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Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Chewing the cud with journalists

When I was a journalist and short of a story I would spend hours on the phone talking to contacts for ‘golden quotes’. It’s a basic news trawling exercise that relies upon the art of making conversation, rocket science it aint.
I would just talk, have a chat, chew the cud, engage about anything and everything and wait for the contact to say something interesting and… newsworthy, why else would I have been calling?

The approach could be refined in proportion to the expertise of said contact. For example, if I was working on a provincial daily newspaper and wanted to know what’s going on in town, I'd speak to the pub landlord, the post office master, or newsagent. Just a bit of idle chit-chat for a few minutes, and I'd turn up a story.

A refined version of the ‘golden quotes’ tactic served equally well with contacts who had more specialist expertise than the bloke down the pub. The only difference was that the chit-chat took place at a more rarefied level of discourse. The outcome, however, would usually be the same. After a few minutes on the blower, I’d have a lead for a story.

Any decent reporter worth their salt continues to employ this tactic, they pick up the phone, they chat, they listen (they take notes).

Now sometimes it’s obvious why a journalist is calling, you know their angle and this can limit the chit chat a little. Other times a journalist calls up and they genuinely have no angle, they’re just after a story, anything really. 

I make this point to clients all the time nothing else matters to journalists, apart from stories. It's their medium of exchange, lifeblood.

It’s great when you can give them something, it doesn’t have be about your organization or client (journalists don’t particularly care about your client, they care about stories). Perhaps they’d be interested in a story you’ve read somewhere else (though usually not from a rival publication).

At other times you don’t have have a story at all. It’s at times like this that I like to turn the ‘golden quotes’ tactic into reverse, especially if the journalist is not near a deadline. I like to engage them in a conversation, find out what’s going on in their world, what’s happening in the newsroom? What’s today’s splash? How many staff photographers are on the books these days? Are they doing any freelance work? How many leads have they had this week? Best ever scoop? How did they stack it up? Talk news with journalists, talk their language. 

I think it helps.