The image of the gung-ho, ambulance chasing journalist, with nicotine-stained fingers, is an enduring one. The most respected journalists of our time are those who have been willing to go down to the trenches to give us a sense of history unfolding. Yet the role of journalist as front-line reporter is increasingly being eroded. As time goes on, it is becoming less and less necessary for journalists to leave the comfort of their office to bring us breaking news.
The reason for this is varied and complex. It partly relates to the relentless march of technology. News is now being constantly piped into offices through newswires, RSS feeds and increasingly through social-networking sites such as Twitter. The tightness of deadlines can increase the temptation to pull news from the wires. With journalist’s wages plummeting, it often doesn’t pay journalists to invest the time in finding a fresh source for every story. Even if a journalist has taken the time to unearth a sizzling story, advertising pressures can squeeze it off the front page.
The press release has now become a ubiquitous presence in newsrooms and serves the news up to journalists on a plate. Journalists have an ambiguous relationship with press releases. It can feel like they’re cheating their way to a news story, or copying someone else’s words. But when a deadline is looming and there is a glaring space in the middle of the page, a ready-made angle and a number leading to a guaranteed source can be seductive.
So where are journalists getting their news from? In some ways, there has never been so many sources for news. The Internet now plays a central role in the newsgathering process. And it’s not just dedicated news sources that bear fruit. Google is a handy tool for researching quick facts or checking the spelling of a name. Social networking sites can yield useful contacts. I recently read a technology article where the journalist had chosen her interviewees exclusively from her pool of Twitter contacts.
Whether journalists care to admit it or not, other media outlets can be a valuable source of news. Producers of radio current affairs programmes often pluck out articles from the paper with an interesting subject matter and contact the source mentioned in the article for an interview, or else a local expert with similar expertise. They can put their own spin on the story, shaping it to the requirements of their medium.
Creating a directory of trusted sources is still a common way of gathering news. I write a fishing column for The Irish Skipper and over the past two years, I have built up a small roster of people that I can ring to get the views of fishermen on the ground about the issues affecting their industry and about local issues. Using a trusted source is the best way to gather exclusive information and to ensure that it is presented accurately.
Journalists themselves are experts in their own field and may already know people who have the specialist information they need to cover a story. In writing an article for Writer’s Forum about the role of books which teach creative writing, I was able to call upon the two tutors of my creative-writing course. I knew that their views would complement each other and having a personal relationship with them ensured I could get the maximum information from them.
In a time of slashed budgets and seven-page advertorials, most journalists are still determined to gather fresh news wherever possible. They find it still worthwhile to do the extra research for background information that will give their story a unique stamp. It’s easy to be a competent journalist within the confines of a newsroom, but the ability to cultivate sources and to go out of your way to find compelling information help journalists stand above the herd.
Final thought: The press release is the most reliable way to get yourself in the news. A well-written press release which contains the main thrust of your story in the first paragraph will attract the attention of journalists. It will also be a powerful tool for free publicity. If it gets into the news pages, it will generate buzz around your business and tap into the power of word of mouth.