Thursday, August 4, 2011

Why Did that Reporter Stand Me Up?

Part  2 of this series ...

The next question on Twitter about journalists' bad habits and manners surprised me a little, because I thought the answer was self-evident. But then I realized that during my 12 years of covering events for four newspapers and The Associated Press, I had indeed heard this complaint numerous times:

"I ask you for a loc. agreement or release form to cover an event. You ignore & cover anyway. Or worse. You commit to covering an event, only to not show up! No explanation, email, nothing."

Well, the first part of that question is easy. If you want a reporter to be at an event, don't make them go through the added hassle of filling out paperwork to cover it. You run the chance that you'll annoy them so that they'll skip it, or, just like this question says, they'll show up without walking through your process first. Why? 

The answer is simple: Time. Understand that a reporter is ruled by the clock. We don't have time to fill out paperwork or get permission to do things. If you want us there, then it's incumbent on you to make it as easy as possible for us to cover your event. This isn't a garden party. This is a news event. You don't issue invitations and expect people to R.S.V.P. Those social niceties don't apply. You want coverage so that your client can get maximum public exposure. So it's up to you, as the host, to grease the skids as much as possible so that the reporter can get in, get the information, and get out as quickly as possible. They don't care about pleasantries or paperwork or asking for permission. They just want the information. Call it rudeness, but they're not concerned about that. 

Have you ever fed a cat in the morning? What does the cat do? Does the cat sit blandly in the window and wait patiently for you to serve up the kittles? No way. That cat badgers you and jumps in your face if you're still sleeping to wake you up. That cat winds around your legs and cries and cries while you open the bag or can of food. That cat doesn't look up when you place the food in front of it. It just shoves its face into the plate and eats as if you haven't fed it in 2 weeks.


The journalist is your cat. I'm sorry if you don't like it, but ... if you want the attention from the cat later, then give the cat what it wants, and don't necessarily expect a thank you in return. Your thanks is the news coverage. That's it.

As for the second part of the question ... why do reporters stand you up?


Follow the smoke, Sherlock.

It's not personal. It has nothing to do with whether you're waltzing into the newsroom like Grace Kelly and charming the pants off of the metro desk with home-baked brownies. (Yes, I've seen PR people do that.)

Plain and simple, a bigger story came up.

A building blew up.

The governor had an affair.

A school bus crashed.

A courtroom defendant just pulled out a gun and mowed down the jury.

You get the idea.

You may have planned the best PR event in the world, with the New York City Rockettes to kick it off. Literally.

But if hard news shows up? You're getting kicked to the curb, and no one -- no one -- is going to take five minutes to pick up the phone and apologize to you. Remember the cat analogy. They're on to the next bright shiny object. If that object is shining more brightly than yours, take a back seat.

Is there a way to avoid something like this from happening? Sometimes. You can plan your event for a slow news day -- a Saturday or the day after Christmas, for example. I can tell you from personal experiences that reporters are just begging for a story on those days. And you may even make a friend for the future. 

You also can make sure there's enough incentive so that if a hard news story does come along, you won't get bumped. How? Make sure your event or person ties into an issue or addresses an ongoing story that's taking place locally. If your story advances another news story, then when the reporter is told by Psycho Editor to cover the fire, they can say, "Well, we have this kitten sale at the elementary school on the calendar, and it's important to cover, because they're going to be addressing the PTA President's embezzlement at a press conference beforehand."

At that point, the editor says, "Oh, right, yeah, that's important. I'll get Joe Schmuck to cover the fire instead."

The bottom line is this: You are the suitor. The reporter is Paris Hilton. You want Paris Hilton, but she has a million things going on, and she isn't going to stop to apologize to you if she can't make it. She also isn't going to fill out paperwork to spend time with you.

So make sure you create an event that will keep her interested enough to show up, no matter what.

And if she doesn't show up?

Don't complain to her. Because no one likes a whiner. 

As for Paris? She just won't care.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Why is That Reporter Rude?

So on Twitter yesterday, some PR professionals weighed in on relationships with journalists. One in particular had some valid concerns about the unprofessional way in which he'd been treated. 

If you're in PR, or, a "Flak" as we "journos" sometimes disparagingly call you, this blog entry is for you. And thanks to my new friend Eric Bryant at for bringing up these questions. 

Today, we tackle the first:

"You wouldn't think that journos were PR's best friends. I can count on 1 hand the # of journos who have been courteous to me." 

So .... why the lack of courtesy? 

