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Learn how to arrange a feature story to raise awareness about community issues and related initiatives.

 

  • What does it mean to arrange news and feature stories?

  • Why should you arrange news and feature stories?

  • How do you arrange news and feature stories?

Strategically arranging news and feature stories in local and national publications can significantly influence the efficiency of your communicated message. Typically, newspaper readers follow similar patterns regarding which stories they read first and how long they spend on each story. Understanding these patterns can help you arrange information in a way that most effectively raises awareness, generates support, or attracts the attention of the public. This section looks at the differences between news and feature stories, which format may be the most helpful to your cause, and how to arrange a story to efficiently communicate a message.

What does it mean to arrange news and feature stories?

They say that when a dog bites a man, that's nothing new. But if a man bites a dog, that's news. Our communities produce a lot of news, and lots of it doesn't even get in the newspapers. But you don't have to bite a dog to get in the newspaper. This section will help you to attract the media to what you do and to get your story in the news.

You can use news stories and feature stories to highlight your initiative in the media. Before we go any further, let's establish the difference. Feature stories don't necessarily have to have a hot-news aspect -- although they are often based on red-hot news. They usually have special layout treatment (color pictures, illustrations, front page of sections, box around them, etc.) and are lengthier than average news stories.

News stories, on the other hand, are more straightforward. They try to address the issue quickly and objectively. An ideal news story answers six basic questions: Who, What, When, Where, Why and How. For example, the following is the lead (first paragraph) of a story. Can you identify those elements here?

"A professor at the University of Kansas, claiming lack of environmental awareness on campus, started a recycling campaign yesterday with his students' help at the Ecology and Biology Department."

Who -- a professor at the University of Kansas
What -- started a recycling campaign
When -- yesterday
Where -- at the Ecology and Biology Department
Why -- lack of environmental awareness on campus
How -- using his students' help

Feature stories are longer than hard-news stories, so the reporter can go more in depth about how things come to be the way they are. For example, you can have a hard-news story on the new alcohol-abuse program you're starting, or have a feature story on the people you've helped, with pictures, a profile of your initiative, its reason for being, and its plans for the future. It's usually up to the editor or the reporter to decide in which format your story will be published, but if you think your initiative will benefit more from a feature story than from a hard-news blurb, advocate your cause.

What is news?

Usually, news is what you see. What you know is background and what you feel is opinion. Don't try to arrange a story based on your opinions. If you feel strongly about something, or have strong opinions about a subject, write to the editor or write an opinion editorial (op-ed piece). If your opinion is interesting enough, the publication may choose to do a story based on it. For example, suppose you're organizing a local blood drive and for some reason it is receiving poor or no coverage. It's in your best interest to write a letter or op-ed so that your community is informed about it. You may also want to try writing the story yourself and trying to get it published.

However, don't feel bad if reporters reject your idea at first, or propose a different angle for it. Sometimes, a little adjusting will work wonders for you and the way your initiative will be portrayed. Sometimes you may be put off repeatedly for months and then reporters suddenly are on deadline and want to talk to you at 1:00 in the morning. Be patient and you'll be rewarded. Of course, if you're being put off indefinitely and it just feels like you're in a continual holding pattern, move on, because your time is precious. Address your contacts more aggressively if you think that will work, or take your story to another contact. Whatever you do, be tactful; you don't want to make enemies out of your contacts.

Why should you arrange news and feature stories?

Why do you want to get your initiative's story in the paper or on TV? There are several good reasons. For example:

  • To gain increased publicity. A story in the newspaper or in the local news is a free way of getting advertisement. You will be amazed at the number of people who will be interested in your activities after they read your story in the newspapers, watch it on TV, hear it on the radio, or see it on the web. Besides, a story has more credibility than paid publicity.
  • To promote community awareness of your overall initiative. News stories are a vital part of the "conversation" on which communities thrive. By making sure your activities are well-represented in the local media, you ensure that your organization maintains a role in this "conversation."

