The press release came in from the Member for Bathurst via fax. The office of the Honorable Gerard Martin, our state representative, wanted us to know that they’d purchased two new fire engines for the town and apparently, they thought that a certain grumpy, severely hungover newsroom intern would find this interesting. They were wrong. But I wrote it into the news bulletin anyway, for two reasons. Firstly, I was very, very scared of the seasoned journalist who took a sick delight in ruthlessly editing my bulletins. The only thing worse than giving her too many stories was giving her too few. But secondly, even though I didn’t give two hoots about the fire engines, I knew that our radio audience would.
To our audience, it was newsworthy – there were qualities in the story that made it news. And I knew this because, luckily, I had been far less hungover when I’d been lectured on news values, and why they matter. While understanding news values may seem kind of quaint, getting familiar with what journalists are looking for in a given pitch can help literally anyone in developing a content strategy or SEO strategy. Understanding news and content values will help you with everything from selecting a strong idea for your outreach content, to conducting your research, to design and most importantly, your pitch to journalists, publishers and webmasters. Now, why does this matter? Well as you’ve likely heard 1 or 2 million times, there’s a lot of content competing for people’s attention these days.
Every agency and brand in content marketing is trying to get their content published by heavy-hitting publications. Blog links are good. But news links are great. And so very rare and precious. Like unicorns. So how do you hunt those unicorns, kill them swiftly, then turn their skin into a sweet pair of pants and grind their horn into an aphrodisiac? Good question! The secret to getting those news placements is in understanding this news values list: impact, timeliness, prominence, proximity, the bizarre, conflict, currency and human interest.
How will this affect my readers’ lives? This is the real guts of the story, and it’s typically the lede that you’ll pitch to a publication. The impact of the story quickly establishes the importance of the piece to the reader, and the consequences for the reader themselves. In our fire engine story, for example, the impact of this story was that anyone listening to the radio unlucky enough to suffer a house fire will hopefully suffer less damage because of these amazing new fire engines. It also lets people know that they should keep an eye out for some shiny new fire engines driving around town. This value works hand-in-hand with proximity (which we’ll get to in a moment), as impact is largely determined by audience.
Why are you telling me this now? These shiny new fire engines were…new. What puts the ‘new’ in your ‘news’? Note that this doesn’t mean the story itself has to be new, but some new information has to have come to light that makes the story timely and/or relevant again. Like the time there was a ‘New Species Of Massive Dinosaur Discovered In Africa.’ Obviously, the dinosaur itself isn’t new, but the discovery is. This could likewise be the case with new analysis or new data from months or even years ago – but it’s important to emphasize what’s new.
Why are you telling me this? Any fax from the local member’s office had a pretty decent shot at making the bulletin. As the state representative for Bathurst, almost anything he did or said was newsworthy. In digital marketing, this concept is now more commonly thought of as authority. What makes you (or your client) worth quoting on a story like this? What qualifies you to tell the story? As marketers, this is rarely going to qualify as a potential lede, but it’s important info to establish your credibility as someone qualified to tell this story.
Does this story matter to my audience? They had sent the fax to the right place – they knew that a Bathurst radio station would care about the new fire engines driving around town. And I doubt they would have bothered sending a press release to the radio stations at the next town because the reach of the story (its proximity) was limited. Proximity is all about understanding the impact of your story, as it relates to the audience of the person you’re pitching.
Is there anything unexpected about this story? This news value is best expressed through a great journalistic aphorism that I’m sure to mangle, but let’s give it a shot: ‘When a dog bites a man, that’s not an interesting story. It happens all the time. But if a man bites a dog, then that’s news.’ Or as Ron Burgundy might put it:
There was nothing bizarre about the fire engine story. Nor did it have any elements of conflict, currency or human interest – the final three news values were about to get to. But that’s OK – rarely will a story (or a piece of content you’re pitching) fit all these parameters. It can still be newsworthy – you just have to be aware of where your story is strong and play those strengths up.
What are the different sides of this issue, and what are their arguments? Think about the way political news is reported. It’s almost covered like sport, right? You’ve got two teams fighting it out at all times, and it never seems like they can agree on anything. Well, part of the reason it seems like they can never agree is because the stuff they do agree on is boring. If Americans wanted to see politicians agreeing with each other, they’d watch C-SPAN. Instead, they watch cable news. Humans love conflict, especially simple, two-sided conflict. It engages us emotionally, as we get to judge the merits of the arguments, judge those who are wrong and get our righteous agreement jollies by nodding vigorously along with those we agree with. To me, many content marketers could do more with conflict as a news value, but (and perhaps this explains why it’s underexplored), creating content around conflict can be tricky, as you have to be thorough in your research and careful to accurately represent the argument (or arguments) in the conflict.
Is this trending? Currency means that an idea’s time has come. Think about the Ice Bucket Challenge. This story generated a momentum completely of its own – and news outlets covered everything from the latest video of a celebrity dumping water on their head to the economics of the phenomenon. Note that this applies to ‘seasonal’ pieces as well as trending pieces. Right now we’re being inundated with end-of-year lists and New Year’s resolution stories, and soon that will switch over to stories about romance, chocolate, and going to Jared as publishers do their obligatory coverage of Valentine’s Day, as those stories will have increased currency in February.
Are there attractive people who are impacted by this story? When you think ‘human interest,’ you probably think of those crappy stories that your grandma loves on Sixty Minutes about some poor lady who got ripped off by her builder. Don’t do those stories. However, human interest can still be a very handy tool. People want to read stories about other people, so a human interest angle can be especially useful in helping you put a human face on a bigger story that needs to be personalized. Think again about the Ice Bucket Challenge and the great human interest stories that emerged from that trend, like that of Peter Frates.
A friend of mine is a very good PR guy. He’s great at consistently getting his clients mentioned and quoted on top-tier sites, radio stations and newspapers, and he knows how to build a buzz. When I asked him how he manages to find such consistent success in creating online content, he told me it’s all about tenacity. If a writer isn’t interested in your pitch, offer them another angle, and then another – ‘how about this part of this story? Don’t you think your readers would be interested in this angle?’ Using these news values can help you identify the strongest potential leads in your piece so you can smartly focus your content marketing pitch to a given publication. You’ll be wearing unicorn pants in no time.