A few things are going on behind the scenes, if you're calling a journalist who is working at a daily newspaper, television station, radio station or AP wire service:

1) They're on deadline. I don't know if you've ever tried to write a 10-inch story in 15 minutes or less, but when something breaks and you have that amount of time to finish your phone calls and then crank out accurate, creative, tight copy, you're just not in the frame of mind for a pleasant phone conversation. As a PR professional, your best bet for an adequate chat is to find out when the newsroom is in full deadline mode. Then don't call during that window of time, unless you have a breaking story or quote to offer on one. If you do call, expect a curt and abrupt reception.

2) They're dealing with a psychotic editor.  Let me put this as plainly as I can: the editor sets the tone for the stress level in the newsroom. I've worked with lovely editors who were stand-up individuals and who understood that encouraging reporters was the most effective way to generate the best articles. 

But forgive me if I sound bitter when I say that the industry we know as daily journalism is highly dysfunctional. A lot (a lot!) of emotional abuse takes place behind the closed doors of a newsroom. I've had editors who riddled me with so many obscenities it was as if their mouths were machine guns. One used to throw a pencil at my head when he didn't like my leads. I had another who sexually harassed me. Another slept with my male colleagues and sang their praises to the AP national desk in New York while she pummeled the copy of the female reporters. Another one usually reeked of alcohol from the night before.


You get the idea.

Now this reporter, who is dealing with a living character out of a Stephen King novel, gets a chirpy phone call from YOU. Forgive me for saying this, but if you get two words out of that person, then consider that person to be polite, because it's amazing they can put two words together at all.

Want to know why a reporter doesn't show up for your news event? Tune in tomorrow.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Power of Music in Your Writing

I'm about to reveal something very strange:

I dream music.

That's right. Occasionally, I'll have a dream that involves nothing but the sound of music. And these aren't songs I know ... these are compositions that my mind creates ... while I sleep.

Don't get too excited -- I'm no Mozart. I can't actually put the stuff down on paper. I just wake up, hearing the music I've just dreamed in my head, and I usually hum it through the day. (Would that I could compose it, but that's a gift that eludes me).

Even though I can't write the music I'm hearing, I use it as a vehicle for more creating. It sparks me internally, gives me that heave-ho I need to put words down on paper (or in this case, the computer screen) and bathes my mind in the peace it needs to compose the lyrical structure of prose.

What do I do when I'm not dreaming music?

Well, today is a perfect example. I'm writing up stories for a technology magazine. These aren't always the types of stories that inspire one to create a blissful scene or dialogue. However, if I'm writing to the backdrop of music from "The Lord of the Rings" or "Prince of Persia," suddenly, my mind is alive again. I'm able to fully engage my copy, as if it were a long-lost, elusive love.

So here's what I want you to do ... dig deep and think about the music that inspires you.

Then, when you really want to punch out the prose ... play it. Sing it. Hum it. Blast it.

And maybe you'll even dream it.

Music has power. Harness it, love it ... and believe me, baby, it'll love you right back.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

My Evelyn Salt Inspiration

Don't ever think of the beginning of your story as the "lead." That's such a clinical, sanitary term for something that ought to be a boisterous shout or poetic whisper of an introduction to your prose.

I like to think of the opening paragraph as my "nugget" -- a gleaming jewel of information that catches sunlight and reflects a dazzling prism.

But how to unearth it?

I have a perfect example from yesterday.

Once every six weeks, I write about technological or engineering corporations or government agencies. Sometimes, these stories completely numb my mind, especially if I'm trying to cobble them together on a Saturday afternoon. (And especially if I'd rather be sitting at a pool than in my tomb of a living room on a hot summer day.)

This story was no different. It was about the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, otherwise known as the DTRA. To be frank with you, when I see acronyms in my notes -- even in the first sentence of my notes -- I get completely zombie-fied.

I was so deadened to the prospect of writing this story that I fell asleep sitting up. I'm not making this up.

After my short cat nap, I decided that rather than try to force the piece, I'd watch a movie. So I plucked up "SALT" on my Netflix account and gave it a whirl. If you've seen the movie, you know it's filled with espionage and big boom-booms and lots of high-speed scenes.


There, on the screen, was a scene right out of my notes -- a description of the IT professionals doing their jobs for national security as they tried to track down Angelina Jolie, aka Evelyn Salt.

Suddenly ... I was inspired. I watched the movie to the end, and then I came up with this nugget:

"These are the people who stand between you and disaster: The Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA/Fort Belvoir, VA). The DTRA’s mission sounds like the backdrop for an action-thriller film: It’s the Department of Defense’s official Combat Support Agency that counters weapons of mass destruction."

