The first post in this series gave us a glimpse into the worker patterns of journalists, or close enough to it. You may have gone away from that post wondering how reporters handle writing 5 articles a day (approx 350 words x5 = 1750 perfectly spelled and grammar-checked words), usually about topics they are not experts in or know nothing about, research those 5 articles, and answer 100+ emails and calls a day? There does not seem to be enough hours in the day, right? Well, there aren’t. In the killing fields that are a career in journalism you have to manage a 48/72 hour job in 24 hours. Though, if you want to sleep you really only have 18 hours. Enter the press release, bane of the journalists existence and savior of their life.
Two Types of Articles
There are roughly two types of articles journalists write. The ones they are passionate about and the ones that pays the bills. Many journalists will slow burn an article, meticulously researching it for months or years, these are their passion articles. Then there are their quota articles, the 1-5 articles they have to produce everyday to stay employed. This is not to say that they do not try to do the best job that they can with quota articles or that they are not also passionate about these articles. It is just that they have to produce three articles in three hours on topics they know nothing about and literally do not have enough time to Google- do archaeologists dig dinosaurs. The only way they can manage this insane schedule is with the press release.
The Good, the Bad, the Ugly of Press Release
Remember I said journalists field 100+ emails and calls a day? While some of those emails and calls are tips, the majority of these emails are press releases and those calls are people trying to send press releases. The reason they have to go through so many press releases is because most of them are crap. They are too long, too irrelevant, or too poorly put together to be of any use. The bad press releases. What is worse is when people don’t send properly formatted press releases at all. Instead they send their 40 page peer reviewed articles full of jargon. The ugly “press release”. But, as they wade through that stack of crap they will find nuggets of gold, the good press releases. These are what articles are made of.
What Makes a Good Press Release?
Copy & paste! A good press release is one that could be turned into an article by simply cutting & pasting parts or the whole press release. What Keith of Bad Archaeology calls ‘churnalism’ but which Clair, who worked as press officer, hates so I won’t use the term. Essentially, many articles you read are just re-purposed press releases. Take an article from a newspaper (not a wired story i.e. Associated Press story, which are meant to be reused) and paste a paragraph into Google. You might get a few other news venues but it you go far down enough you will find a press release site with the original “article” that with either be identical or very close to what you read*.
Press Release = News Article
Essentially, if you want the facts to be correct and your news publicized you need to write a good press release and that is basically a news article. However, writing a news article is a very different style of writing than what most Archaeologists have been taught. In archaeology, like in most other academic writing, we start very broad and work our way to a narrow conclusion. We start with the background i.e. how our work fits into the wider world, then we put in details like the problem and methods used. Finally, we end with a conclusion. An inverted Pyramid story.
News articles work in the complete opposite direction to what we are use to. You start with the narrow conclusion and finish with how it fits into the wider world**. There is a very good reason for this, ‘below the fold’. That is a term used to describe a phenomenon in news were many people don’t read all the way through an article i.e. below the fold in a newspaper, or below the screen on webpage i.e. where you have to scroll to see. To make sure people got the basics they start with the most important facts first and add more detail. That is the pattern you should follow.
Edit– Thanks to adrian murdoch who pointed this out over on his blog. Inverted pyramid has a different meaning in journalism. I was personally taught the above use of inverted pyramid in academic writing and so used it to play off against how most news articles are constructed. I think it makes a better visualization but might cause some confusion in terminology-so just be aware inverted pyramid in journalism describes the whole narrow to broad work too. I use the term ‘below the fold’ to describe the fact that people don’t read past the first few lines of an article. A term in journalism is above the fold, which means something different. Don’t want to confuse anyone.
Quotes are to news articles as citations are to journal articles. Pretty much every story needs quotes. It makes for both more interesting reading and a way to present facts. Best to have quotes from experts or people involved in the project. Make sure you have permission to quote someone, or if you make up a quote make sure you have permission to attribute the quote to them. It is ok to make creative quotes, most quotes in news articles are.
