It’s no secret that newsrooms across the U.S. have been on the decline, and COVID-19 only exacerbated the problem. The Great Pause (Remember that?) that kicked off the pandemic sent already declining ad revenue into freefall. As event promotions that might normally occupy ad space dried up, reporters also saw assignments evaporate. Layoffs inevitably followed, and in many cases, newsrooms went on indefinite hiatus. Poynter, a nonprofit media institute, began tracking all the layoffs, furloughs and closures at newsrooms across the country, and the list is staggering. The Inlander and The Spokesman-Review are two local examples on the list.
Nathan Weinbender, a senior copywriter and content developer at DH, reflects on his experience working for The Inlander during the early days of the pandemic: “Within the span of a couple weeks, we were working from home, then getting notices of reduced hours, then notices of layoffs. These were the first layoffs in the history of The Inlander, so they were a big deal…There is something about putting together a publication with your colleagues. Not having in-person interactions really affected the way we worked.”
While many publications weathered the storm and resumed some semblance of normal operations, many newsrooms continue to run with fewer staff working fewer hours. Agencies aiming to get their clients’ stories out to the public must acknowledge reporters’ limited bandwidth and proceed accordingly.
“We have found strategies that work—that make us good-faith partners with the reporters in our network and that ensure our clients’ stories get told.”
1. Know what story you want to tell.
“One of the things that stood out in a good pitch was a clear narrative,” says Nathan. “Reporters are tasked with finding the story, not just listing the details. A pitch that includes an interesting angle—that offers to connect you with someone who knows about the project or someone who stands to benefit—is a huge plus.”
When putting together a pitch email, get clear on the story you want to tell. If you’re choosing between several possible narratives, be picky. Try informally polling a few colleagues to see which one they find most compelling. Once you’ve narrowed it down, lead with a strong hook and the most important details. Provide an angle and the data necessary to support it.
2. Create a killer pitch email.
Sending a great pitch email is the best way to improve your odds of having a story picked up. Start with a compelling subject line—one that piques curiosity, creates a sense of urgency, or responds to current events.
After you’ve got the subject line, check that your pitch email captures all the necessary information: a hook, an angle, the data, a spokesperson, a press release (if you have one). Next, format your email so it’s succinct and easy to read. You may have a fascinating story, but if your pitch is a slog, it won’t get read.
3. Have a spokesperson teed up.
If they ever did, reporters no longer have time for lengthy back-and-forth communications. “We recommend having a few people at your organization media trained, so you have options for who can effectively speak to the topic,” advises Annie. “Come prepared with options for your spokesperson’s availability as well. It’s important to be flexible to a reporter’s schedule.” Breaking news may force a reporter to reschedule; prepare your spokesperson for that possibility. And finally, consider who the right person is to evangelize your story. Ask yourself: Is this person a subject-matter expert? Are they credible? Are they able to break down complex ideas in a way that makes sense to the average person?
4. Do your homework.
Before you hit send on your pitch email, do your research about who should be on the receiving end. Which reporters and publications would be interested in hearing your pitch and are therefore more likely to cover it? If you don’t have an answer, ask around or read up on prospective recipients. Subscribing to the outlets you are trying to place stories in may seem like a no-brainer, but it will help you get a feel for the types of stories different reporters tend to cover.
Also consider the timing. Find out when a publication’s daily staff meetings happen, if you can, and send your pitch beforehand. Reporters share story ideas at these meetings, so if the person you sent your idea to doesn’t have time to run with it, they might share it with a colleague who does. If you don’t know when a publication’s staff meetings are, best practice says Tuesday and Thursday mornings are good times to send your email. Avoid Mondays (too hectic) and Fridays (too late).
5. Focus on relationship building.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed how newsrooms operate and how agencies respond, but one universal truth remains: Your currency in this industry is your ability to build relationships. Investing in long-term relationships with media folks will increase your chances of getting coverage.
At its best, the relationship between newsrooms and agencies is symbiotic: journalists need stories and agencies have stories to tell. “As a features writer, I worked with PR people all the time, and I was always on a deadline,” Nathan says. “The people who were reliable and responsive, made it simple to connect with an interview source, and got me what I needed, were the people I wanted to work with again.”
Think of reporters as clients. Their experience working with you matters. Be helpful and easy to work with. A great pitch email may get your foot in the door, but being a trustworthy partner will get you invited in. The more you pitch A+ work, the more likely reporters are to recognize you by name, open your emails or even come to you for opportunities.
When you do form a relationship, keep up with the person. The pandemic has meant layoffs and career moves for reporters just like everyone else, but reporters tend to cover the same topics and industries no matter where they’re working.
- Decide on a story with a strong hook, interesting angle and supporting data.
- Craft a pitch email with a compelling subject line and an easy-to-read format that includes all the necessary details.
- Have a qualified spokesperson lined up.
- Research which publications and reporters are most aligned with your story. Send your pitch on a day and at a time it’s likely to be read.
- If a reporter reaches out, be reliable, responsive and prepared to wow them.
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