Sometimes, discovering the nugget in the story isn't as dreary as my task of yesterday. Your source may give you the gem of a quote, or during the reporting of the piece, you may have stumbled into a scene that stayed fixed in your mind. (I once covered an apartment house fire, and the firemen were shooting so much water into the structure that it gushed out of four windows. My "nugget" described the windows as "gaping like astonished mouths.")

Other times, as it was for me yesterday, you just need to give your brain the R&R it needs to give the Muse entree.

Don't actively seek the nugget. If you're stuck, do as I did and take a break. When your brain is ready for it, the nugget will jump out at you like a Jack-in-the-Box.

When it does, that's when you'll get your "Evelyn Salt Inspiration." Then grab onto that inspiration like you would Angelina Jolie on the top of an oil tanker ... and give the readers the ride they deserve.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Writing in "The Zone"

Number one: There is no such thing as writer's block.

Number two: If you've told yourself you have writer's block, you're just not writing in The Zone.

Number three: Stop what you're doing to try to force yourself to write. Do something else, completely unrelated.

Number four: Expect the Muse's visit anytime now.

Pretty much, this is what I tell myself every time I'm staring at a blank screen or struggling to put two words together.

There are different reasons we hit that "block." For me as of late, those reasons are related to stress and fatigue. Unfortunately, in our American Puritanical-cultural-way-of-thought, we employ the worst method possible to force ourselves to write: We tell ourselves that we're being lazy if we move to another activity and if we don't SIT THERE until we get our perfect lead or paragraph or story spin.

Pardon the French, but all of that is Bullshit.

I'll tell you a secret about me that may come as a shocker:

My best writing is done while I'm taking a shower.

Or drying my hair.

Or putting on my makeup.

Or sitting at a stop light or in a traffic jam.

Or unloading my dishwasher.

I call this, "hypnotic time," or ... "The Zone."

What is The Zone, exactly?

It's that time of day when you are physically engaged in one activity, but your mind is wandering all over the place. You know what I'm talking about ... You're driving along a road and you hit a stopping point like a busy intersection, and you realize you've been driving along thinking about things. You don't necessarily remember the actual path you took or what was happening around you when you took it, but you successfully drove from Point A to Point B. All the while, you were engaged in something else -- brain matter.

That's The Zone.

Now the secret is ... harness that time. Seize it for yourself.

You DO NOT have to sit in front of a computer screen or at a desk to create. In fact, I think that's one of the worst places to come up with beautiful prose.

There have been plenty of times when I've been under the gun with 13 stories to write in one week, and I'm so tired that I can barely keep my eyes open.

You know what?

If you're in that situation, GO TO SLEEP. Get up 30 minutes later and then do something in The Zone, like ... water your garden. While you are engaged in that other activity, think about what it is you're trying to create or communicate. Get lost in it. Look at the surroundings -- the trees or sky -- listen to the surroundings -- the birds or a siren or a barking dog -- feel the surroundings -- the grass under your feet or the sweat beading on your forehead.

And then sink into the story.

You'll hit The Zone, I promise.

And when you do, the words will flow.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Bread-and-Butter Writing vs. Bliss Writing

Writers often bemoan that they can't get paid to do the type of writing they love to do.

So I have a solution.

Do both.

I call this, "Bread-and-Butter Writing vs. Bliss Writing."

Here's how it works for me: I write for trade magazines. Those stories are my "Bread-and-Butter Writing." Sometimes, the topics I'm covering are less than interesting to the average bear. And that puts the onus on me to make them sparkle as much as possible.

How do I do it?

I do it with my "Bliss Writing."

Besides this blog, I have two others that focus on my Christian faith. In those, I do the research and writing that I love to do. I don't get paid for these blogs, mostly because I feel that if I'm sharing my faith or information about God, I shouldn't make people pay for that.

In addition, I'm working on a novel. Research for that will require travel to Turkey. While I'm researching the novel and studying the Turkish language, I'm also coming up with story lines and the way in which I want to spin my tale.

Now suppose I'm in the middle of a HORRIBLE Bread-and-Butter assignment. I mean, mind-numbing awful. You know the types of stories I'm talking about, right?

Even if I'm on a deadline, I will take a break from my suffering with my Bliss Writing. I'll head over to one of my blogs, or I'll dig up some more novel research. You may think that this takes away valuable time from the matter at hand. But it actually has an opposite effect.

When I focus on the writing I love to do, something happens creatively with me. Truthfully, I don't know if anyone has done a scientific study of this (and if they haven't, they should). But when I dive into the creative story ... suddenly the Bread-and-Butter story takes shape in my mind. Suddenly, I have my lead, my focus, my structure. Suddenly, the words just FLY.

