Editors and reporters receive more press releases and unsolicited phone calls (and emails and texts) then they can reasonably be expected to handle. That’s because everyone thinks they have a story that the world is just craving to hear about. Truth is, most people don’t. Of all of the story ideas that journalists receive in one form or another, only a very select few jump off the page as winners while many more lie there limp as losers. The overwhelming majority fall in the middle and are left to the prejudice, mindset and mood of whomever is making editorial decisions.
How a story makes its way into the stack of winners is contingent, in great part, on an understanding of what is news. But the baffling part is there exists no agreement on this topic — no tidy assumptions and no dead certainties. If there were, every media outlet would be covering the same stories in the same way on the same day. The fact that they are not only reinforces the reality that — as sure as night is dark — the media does indeed work in mysterious ways.
In four years of undergraduate work and three years of graduate level study of the media, I never had two professors present me with the same definition of news. Nor did I read two textbooks which defined news in precisely the same manner. As a result, I am left with nothing but those seven years of higher education followed by four decades of working with editors and reporters to develop my own explanation of what makes news.
Here it is: Is it unique? Is it timely? Is it dramatic? If your story contains none of those three elements and has about as much buzz as a lawn bowling finals, don’t waste your time…or the journalists time…. or your credibility in an aimless effort. You might as well try to pitch that the world is flat.
Why these three? When all else is said and done, timeliness is a core element of news. That is truer today than ever with a 24-hour news cycle and the instant gratification of social media.
Uniqueness makes you stand out. Are you the first? Are you the only? Are you the largest, the smallest, the most expensive, the least expensive, the oldest, the most rewarded or the most revered? In short, unique means different, and hopefully special. As for drama, that’s something the media simply can’t resist, from a heart wrenching story of a good Samaritan or a saved puppy to a celebrity squabble or a brewing controversy. Drama not only makes for good theater but has the snap, crackle and pop that makes for good stories as well.
Getting a story placed requires much more backend strategy including making sure you are pitching it to the right outlet. If it is visual, think television. If it requires depth, think newspaper. If it has immediacy and/or invites two-way communication, think online. There are a multitude of other considerations as well: Is it local or national? Does it have broad interest or appeal to a niche audience? Is it best for consumers or business? Is the story part of trend? Is it a follow-up to a previous story? Does it have a “ticking clock” or a compelling reason for the media to cover it now?
What the media chooses to cover or not cover may appear to be just plain serendipity. Like everything else in business, the winners find a way to have an edge and break through. Understanding “what makes news” is that edge, for without it you will find yourself as befuddled as one of the legendary blind men feeling different parts of an elephant and wondering what in the world they are touching.
Ross Goldberg is President of Kevin/Ross PR