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Thursday, August 5, 2010

All The News...

It's that time of year again.  The weather slowly begins to turn cooler, the days start to grow shorter and leaves begin to turn.  Sure, it's still 90 degrees outside, but the change is coming, it's inevitable.  And just to make sure you don't miss the changing of the seasons, your local news outlets are letting you know in not too subtle ways.

Here in Denver, August means the annual tradition of all things Denver Broncos making the headlines.  The newer tradition of following the Rockies' playoff push still hasn't quite caught on; football is still king here in the Rocky Mountains.  No one will argue that, but does it really qualify as "news"? 

This is a common question I hear from folks, including clients, when trying to determine why and how newsrooms decide on what to report on.  We've written on the newsmaking decision process in this space before, but it deserves another look before we go much further.

News is tricky, and even the most seasoned reporters, producers and editors will sometimes miss the boat on a big story or will latch onto a story that ultimately, has no legs.  And while news sometimes is more art than science, there is a basic formula that most journalists keep in mind as they decide on what will make the front page, the 10pm broadcast or the hourly updates.
1.  Timeliness - is the story happening now, or recently, or is it just about to happen?


2.  Proximity - "All news is local" is the mantra often repeated to newsrooms across the country.  If a story is local to the audience the outlet services, it has a much better chance of being reported.


3.  Impact - How much does the story impact the audience?  Is this something that impacts only a few individuals, or is it something that the public at large has a vested interest in?


4.  Relatability - This is often called, "The Care Factor" and simply means, how much can the audience relate to the issues or individuals involved in the story.  


5.  WOW factor - This is where news gets tricky.  Celebrities, sports, and all sorts of "non-news" issues fall into this category.  Certainly if Kim Kardashian gets married it has little proximity, impact or relatability to most of the audience, but it's timeliness and WOW factor will put this story squarely in the sights of newsrooms all over the country.
It's the WOW factor that often accounts for much of the confusion when it comes to the question of, "What is news".  We can all understand when a bank robbery takes place, or a murder happens or the city goes bankrupt, why it is a lead story in most local news outlets.  But when Tim Tebow's first (limited) practice of Bronco's training camp makes the front page of the Denver Post, many people end up scratching their heads, wondering how the story qualified for such a massive headline treatment.

The Competition is Tough:

When clients wonder why their story got bumped so the newsroom devote extra time to cover Bronco training camp, I have a simple one-word response; Audience.

Keep in mind that, despite all the noble tradition of journalism, it is, has been and always will be a business.  News is in the business of attracting viewers, readers and listeners.  Reporting on the simple events of the day might be the truest definition of "news" but it's also a sure-fire way to NOT attract an audience. 

Reporters, producers and editors have to keep their audience in mind when putting together a newscast or morning paper.  In the end, it comes down to the age-old argument that has raged in newsrooms for decades; Should news report only what the audience NEEDS to know, or should it report on what they think the audience WANTS to know.

In today's world of "infotainment" journalists walk a fine line between the two, attempting to report on the necessary news of the day while still providing entertaining stories that the audience wants to see and hear. 

Is the public good truly served by plastering a photo of a 3rd-string rookie quarterback on the front page, with accompanying story right below?  Probably not.  Is the paper going to sell more copies by doing so?  The answer is a resounding yes!  Like all newspapers, The Post keeps circulation and sales numbers dating back to the earliest days of publication.  Filed under, "not-so-surprising" is the fact that The Post, and The Rocky in its day, sold more copies after Bronco wins and whenever a Bronco is featured on the front page. 

Based on what I know has happened to day in training camp (I have a few friends left in local newsrooms) I can pretty much guarantee what tomorrow's headlines are going to be.  Elvis Dummervil Out For The Season!  The headline will trumpet across the front pages and lead all newscasts.  This will be followed by the news of the signing of LenDale While, a former Denver Public School superstar and more news on the QB battle between Tebow and Orton.  Look it up, I'm pretty sure I'm right on target here.

So while news of the Broncos' newest QB might have little to no impact on the daily lives of Denver residents, it's clear that there is an interest and that readers have a strong interest and appetite in all things Broncos.  Of course, there is still timeliness and proximity, but as far as impact, it falls way short when compared to stories dealing with the economy, public safety and law enforcement. 

This is why stories about celebrity screw-ups, football players and teams and water-skiing squirrels makes the news every single day.  These are cute, funny, interesting and fascinating stories.  They have a WOW factor that really can't be explained in terms of actual news, but the audience wants to see them and so journalists deliver. 

In the end, the audience is what matters to newsrooms.  Without an audience, a media outlet is doomed, just ask the Rocky Mountain News and the other myriad of newspapers that have folded over the past decade.  Larger audiences mean higher ad rates and subscribers, which leads to more money which means a healthy news outlet.  In Denver, the Broncos rule and people are interested in what happens to their favorite team.  The same holds true in Boston, New York, Dallas, Cleveland...everywhere (except maybe L.A. which seems to be interested in just celebrities in general).