In my last post I went over the five things that makes an article newsworthy- timing, significance, proximity, prominence, human interest. You need to pick one of these hooks to build your story around. This is what will get your story published. Try to avoid over using any one of these hooks.
You won’t believe what happened next Title
The hook needs to be in the title. It needs to draw people in. Unfortunately, we now have website like Upworthy that spews out crap click-bait titles to get people to read articles. Avoid this click baiting but do put your hook into the title.
Further Info/Call to Action
It you have a website, place to learn more information, or an action for people to do put that in. This is usually left off most articles which is a shame.
Don’t put this in the article but put contact info (phone,email) of someone in the press release who can answer questions or give more details if needed.
For the press release make it double spaced and under a page, which means 300-350 words, about the length of a news article. With 100 press releases to go through most journalist don’t have the time to read too much more than a page anyways.
If possible send pictures along to0. Not big, don’t kill someone’s inbox but let them know you have more and higher quality one’s if they need them.
Local Boy Finds King Arthur’s Knight (title with hook, a bit wrong but bear with me)
Twelve year old John Smith, from (local town name), has discovered a warriors burial believed to date to around 400 AD at Chowldincur Fort, run by (your organization name) (First sentence must sum up everything). This burial is from a time period widely believed to have been when King Arthur lived, a legend but who is thought to be based on real people (The possible misconceptions in the title are corrected in the body of the article- informing the reader of valuable information) . Chowldincur Fort archaeologists John Doe had this to say about the possibility that this is King Arthur’s knight (quote from expert), “Research by professors has shown that the legend of King Arthur was based on the life of one or more people from around this time. So this warrior might have been a contemporary of the man, or men, that the legend is based off of.” John Doe went on to say that, “based on the amount of weapons found in the burial and the wounds suffered by the body that this man was a warrior but he was not a knight. Knights actually appeared later in history, its (its? watch spelling and grammar) a common misconception”. (again, teaching people)
As for how John Smith came to find this burial his mother, Jane Smith, explained how he got started, “Johnny has always been interested in history so we contacted the staff at Chowldincur Fort to find out how he could learn to dig up things. Good thing we did too, because apparently there are laws and regulations about doing this stuff. We had no idea, but the staff was nice enough to teach him how to conduct proper work and not break any laws” (Get as much as you can out of an article- Made up quote teaching about laws and discouraging looting). Once properly trained, Johhny began volunteering to help archaeologists find artefacts around the fort. This led him to a find a midden, which is basically an ancient trash heap, which had the burial underneath it. (midden? Jargon- try to avoid but if you do use it put in a definition. One or two of these are good teachable points.)
Excavations of the burial are still ongoing and the public is invited to come out and watch or participate. More information can be found at websitetoChowldincurFort.fakewebsite (call to action/more info).
For more information or quotes please contact (me) (email) (phone)
Hope this example helps you get a rough idea of how to write a press release. Like I said at the beginning of this series of blog posts, Archaeology and the Press, I will be make a more extensive guide in which I will go into more detail. Though for now this can get you started. Also, bear in mind that this is only an example and not gospel. I decided to play on people’s misconceptions about King Author to both attract readers and educate them. This is not good for every story but can work on occasion.
Archaeology and the Press
‘churnalism’ Copy and Paste a Bad Thing? This is how I look at it, the system is broken. Talk to any journalist and they will tell you that they would love to spend weeks researching and writing every article but alas, except for a few people working for very specific publications, that is not reality. They don’t have the time to learn everything and do we have the time to teach them? Imagine teaching someone who knows nothing about Archaeology all he complexities and idiosyncrasy’s of our work. How long would that take? Do you have 3? 6? 9? hours to explain everything about your work to someone. Only to have them turn around and try to explain it to others. Would it not save everyone’s time for you to write it up and for them to polish the work?
In a perfect world journalists could spend days on an article. However, in the current world journalists don’t have the time and we want the facts to be right so we write press releases.
** By no means is this the only way to write a news article. There is great diversity in writing. However, as in academic writing, where we see most journal articles follow the same pattern-background-methods-conclusion, a good majority of news articles follow this general concept. You are more likely to get the press release picked up if it is in a format used often.