Harry’s Advice on Getting Your News in the Paper
In recent months, I’ve posted a number of fictional stories written by my dad, Harry Zubkoff, as a young adult. His family and friends are enjoying these; I hope other readers are, too. So, I was ready to post another of his fictions when I came across this article (below) in his files. It appears to be the nonfiction story on which he based the fiction. He wrote it when he was editor of the Greenbelt News Review, a volunteer position, in the 1950s and early ‘60s. To get his points across on how to submit ads to a newspaper – a dry subject, right? – he entertains us with anecdotes and humor.
By the way, if we changed a few examples, Harry’s advice could apply to news media today. Next week I’ll post the fictional story I mentioned, the companion piece, so to speak, to this article. Also, many of Harry’s co-volunteers from those Greenbelt days moved to Montgomery County, as did Harry, and became involved there, too.
How To Get Your News Into The Newspapers In Ten Easy Lessons
Yesterday I got a frantic phone call from a near hysterical woman. “Why,” she demanded, her voice quavering, “didn’t you print a story about our club picnic last week? Now all the girls are mad at me, and it’s all your fault.”
“What club?” I said brightly. “What picnic?”
“Why, the Women of the Town Club, of course,” she gasped. “I sent you a note.”
“A note,” I said. “I didn’t get any note.”
“But I wrote it,” she almost screamed, “and I slipped it under your office door myself.”
“When?” I asked automatically, searching my memory for any trace of a note.
“Last Saturday night,” she went on accusingly. “We were just coming home from a party, my husband and I, and we were passing your office when I thought of it and – and, so I wrote it down and slipped it under your door.”
Now I understood. “What did you write it on?” I said.
She thought a moment. Then, “The back of an envelope,” she answered.
“Well, I didn’t find it,” I said helplessly.
How could I explain? Each week I receive two or three hundred pieces of mail. When the wastebaskets overflow, empty envelopes pile up on the floor. Envelopes these days come in all colors and sizes, and you can find representative samples on my office floor almost any time. Most of them have notes scribbled on them, too. Anything slipped under the office door, especially an old envelope, is immediately lost forever. So there you are! No matter what I said, this particular woman would always remember that I had failed to print her story. It would take me three months to get back on friendly terms with her, and even longer to convince her club members that I hadn’t been discriminating against them. Even then, some of them would always remember that I had failed to print a story about their picnic.
There are over 10,000 weekly newspapers in the country, and this problem is no doubt common to all of them. Multiply it by the tens of thousands of clubs and organizations to which we Americans belong and the uncommon pleasure we take in seeing accounts of our activities in print, and you begin to understand why editors get ulcers.
In desperation, I feel impelled to offer a few hundred words of advice to the publicity chairmen of all these groups. But first, let’s define our terms. After all, what is publicity? For that matter, what is news? The editor has to decide, of course, but it would help tremendously if publicity chairmen would also consider these questions.
Take a typical example. The Coffee-Break Club decides to hold a money-making dance. In order to be successful, it must be publicized. So the publicity chairman scribbles a note (doesn’t anybody own a typewriter?), “From 9 to 12 P.M., music by Charlie Baton and his Batoneers, admission $2.50 a couple.” Then he wonders why it never gets printed, and sometimes he even gets mad at the paper. The editor, meanwhile, finds that admission is limited to members and friends, and that out of a total population of 10,000 or more, perhaps 200 will attend. If he prints anything at all, it will be a one- or two-line item saying that the Coffee-Breakers are dancing Saturday at the Armory. Then he mutters under his breath about free publicity.
What was wrong? Well, properly speaking, the item was really an advertisement, not a news story. If it had been submitted as an ad it would, naturally, have been printed. Lesson Number One: Separate advertising from news; then advertise.
Advertising is a legitimate expense connected with any money-raising effort, and it will insure that you get some publicity, if not all you want. Most editors will not publish prices in news stories anyway, so save that for the ad. Ballyhoo your affair in other ways, too. Lesson Number Two: Use all possible media.
Put posters in store windows, get a sound-truck out in the streets, put a telephone squad to work, get handbills printed and distributed (any editor will gladly arrange this), get the radio and TV disc jockeys who blanket your area to mention your affair, send representatives to talk to other organizations, mail invitations, etc. Every little bit helps, so make a big noise. This may cost a little money but not as much as you think, and besides, like they say, you have to spend money to make money. Lesson Number Three: Spend a little money.
The best and most lasting kind of publicity, however, is a news story in the paper. So talk to the editor about the news value of your affair. He wants to print news, he’s looking for news, so he’s half convinced already. Just sell him on the other half. How? By hanging your news story on a gimmick. A dance by itself is hardly news, but a dance to raise money to distribute free polio shots is news, or a dance commemorating a significant date or occasion is news. So – Lesson Number Four: Look behind the bare facts for the news, or “find the gimmick.”
To come back to this scribbling business for a minute, if it’s at all possible, type your story (double or tipple space), and get as much news into it as you can. Most weekly newspapers do not have enough manpower to assign reporters to cover your organization’s activities. As publicity chairman, that’s your job, and with a little effort you’ll find yourself digging up facts faster than a small boy finds worms. Whose idea was the dance? Who’s on the working committees arranging it? How old is the organization sponsoring it? Lesson Number Five: Put all the information you think of into a story, including background. Let the editor cut (and editors are happiest when cutting stories) because he would much rather cut down a story than dig up enough information write a new one.