Does it matter that I get paid for my Bliss Writing? I won't lie -- I would love to see my novel published and on book shelves in Barnes & Noble. But life is short! Why not dig into what I love while I also use that same skill to make my livelihood?

We'd all love to write the things we love to write AND get paid for them. But if you want a life where ... say ... you make enough money to travel to Turkey to interview people and research a novel in archaeological digs for a splendorous work of art ... then take the Bread-and-Butter assignments.

Be grateful for them.

And then let your Bliss Writing fuel your Muse. Because I guarantee you, that Muse WILL awaken. The Bread-and-Butter Writing will no longer seem a chore ... but actually, you might be surprised when it transforms into Bliss.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Power of Positive People on Your Freelancing Business

During the past couple of days, I've been engaging in an online freelance writers' forum. The person who posted the discussion topic was frustrated with people who would write for a nickel a word.

What poured out from that was a deluge of negativity. People discussed how the economy had affected their ability to land assignments paying a decent wage.

I was surprised by the responses. I've been freelancing solo for 10 years (June is my decade anniversary). I've never been without clients, and I've never worked for anyone who paid me the pittance that was described in that writers' forum.

As I reflected on this last night, I realized the reason I've succeeded:

From the get-go, I surrounded myself with positive people.

These people were writers, journalists, editors ... but they also were friends who were solo entrepreneurs. One is a public speaker, for example. (Denise Ryan of Firestar speaking is a dynamo! To see what I'm talking about, check out her positive site at

And, I made a habit in those early days of attending a local coffee group of entrepreneurs. We were all in different businesses -- from real estate to masseuse professionals. But we all had one thing in common. We were positive that our efforts would succeed. We shared tips on how we grabbed the cream of the customers, while our competition lagged behind with the dregs.

Those people infused me with so much energy and optimism! Back then, I think I realized something without even knowing it -- that successful people will always see the gold in the clouds, while everyone else sees the rain.

Yes, we are in a dire economic period.

But let me tell you some of the things I've survived during the past decade:

Three months after I launched my business, the Twin Towers fell. Talk about a bad time to start!

My former husband was sent to war 3 times.

I had a horrific pregnancy in which I was told 4 times that my child was dead. (He was born healthy.) And 3 weeks after a C-section, I bid adieu to my husband as he crossed the sea to Iraq for several months.

I've gone through four moves since I started my business.

I've had five surgeries in a 7-year period.

Last year, I had to leave my marriage ... for reasons I really can't state here. Suffice it to say, the past 12 months have been nothing short of hell.

OK ... the reason I tell you all of this:

I have never gone for one month without business.

I have the best editors in the world.

I have the best paying-people in the world.

I am surrounded by kind, positive and compassionate professionals.

I talk to people globally for my stories.

I'm able to balance my crazy single-mom-hood status with a full plate of stories. Every month. Every month. Every month.

And on average, I'm paid $1 a word.


If you listen to people in chat rooms and forums, if you drag yourself into their negativity, guess what? You will be convinced that they're right.

Surround yourself with positive individuals. No, I'm not a Pollyanna. I am a realist. And I am realistically telling you: If you give yourself the gift of positive influence, you will thrive as a freelancer.

Feel free to contact me if you need a boost of energy!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Mastering the Motivated Interviewee

Part 4 of this series ...

If someone approaches you and asks you to do a certain story about them, their issue or the person they're representing, it's important that you examine their motive.

Sometimes this type of interview is really quite innocuous. You're covering the local school district, and the PR person requests a story about a kindergarten class that is learning Spanish by emailing pen pals in Peru. Puff pieces like that are no-brainers. Of course, the motive is to garner public support, but the copy is good filler for your publication and a fun story to write at that.

But what I'm talking about are those stories where the motive is a little more fuzzy and where ascertaining it is akin to snatching at vapor.

In those cases, you actually have to work at the article for a while before you really find out what lies beneath the story request. Sometimes, the person does have a valid reason for approaching you: A social injustice has been done, or they really are in the midst of a personal plight that needs to be exposed.

On the other hand ... beware of the glad-hander, the enthusiastic smooth-talker. If you've been a journalist for a while, you know the type of person to which I'm referring. But if you're a novice, the best advice I can give you is to trust your gut when you meet a person like this.

OK, so ... let's look at one example.

When I was at the AP, I covered the state House in Pennsylvania. A politician who was known for his family values platform and was generally well-regarded came into my newsroom one day, personally looking for me. Now this was a red flag. For a politician to seek out a reporter openly? They were hard up to get press. Usually they had "people" to do that for them.

Anyway, this guy was launching an "investigative committee" into organizations that had in the past received strong support from the Legislature.