An example of how your initiative can benefit from a well-placed interview:

A local newspaper ran an interview with the director of The Literacy Project, an adult literacy project in Massachusetts. As a direct result, the organization heard from a number of potential students and volunteers, and also received a number of contributions. Eventually, with other stories in the paper, the organization was recognized as a community resource. The project also placed a number of adult literacy stories and an editorial into a large statewide newspaper. All this together contributed to an increase in state funding for the field.

  • To attract attention -- and possibly funding -- from policy makers and other "movers and shakers" in your community. And that's what you want all along -- people to know what you do and offer some sort of support, recognition and participation. Other initiatives may identify with you and join forces, some organization may sympathize with your cause and make a donation, the state health bureau may want to work with you. With a well-placed story, the sky is the limit for you.

How should you arrange news and feature stories?

So, what does arranging news and feature stories involve? Simply put, it includes getting the media interested in what you're doing so that you get space in publications and on the air. Arranging news and feature stories involves contacting the media, nurturing a relationship with your media contacts, and keeping your contacts informed about what you're doing. It involves knowing the issue inside and out, and it involves believing in -- and convincing others of -- its importance to the community.

When should you arrange your news or feature story?

When is the best time to contact the editor of that weekly magazine, the program manager of that radio station or the producer of that newscast? As soon as have your act together! Try not to contact the media until you have most of the details organized.

If your story is well timed, that's even better. Remember that timing is very important when trying to arrange a news or feature story. Take advantage of national dates and seasonal activities. You may try to arrange a story to coincide with an event, an initiative, or a special day or week related to your issue and your organization. For instance, what day would be better for the Forest Fire Prevention group to launch their new program than Earth Day? National AIDS Awareness Day is probably a great occasion to let people know about a project going on at your county's AIDS prevention group. If you look into it, you may discover a day or an event that might just match what you do. Find out about it and plan accordingly.

Who should you contact?

Reporters are always looking for news. If what you do is unique, interesting and new, it's probably fit to print. But don't give up if you're not involved in any red-hot news at the moment. Especially in small communities, newspapers will often print anything of community interest. They're always looking for local news and a fresh angle. If you're in a larger market that is covered by state or national media, it may be tougher to get your story in, but if you can explore the human aspect of it, you may catch the media's attention.

As a general rule, you want to contact the people with decision power to give your story a go. These people are probably a phone call away and you can take advantage of that. You can also contact the media outlet you chose and ask which reporter covers the subject under which your story would fall.

Most of the time you'll be directed to the reporter who will cover your story. It's hard to generalize how reporters are and how they work, because just like people in general, they vary a great deal. Typically, they want the story done as much as you do, so you share a common interest. Be polite, clear and helpful when you are put in contact with a reporter. Be ready to answer all questions and have additional background information at hand. For instance, if your initiative is throwing a fund-raising ball, the reporter will probably want to know how much it will cost to throw the ball, how much money you expect to raise, how much money you raised on previous balls, what the attractions there are going to be (Band? Prizes?), how many people you're expecting, etc.

But arranging your story is not only about contacting people. It's about contacting the right people. You have to consider which publication or medium fits your interest better. Chances are that Guns and Ammo magazine will not be interested in a gun-control campaign story. On the other hand, it's likely that the On Health web magazine will be interested in a anti-lung cancer initiative. When targeting media for your story, bear in mind also the number of people that may read, watch or hear that publication or show. You want to reach the broadest number of people possible.

How can you "sell" yourself?

Once you decide where you want your story to be published or aired, you have to be ready to "sell" your story -- to convince the reporter that your story is something people will care about. When presenting your story for potential publication, don't tell them; show them. That is, don't only tell the reporter what your story is about, but show to him or her how it affects audiences in general. Show you have knowledge about your community. If you are starting an initiative on disability rights, give the reporter statistics about how many people in the community could benefit from your services, give names of people involved with your project that can be interviewed, suggest an angle for the story, and offer names of people who might provide endorsement to your initiative. Maybe your initiative is something new in town, or is setting a new trend -- don't just tell them that; show them!

While planning to pitch your story, "So what?" is a question that you must bear in mind at all times. Assume that people are constantly asking "So what?" while reading a story on your work. Give a sense of purpose to what you want published or aired. The best way to answer that is presenting human interest in your story. Offer something that people can relate to.