Then there’s the matter of deadlines. Every newspaper has a deadline for copy. It may be flexible, perhaps, but not for you. If an editor accepts a story after the deadline it’s because in his opinion it’s important. Publicity almost never rates. Remember, the deadline is the latest time you can submit your copy – not the earliest. The later your publicity comes in, the less chance it has of being printed. The earlier the better, and very often the early unimportant (comparatively) story gets preference over the late important (ditto) story. Lesson Number Six: Get your story in as long before the deadline as possible.
Lest you misunderstand, let me make it clear that I believe the news or organizations and their activities play an important part in weekly newspapers, if for no other reason than that this kind of activity occupies the spare time of almost all their readers. Next to churches and schools, community organizations are one of the greatest forces for good in our everyday human relationships. Just the other day I read in the paper that several foreign observers attribute our success as a democracy to our ability to get things done through community organizations acting on the local level on a voluntary basis. Most weekly editors lend great emphasis to reporting this news, but publicity is something else again.
You don’t have to be a great writer to report a few facts. (You can’t hardly find them kind no more, anyhow.) But you do have to be somewhat objective. Some of the publicity material we editors get across our desks is on the verge of being sickening. For example, why is everyone always “cordially invited to attend?” Why can’t they just be invited? Why are dances always “lovely” and picnics always “fun for all”? In short, write your stories objectively, forget all the clichés and the editors won’t be quite so prone to file them in the wastebasket. Lesson Number Seven: Leave out the adjectives.
A word of caution. Not all publicity material can possibly get printed. Even the large daily papers don’t have enough space to do that, and weekly papers are severely limited space-wise. Each week I have to make a decision as to whose stories to leave out, and several factors influence that decision – which story came in earliest, which had most news value, which were accompanied by paid advertising, which were nicely typewritten, etc. Also, whom could I afford to antagonize? Certain it is that each week some organization will be unhappy, so you should do everything possible to insure that it’s not yours. How? In addition to all the other things I’ve mentioned, and probably most important, is persistence. Send your stories in every week, or as often as you can. Swallow your disappointment if it doesn’t get printed and write another one. One man sent me a story about his club’s activities each week for nine weeks. None of them were printed. The tenth week he quit, bitter because he thought the paper was prejudiced. He was the most surprised guy in the world when a big front-page story appeared that tenth week, and it gave his prestige (and his organization) a tremendous lift. What he didn’t know was that it took all nine weeks of accumulating his stories to get enough information for a big feature. So, Lesson Number Eight: Keep those stories rolling. In the end it will pay off.
Then there’s the matter of follow-up. This is my pet peeve, and a lot of editors feel the same way. Organizations will knock themselves out to get publicity into the newspaper on their annual fund-raising affairs. (They always want the front page, too.) But after it’s all over, there’s not a peep out of them. The editor asks how they made out, and suddenly he’s prying into secrets. Everybody clams up. Then they wonder why he won’t give them any free publicity the next time. This is frustrating to editors and unfair to newspapers. The editor has printed the publicity because he knows his readers are interested. He likewise has a right to print the results, because he knows his readers are equally interested, if not more so. If there is a good reason for not printing such results, talk it over with him. He’s usually reasonable. Try to understand his point of view. Above all, don’t try to keep secrets from him. If he tries, he can eventually find out anyway. Better to tell him in the first place and keep him on your side. Lesson Number Nine: Follow up on stories and don’t keep secrets.
Another thing that annoys me is this question of credits. The paper has publicized the dinner-banquet for three weeks straight, and that’s a lot of free publicity, which has certainly contributed greatly to the success of the affair. Comes the big night, the chairman gets up and delivers a speech of thanks to everyone who worked on the affair and to all those who even remotely helped. But does he mention the paper? Hah! Two days later he calls to find out why his name was spelled wrong. I tell you, friend, publicity is a two-way street, with you at one end, the newspaper at the other, and everybody else in the middle. Oh yes, newspapers like publicity, too, and every plug from you helps increase our circulation and our reader interest, which in turn helps you, too. Forget this not. Lesson Number Ten: Plug the paper publicly every chance you get.
One thing more. This may come out sounding facetious, but I really mean it seriously. A friendly editor is a … a … friendly editor. You know that. Everybody knows that. So whenever you have an affair of any kind — dance, party, picnic, dinner, or even meeting — invite him (cordially). And don’t make him pay admission prices, either. Word the invitation in such a way that he can send a reporter if he can’t go himself. More than that, invite him to your business meetings, let him get acquainted with your problems. Editors are a curious (inquisitive) breed by nature and they like nothing better than to learn all about what’s going on around them. Take advantage of his curiosity (feed his ego). This may not pay off in more publicity, but at least you’ll make friends with the editors, and most of them are nice guys. I know that!
Do these things and I predict success for you as publicity chairman of your organization. You may even get reelected next year, or are you planning to run for president, too?
Copyright 2016, Elaine Blackman