I have to admit that I was intrigued. Anyone who tosses around the word, "investigative" is either a pit bull looking to expose wrongs -- or someone with a hidden motive to use their power for personal gain.

I started covering these "hearings" and discovered that the "investigation" was on groups like The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. As I listened to more and more of the testimony, it became very clear that this was a Republican legislator who was bent on pursuing his own agenda and using his party's political strength to harass legitimate groups with whom he disagreed.

So I continued to cover the hearings, but behind the scenes I did interviews with those who had been targeted -- and with legislators who disagreed on the premise behind the "investigative committee."

After I wrote up my story, the committee was disbanded.

Now ... was I duplicitous? Yes, I admit it. I was. When interviewing someone who comes to you for a story, sometimes it is necessary to keep your own questions to yourself and mask your skepticism. If you start barraging them with things like, "Why are you doing this?" or, "This smacks of impropriety," you're not going to get anywhere in finding out the truth.

So here's my advice on mastering the Motivated Interviewee:

Play along.

Cover the story.

Don't commit to writing the story, though. Just cover it. See what's going on. Allow the person to lead you through it. If they have people they want you to interview, interview them. Give everyone as much face time as possible. Be enthusiastic when talking to them. Let them go on about whatever it is for as long as they like. You know the phrase about giving someone enough rope to hang themselves? In this case, unfortunately, it applies.

And then ... go find the people who don't agree with what's going on. Find out from them the reason behind the story request.

Always be vigilant about hidden motives. Sometimes, the Motivated Interviewee will be extremely convincing about the justness of their cause. If you're a novice reporter, make sure you discuss all of this with your editors before diving in.

Then trust your gut.

You got into this business for a reason, and if you're like me, it was probably to unearth untruths.

So listen to your instinct.

If, after interviewing the naysayers, you decide this is a worthy cause after all, then pursue it with rigor.

But 9 times out of 10?

You'll discover that the Motivated Interviewee is after one thing:

Personal gain.

And after that, the story will look nothing like the one you thought you were getting.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Mastering the Hard-News Story Interviewee

Part 3 of this series ...

When you're sent out on a tough news story, of course you're going to encounter people who don't want to talk to you.

At all.

So how do you get information from them? Keep in mind these are people who hate to see you coming. They could be politicians hiding something ... victims of a crime or tragedy ... or lawyers or police who are guarding information about their case. You get the idea.

These interviews are not for the faint of heart, and what it comes down to is a psychological war. You, the interviewer, need information. They, the interviewees, are not about to give it to you.

But it can be gotten.

You may think some of these tips are over-the-top simplistic, but believe it or not, this is what worked for me when I was an Associated Press Newswoman:

1) Dress like you mean business. I know, I know, I see the eye rolling right now. But you wouldn't believe how many reporters show up to a story in a pair of jeans and expect people to take them seriously. Whether I was working as a cub reporter and only making $13,000 for the year or was at the top of my game at the AP in Center City Philadelphia ... I dressed to the nines. And it ALWAYS had the desired effect. People want to talk to a professional over a slouch. So be professional. If you're male, wear a tie. Yes. Wear. A. Tie. If you're a woman, get your groove on with those nylons and skirts. Yes. Nylons. And. Skirts. (and heels.)
Listen, I know you think you need to wear that devil-may-care-I'm-a-hot-reporter attitude on your shirt sleeve (literally). But other people just see that as hubris. Get over yourself and dress professionally. Then be surprised at how people will treat you differently when you show up for a quote.

2) Be sincere. I once was assigned a story about the murder of a teenage girl at the hands of her father in the back of their mini van. I'd driven 3 hours to the story in the middle of Nowhere, Pennsylvania, and I didn't even have the house number on the street where it happened. I spent an hour knocking on doors. Finally, a neighbor pointed out the house. As I turned my head, I saw an elderly woman walking down the street with a policeman, and I ran over. I explained I was from the AP and asked for an interview. The woman hesitated and was near tears.

"Listen," I told her. "I'm very sorry for your pain, and I can't imagine what you've endured. You don't have to talk to me."

She stared back into my eyes. "Thank you," she said.

Now if you're an editor reading this, you're thinking, "I'd never hire that girl!"

But that's not the end of the story.

I got into my little car, and because the house was on a dead-end street, I drove to the intersection and parked. And I waited for the police cruiser to leave the house. About 15 minutes later, his black-and-white sedan pulled up to the stop sign. I jumped out of my car and ran into the middle of the intersection, palms up, telling him to stop.

He rolled down the window.

"I need this story," I told him. "I NEED it. Can you help me?"