Let's Play A Game:

Just a quick one, mind you.  But I'm going to repeat an exercise I used with my students at CU-Denver and one I give to my students taking my seminars today. 

I'll give you three news stories, YOU decide which one would make the headline of the daily local newspaper.  Assume that you are in Denver (or you could be in any city, just attach the local sports team to the headline)

1.  Scientists discover cure for cancer
2.  Broncos win Superbowl, Tebow named MVP
3.  City declares bankruptcy, many city services to close

Take a moment, I'll wait while you ponder the many possibilities.  (hum JEOPARDY theme here)

Done?  Okay.  I'll give you MY headlines in order and you can compare.

1.  Broncos Win Superbowl
2.  City declares bankruptcy
3.  Scientists discover cure for cancer.

Of course, that's how I believe our local journalists would rank them.  In my personal opinion, I'd make the cure for cancer number 2 and the bankruptcy number 3.  How did you choose?

Without a doubt the bankruptcy story and the cancer story impacts millions more people than the superbowl win, but the superbowl win is the story that the majority of people will want to read.  The cancer story matters, as does the bankruptcy story, but the real INTEREST from the audience is going to be in a recap of the win.  This is where the audience "wants" will dictate what story is bigger. 

The Impact On You!

What this means, in terms of small business and non-profit PR, is that you absolutely MUST take into account the audience when making your pitch to a news outlet. 

It also means you have to keep an eye on the traditional WOW factor stories that your local media covers every year.  If you live in Denver, you know that in August and September, local news will dedicate extra time and space to coverage of training camp and pre-season.  That space will be eaten up through the season, meaning less time for other stories on Saturday, Sunday and Monday.  You KNOW that the big news on Monday (or Tuesday) will be how the Broncos did the night before.  This means your story had better be a great one in order to beat out all the other stories battling for the limited time available.

Finally, it means you have to get creative in your pitching sometimes just to get a second look from journalists.  While you're always going to have better luck pitching a story with credible news content, there are times when you can use a WOW factor to help your story gain traction and get coverage.

Here's an example:

I am working with a client who runs a cat spay and neuter clinic in Denver.  Raising awareness of spaying and neutering isn't among the easiest things to do.  There are a handful of ways to grab the public's attention.  You can appeal to their wallet, pull on their heartstrings hit them over the head with scare tactics, or you can go the WOW factor route.

While talking to the client she mentioned that she used "cat condoms" as a funny way to help spread the message of cat spaying and nuetering.  Of course, they're not real.  Cats don't wear condoms.  But I was immediately struck by how effective the condoms could be to attract media attention.  It was something new, something unique, something funny.  More importantly, it was a cheap, easy gimmick that could be delivered to every newsroom in the city without breaking the budget.

The story of spaying and neutering has some real news impact, no argument there.  It has proximity, timeliness (although, since the story never goes away, it's more of an evergreen story), impact (due to the money spent by taxpayers on homeless and feral pets) and relatability (who can resist a cute pet?). 

But outside of Bob Barker, who really spends their time thinking about spaying and neutering pets?  No one, that's who.  And getting them to pay attention isn't easy.  Newsrooms know this.  It's one thing to bring on a shelter representative with a cute puppy or kitten and parade them in front of cameras to push pet adoption, but the visuals for spaying and neutering are, well...they aren't as cute.

But package the message with something funny and interesting like condoms for cats, and newsrooms will get a chuckle and take notice.  It's the WOW factor that takes a quality, but uninteresting story to journalists, and makes it worth reporting on.  Within just a  couple of months since delivering those condoms to the local newsrooms, the stories have started to roll in. 

The "Beat The Heat" campaign that featured the condoms along with a set of stills that espoused the vitures of having a spayed or neutered cat as a pet, has created a mini-stir among local journalists and has set the stage for a follow-up story that is more based on actual news content. 

The Feline Fix used a WOW factor to establish themselves within newsrooms and will find much more success in the future as they move forward with other campaigns and new pitches.  Any small business or non-profit can achieve the same with a little creativity and perseverance. 

Knowing the local audience and understanding that using a gimmick or WOW factor can be an effective way to get coverage, will help you in your efforts.  This is why, when I work with clients, I always say interesting AND informative.  You CAN be both.  You can provide content that interests an audience and still provides useful information.  If all people wanted was straightforward information, then public radio would be the most listened-to station in the country.  But it's not.  Not even close. 

So start thinking about your organization and looking for fun ways to get your product or service into the public eye.  You probably don't have cat condoms to work with, and it's likely you don't have a Bronco QB to help you hit the front pages.  But all you need is something different, unusual, fun and creative to catch a journalists attention. 

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