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Deciding What’s News
Why the newspaper isn't printing your news, why it might later and why there's isn't much you can do about it.





Anyone who’s ever sent out a press release has probably wondered – why didn’t the local paper pick up my story?

Or, if it did make the news, why was it treated the way it was?

I got a question like that a few weeks ago. The conversation was private, but I will say that the news release in question was along the lines of the proverbial non-news story, the one about all the planes that land safely, as opposed to the plane that crashes and makes headlines.

This source's story might have at least somewhat interested some readers, but it wasn't compelling enough to warrant coverage, especially in a general-interest publication. And while trying to explain as much, I cobbled together, in my head, a taxonomy of press releases as seen through the journalist's unflinching eye.

 

No one teaches this in J-school. The labels are my own invention. But whether news organizations think about it systematically or not, I would bet that editors, reporters and producers everywhere consciously or unconsciously sort potential news material into some variation of these categories.
 

Trash it. This release goes straight to the recycling bin and has no utility or interest to my readers or viewers.

 

Print it. It’s timely and requires no real follow-up. Brief stories on events and entertainment calendar items are examples of this category. So are routine police reports that are deemed to require no other follow-up but are still included in round-ups of local news.

 

Tip of the Iceberg (TOTI for short). Here we have two sub-categories.

 

TOTI-Now would be a release with a legitimate breaking news story. Editorial standards, however, require a reporter to get some more depth, context and other information to flesh out a story worthy of the outlet and the event. An announcement about a new company coming to town might be an example.
 

TOTI-Soon would be a release that is of definite interest but not so timely that it must run immediately. The release becomes the kernel, or at least a starting point, for a story that appears over the weekend or in the next week or two.
 

Future String. These are press releases with no immediate utility or interest – but they do contain something that an editor or reporter could later find useful. Perhaps the news reflects a trend, or it might signal an interesting development in the timeline of a person or institution on the reporter's beat.

Some of us are notorious pack rats for such stuff and have collected more building blocks for stories than we could ever hope to assemble into shining castles of journalistic enterprise.

And, unfortunately, there is probably yet another category combining “Trash It” and “TOTI.” That would be the release you know has a deeper story behind it but you throw out anyway because the information at hand has no immediate utility, and you know you’ll never have the time or opportunity to dig out the deeper story.

 

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On the other hand … As I was getting ready to draft this column, I wound up talking with a municipal PR official in another state to set up interviews for a trade publication story.

Once our business was out of the way, we fell into some small talk about our respective career paths. It turns out she had once been a broadcast journalist. But today, as a publicist, she finds herself using her old journalism skills as much or more than ever.

 

Then she mentioned the local paper in her city – and how it was once considered one of the nation’s top 10. She noted that her press releases typically make it in to the publication almost verbatim, and she said that she understood why, given how newspapers have been trying to cut their way to prosperity.

 

But it still bothers her, she says. “I’m enough of a journalist that I think, ‘Wait, don’t you want to ask me some questions about why we’re doing this?’”

 

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Comment below, or write Pressroom at pressroom@milwaukeemagazine.com.

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(image from Shutterstock)

 





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