He smiled at me. "In all of my years as a cop, I've never seen a reporter with compassion like you showed that lady. Here's what I'm going to do. Get your notebook out. I'll give you the names of everyone in town who knew that girl and their phone numbers and where they're located."

He then gave me the goldmine of all goldmines -- each and every person who painted a story that I never would have received ... if I had not been sincere.

3) Be a pain in the ... okay, you know the rest. It's true that you get more bees with honey. But when the honey pot is dry, you have no other choice than to pull out the vinegar bottle. Yes. I could be (and still can be) such a pain that people will beg me to take the information so that I'll leave them alone. How do you accomplish it?

First -- this is assuming that you've already tried the honey route. Always try the honey route first. When you're working the story in "sweet" mode, you are able to glean information, even if it's just bits and pieces. Take those mosaics and start getting your picture together, even if it's not complete. As you work the story throughout the day, you'll find that you'll get some tidbits that hint at impropriety ... or that have a clear-cut window opening to evidence that you know someone doesn't want you to have.

This is where it gets dicey, because now it's time to bluff and bluster.

Suppose you have an interviewee who isn't budging at all on the information you need. After you've assembled these picture pieces and you see your glaring holes, go back to the person.

Tell them: "This is what I know. This is what people have been willing to tell me on the record. We can do this one of two ways. You can fill in the missing pieces for me, and we'll have an accurate story. Or you can withhold from me, and I can print a story that has the following information. (Then tell them what you know.) This information may not paint the story correctly, but I can trust and verify that it's correct. It's up to you on how we tell the story from here on out."

Watch the alarm register on the face.

You'll find that after that, people would rather give you what you're missing than have you print a story where the public derives inferences from what you've independently gathered.

One caveat: In order for this tactic to work, you really do need your ducks in order. You must have verifiable sources, and you must know for a fact that the "mosaic pieces" are definitely connected to the missing pieces. Otherwise, you'll be laughed out of the person's office. However, if you've adequately done your reporting, you'll be seen as a force with which to be reckoned. It may result in getting the missing story pieces off the record. But you can work with that. The point is to get the information you're lacking so that you can unearth the very foundation of your story.

Now what happens if a source approaches you and ASKS you to do a story? Sometimes you need to be careful with that. It's all about ascertaining the motive. Tune in for part 4.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Mastering the Feature Interviewee

Part 2 of this story series ...

So you've been assigned what we in the industry call a "puff piece," or, to put it another way, "a thumb sucker" -- the simplistic feature profile.

But is it really that simple?

A lot of "serious journalists" I know get these stories and immediately assume that this is one of the easiest pieces to write. Perhaps it's because features, unlike hard news stories, connote feelings of good will between the interviewer and interviewee. And in that case, my colleagues would be correct about its facileness.

But have you ever had an editor say to you, "This lead is flat?"

Basically, what they're telling you (in a phrase that equates to: "This sucks.") is that you haven't captured the essence of the person. You haven't made us want to read more. This copy is just filler, nothing more. Couldn't you have done something better to rub some sparkle into it?

If you approach the feature interviewee with this shoulder-shrug attitude, your story WILL be boring, and no one will read it past the first sentence.

So how do you master the feature interviewee? Here are some thoughts:

1) Get serious about story prep. Research, research, research this person before you walk into their realm and ask them questions. The more you know about someone beforehand, the more likely you'll begin to care about who they really are. And face it. Caring is the central component here.

2) Put the person at ease. If they're nervous about being interviewed or if they don't look at "the media" in a favorable light, you're going to get a lot of stilted one-word answers and superficial replies. So right at the get go, make sure this person knows you're a friend, not an enemy. You're there simply to tell a story. What I normally do is start off with saying a simple word: Thank you. I thank every person for spending time with me, for making an effort to clear their busy schedule to chat, for being willing to share with the readers their insights or experiences. I let them know that my readers will derive great benefit from their story -- and I do this even if I'm interviewing a child. People appreciate that idea, and you'll find that the stiff body language will soften. Soon, you'll get the answers you desire.

3) Use positive body language. Smile a lot. Laugh. Even if you're on the phone and they can't see you smiling, your positive vibes will come through to them. No one likes to talk to a grouch. So be nice, and your story will begin to take shape even as you type the person's words while they talk.

4) Decide in advance that you care. If you go into a story like this with the attitude that this is just a simple slam dunk assignment, your story WILL be boring. Convince yourself before you meet with the interviewee that your editor gave you this piece for a good reason (even if you don't see it). Then work like crazy to find out that reason for yourself. When you care about something genuinely, the questions will become profound, and the interviewee will sense that you have their interests at heart.

