH! Whoops.

How do you avoid mashing the refresh button?

Kate

*This post was originally published in May 2017.*

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