Stories that fail to answer the "So what?" questions will not attract readers' attention, will not be read to the end, or will simply be skipped altogether. You don't want that to happen to your story, so keep yourself in constant check. Ask yourself if you're being clear enough, how relevant what you're doing is, if your point is coming across. If your story is about organizing an effort to contribute to a memorial fund, ask yourself why the average reader should care. Is it because of the nature of the fund? Is it because it's a community effort? What is the human factor you are going to focus on?

Here are some other things that make what you're doing potentially newsworthy:

  • Human interest -- People want to read about other people and what they do and say. This is an element that relates to our natural curiosity. Stories with this ingredient are sure to capture attention. Focus on a particular person's story or on a human angle.
  • Affect -- If what you're reporting has an impact on your readers' lives, you can be sure it's news. It doesn't have to happen locally to affect you. Stories about environmental welfare are as important as stories about your local city dump's sanitary conditions.
  • Proximity -- Usually, people are more interested in what happens close to them. Local stories are most likely to grab attention. However, with the globalization of the world, people are becoming more and more interested in what happens in distant places.
  • Timeliness -- Generally speaking, the fresher the news, the better. People want to know what is going on right now. Of course, there are timeless stories that can be written at any time; these are most likely to be feature stories.
  • Prominence -- Famous people, places and institutions always have a place in the news. If you throw a party, your friends will know. If a famous actor throws a party, it'll be in every magazine.

A very common way of getting your story out is to prepare a press release. A press release is a brief written summary or update alerting the media about your group's news and activities. In it, you should provide all the basic information about your story, some background information, and a way to contact you. However, writing a press release doesn't guarantee that your story will be picked up. Press releases are not always a priority on the reporter's list, and you should contact reporters personally to make sure they didn't put yours at the bottom of a drawer.

You can also consider holding a press conference to get your news out and have somebody write about it. Press conferences are generally geared toward hard news, so before you consider arranging a press conference, make sure your story is timely, significant, prominent, and relevant.

If you're dealing with print media you may try to get your picture in the press. Pictures can work wonders for your story. Suggest pictures, graphics and illustrations to go with your story. Features will benefit the most from visual elements. Illustrations and photos can and should be used as creatively as possible. It helps if you provide the pictures, but sometimes newspapers prefer to send their own photographers. In some communities, newspapers rely on local amateur photographers to provide pictures for their stories. Keep in mind that illustrations and pictures in a feature must tell the story. If you think a picture is fundamental to your story and you don't have one, remember to mention that to the reporter.

Finally, depending on the size of your group or initiative, you may not have time to do all the media contacts by yourself. Your best bet, then, is to hire a public relations person to do the job, if that's an affordable option for your initiative. Competition to get a story in the news can be tough, and hiring a professional to do the job may help your cause. A public relation person can create a specialized marketing program designed to fit the needs of your initiative. A PR person can also help you with creatively structuring your message, packaging your information, targeting media selection, and customizing and personalizing media presentation.

The art of being interviewed

Once you spark the reporter's interest in your story, it's likely that he or she will want to interview you. Interviews are strange animals, and no two are alike. They depend on the rapport you establish with the reporter, on the subject, and on how newsworthy your story is. Here, we'll give you some tips on what to do -- and what not to do -- during an interview with the media.

First, make sure that you know what you're talking about. Be helpful and articulate. Decide on key points you want to get across and try to work them in every chance you have. Be courteous, explain what you need, what you're expecting to see in the story, and what you are about. Don't be too aggressive or demanding.

Be prepared to answer all possible questions on your event or initiative. The information you need to have ready includes:

  • Dates and times
  • Names of the people involved
  • Your objective
  • Prices
  • Locations
  • Contact information

It will also help if you have a couple of quotes "ready." That is, some remark to which you gave some thought beforehand, so that if the reporter asks you for a statement, you are not caught stuttering on the phone.