5) Don't let the interviewee's nervousness derail the interview. Be professional but courteous. If you're doing an interview where you're the one who is nervous (have you ever interviewed a celebrity?), then get a grip! This person is a regular person, just like you, although they may have accomplished fame in one way or another. So focus on what you have in common with them, and the rest will fall into place.

Now what if your interviewee is the subject of a controversial issue or news story? That requires another approach altogether. Tune in for part 3 of this series.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Mastering the Interview

When I tell people that I've been a journalist for 20 years, their first question is, "What magazines? What topics?"

They're surprised when I list the variety of publications, which range from military, to real estate, to engineering and information technology, to human resource issues, to entrepreneur issues.

"How do you know how to ask the right questions or have enough knowledge about each of those things to ask the questions?" they then ask.

Basically, I tell them, and I'll share with you, too -- it comes down to knowing how to interview people.

So let's start with the basics: What makes up a good story interview?

I'll sum it up in one word:


Convey curiosity to anyone -- anyone -- about their topic in question, and you'll open the floodgates.

And how do you do that?

In my situation, I have the luxury of deadlines that are far off. In my newspaper days and wire service days, sometimes my deadlines were "five minutes ago." I didn't have time to think much about interview questions. But regardless of whether you have a lot of time to prepare, if you always convey to the person that you care about what they have to share, you'll get your story.

Think about it this way: You're sitting at a bar and in walks your favorite movie star. He or she sits down right next to you and starts small talk. What questions would you ask them? And what do you think your demeanor would be towards them? If you're like me, you'd probably fawn over them a little, smile a lot, make eye contact, nod your head ... and ask questions that would give them a little bit of an ego boost.


Now every interviewee from now on is that movie star.

I'm serious.

If you're just a small-town news reporter doing a profile on the local elementary school janitor who has worked for 50 years among children ... give him that movie star treatment.

If you're covering a highly-technical story on an engineering firm that will be giving a nuclear power plant an overhaul ... give that expert the movie star treatment.

If you're on a crime scene and need to glean information from a hard-as-nails cop ... give that cop the movie star treatment.

It works. I kid you not, it worked for me every time.

But sometimes the story does call for a little extra prep and thought.

So tune in for part 2 of this series, when we'll discuss Mastering the Feature Interviewee.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Cold Calls: The Bane of the Freelancer's Existence

So if you think that being a freelance writer entails a life of sitting by the fire with a steaming English teapot while you craft brilliant prose by channeling your Muse ...


That's part of it.

That's the delicious part of it.

But, to get to that point, you also have to be willing to do the unthinkable.

Cold Calls.

You heard me right.

I see the shudders now through my computer screen.

Listen. Cold calls, when all is said and done, are the only way to go when you're trying to beat your competition. Don't sit there and tell me, "But I have a great query idea!" If you want to pay your mortgage and your bills ... if you want to feed your children and put clothes on everyone's back ... if you want to collect so much business that there's plenty left over for that trip to Yosemite, or better yet, a cruise or a flight to Paris ... you have to be willing to make cold calls.

When I started freelancing 10 years ago, I read this little tip in a book and thought, "You ARE kidding me." But then I decided to carve out just one week to do nothing but cold calls.

I won't kid you.

It's not for the faint of heart, and I hate every single blasted second of it.

And you may not think the results are that great. Expect a 1 percent return. That's right. For every 100 calls you make, expect one to turn into a client.

Here's the thing, though: I've had those clients (2 of them) for 10 years. Now let's do the math. If each of those clients gives me an average of six to eight stories per year, averaging $1,000 per story ... over 10 years ... do you see the income we're generating here?

If you just block out one week -- ONE WEEK -- for cold calls, yes, you will hear a lot of "Nos." But the YESes far outweigh them.

And just think -- if one of those out of 100 pays you $1 per word and hires you again and again, wouldn't you say that week spent of eating crow and begging for work over the phone was worth it?

You betcha.

So tomorrow ... I am going to suck it up and do the unthinkable.

I am going to embrace the cold call. And you can bet that instead of focusing on the rejections, I'm going to be dialing with dollar signs in my eyes.

Because I WILL land that one client who will make it all worth it.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

My Secret Weapon: Profnet

I interview people all over the world for my articles.

People ask me, "How on earth do you find them?"

I'm going to tell you my little secret, one that may cause you to scoff, but it's absolutely a gold mine for source digging:


This is a service I used when I was a newswoman at The Associated Press in Harrisburg, PA. Initially, it was a resource for us when we needed to quote an expert -- or a professor -- to analyze a breaking news story.

Today, it's a massive database, filled with all types of experts to quote, including leaders of major corporations, politicians, military members, small business people -- you name it, they've got it.

If you haven't used the service (which is free, by the way), this is what you do:

Go to and fill out a membership application. From there, you can search the Profnet database for the expertise you need. Not only that, you can put out a direct query, stating your story, your deadline, your qualifications on who can be quoted ... and voila. Watch your Inbox fill with the most fascinating people!

I know I sound like an advertisement, and believe me when I say I am NOT being paid for this blog entry. I just wanted to share with you that this is a fantastic resource, and it'll make your life SOOOOOOOOOOOO easy.

--Heidi Rafferty

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A Message from the National Writers Union

Freelance writers: Let's get our game face on! Check this out from the National Writers Union. If you're not a member, consider joining. I'm totally covered for any and all legal situations related to my work ... plus there's great power in being part of an organization like this when you deal with publishers. (Let's not say much about that, but those of you who are experienced know what I'm talking about.)

Take a look at the letter, and then go to to join!

--Heidi Rafferty

Dear NWU At-Large Member:

It has been a few months since being in touch with you. As Chair of the At Large Chapter, I was elected in 2009 to assist you while making sure you have the tools and resources to stand as a team player with the union as well as becoming a progressing writer in your field.

The At Large Chapter is representing members from many regions as well as overseas, so there are advantages and disadvantages to our Chapter structure. One of the negatives is that we are at a distant, which doesn't offer regular fellowship among us. One of the positives is that we have the opportunity to make contact with writers in other areas of the U.S., and abroad, which is helpful in being a good writer.

You can trust me when I say that, for the first time, our moment will come to work together to form an annual event of food, fun, entertainment, plus host a large gathering of At Large Members and attendees from other NWU Chapters. This is our Chapter goal for the next term! We will achieve it!

I advise you to network with At Large and other Chapter members by web, email, phone, etc. There are webgroups to help with networking, and can be found by going to

I want to remind you that our membership is dropping, and that is partly to blame on all members, including Officers and myself, for not making recruitment our top priority in today's economic climate. Any union's strength is in numbers, and I ask for your help in passing our name along to other writers (published or unpublished), and tell them that the National Writers Union is here to serve and help writers advance in their field.

As you take a pledge to become more active and pro-active with the NWU, I am asking that you connect with me. You tell me what your needs are as a writer, and I will engage National to make it happen. You tell me your concerns, your expectations, and your destinations....this is your writing career and your movement!

I am wishing you the best success as a writer. Make the pledge to go to at least once a week to explore its valuable information. Stay connected with other members and invite other writers to join NWU. And, most of all, you tell me the future of the At Large Chapter through our participation in being a large community of writers.

Let's build a working relationship by discussing the state of our union and its affairs. My number: 256-262-9052. Feel free to call Monday thru Saturday between the hours of 1:30 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. (CST). If I'm not available, please leave a message.

I look forward in talking with you soon and, hopefully, serving you as Co-Chair this upcoming term.

James Sandefur, III Publisher
The Writer's Regime Publishing
P.O. Box 1770
Athens, Alabama 35612

Office: (256) 714-1099
Fax: (256) 262-9053

Saturday, April 23, 2011

My Guest Blog at EBaumer Consulting

EB is a great friend I met on Twitter, and she has a remarkable knack for calling things as she sees them. Recently, she asked me to guest-write a blog entry for her about working from home.

Truth be told, I feel that I learn so much more from EB than the other way around, but I was honored  to participate!

Here's the link to the entry ... and while you're there, peruse EB's advice and other blog entries. You'll be so glad you did!

--Heidi Russell Rafferty

Americans Still Love Their Magazines

Writers ... you can freelance and make a great living at it -- and magazines still provide healthy income, even in this digital age.

I just found this GREAT write-up in April 2010's Better Homes and Gardens magazine and wanted to share this with you. It's awesome news for us!

"Media continue to proliferate. Attention spans continue to shrink. And free content is available everywhere, from the Internet to the insides of elevators.

"Why then are 93 percent of American adults still so attached to magazines? Why do so many people, young and old, spend so much time with a medium that's paper and ink, a medium you actually have to pay for in order to read?

"In a word, engagement. Reading a magazine remains a uniquely intimate and immersive experience. Not only is magazine readership up, readers spend an average of 43 minutes per issue.

"Further, those 43 minutes of attention are typically undivided. Among all media, digital or analog, magazine readers are least likely to engage in another activity while reading.

Advertisers, take note."


Heidi's Recent Work

Check out the following links to see what I've been working on.

Stay busy. Stay ahead of the competition. This Recession only affects you if you convince yourself it will.