Here are some pointers for you to keep in mind before and during the interview:

  • Prepare yourself for the questions in advance. If possible, ask for a sample.
  • Be familiar with the topic of the interview.
  • Dress appropriately.
  • Don't be afraid of sounding ignorant by asking to repeat questions.
  • Never answer rudeness with rudeness.
  • Before wrapping the interview, make sure you made your point clear. Recap with the interviewer if necessary.
  • Watch and listen.
  • Stay relaxed and be yourself while watching what you say.
  • If you cite names, occupations and addresses, get them right.
  • Think about ideas for pictures.
  • Try not to use jargon; readers understand simple English better.
  • Prepare some catchy responses that address things you particularly want to highlight, and look for opportunities to throw them in.
  • If you don't know the answer to a question, just admit it and offer to find it out.
  • Be sure to steer clear from stereotypes and biases --being offensive is rarely effective.
  • Be attentive to all the parts of the interview. At times, the most important question for the story may be buried in the interview.

The reporter is probably going to use a tape recorder to enhance the accuracy of the story. Reporters will usually ask for permission to use a tape recorder and once you grant the permission, be extra careful with what you say. Behave as if you're being recorded, whether you are or not. Don't be frightened and silenced by a tape recorder, though. Speak naturally, and give it a break when it's necessary to change tape sides.

Remember that what you want is to grab the readers' or spectators' attention. To do that, the simplest ways are the best. Keep your sentences short, your introduction brief and to the point, and your approach straightforward. Don't bore the listener and don't digress too much.

A word of caution: Don't say anything you don't want to hear on the news or read in the paper tomorrow morning. Quotes can be taken out of context, jokes can end up in the headline, and a badly placed word can tarnish your organization for a long time. Watch out for any libelous and offensive statements. If you want to be off the record (that is, say something that is not official part of the interview), you have to say so before you start talking, not after. Off-the-records statement might still be used, although not attributed to you. You'll be on the safe side if you assume that everything you say is on the record and could be used by the media.

What should you do if you're misquoted?

Sometimes, reporters will take the liberty of editing your interview. That's quite a usual practice, aimed at making you sound better. However, sometimes this editing can cause you harm. If your edited quote captures the gist of what you said, let it go. However, if what you read doesn't sound like you, or was flat-out fabricated, you should take action. Treat everyone with respect, apologize for whatever is your fault, but take steps to correct the error right away and restate your initiative's real intentions and ideas. Such steps might include sending a request for a correction on the next issue, writing a letter to the editor, or writing a column explaining that what was attributed to you doesn't reflect your actual views.

What should you do after the story has run?

Your work isn't done after your story is out. You'll want to maintain your relationship with the reporter that you worked with, so send a thank-you note to him or her if appropriate. Ask when the story will run, and then get clippings of the story when it's out for your own records (or a tape, if it aired on television or on the radio.) In the future, keep the reporter updated on what you're up to and on upcoming events. Maybe you'll even get a follow-up story on your original story!

In Summary

Now that you're reading your story on the paper, watching it on TV, or listening to it on the radio, it's time to congratulate yourself. It's also time to think about what you learned. What did you learn that would make it easier or more effective the next time? Is there a better way of getting your story out? Can you build on the contacts and relationships you developed with the media? Hopefully, now you have a better sense of how this works, what people want to read, and how to focus on what really matters to your community. It's time to get ready for the next story!

Contributor 
Marcelo Vilela

Online Resources

Newsworthy elements, from the Berkeley Media Studies Group, includes a checklist of questions by category to help you prepare and focus your story.

Newswriting Basics, by McGraw Hill, is a comprehensive guide introducing the concepts and formulas to writing a news story.

Worksheet: Crafting your media advocacy plan, from the Berkeley Media Studies Group, can help you identify key moments in the political process or opportunities — such as holidays, anniversaries or other key dates — far enough in advance that you can prepare and act effectively.

Print Resources

Anderson et al. (1994). The conversation of journalism: Communication, community, and news. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Bagnall, N. (1993). Newspaper Language. Oxford: Focal Press.

Dary, D. (1973). How to write news for broadcast and print media. Blue Ridge Summit, PA: G/L Tab Books.

Rich, C. (1997). Writing and reporting news: A coaching method. Wadsworth Publishing Company.