With all the buzz about social media, it’s easy to forget that offline media attention can be equally valuable, especially for community-based nonprofits who want to get attention to local projects or recruit local members and volunteers.
Offline media attention is good. Getting it can be hard, however, in the digital information age.
Challenged by online alternative news sources, print newspapers are slimming down, cutting pages to cut their costs. To save on staff, newspapers increasingly bypass firsthand reportage and go the easy route — wire service stories and syndicated features that can go straight from digital file to layout software to printing department to newsstand. It’s a simple matter of economics.
Local newspapers — often weekly supplements to major newspapers, designed primarily to deliver advertising to a specific local market — can be the best bet for nonprofits.
Community-based newspapers need stories to wrap around the advertising that’s their lifeblood, but they have precious few resources for going out and digging up those stories from scratch. And community-based nonprofits, by their very nature, are a particularly good source for this sort of content, because your members and volunteers are the paper’s own readers, or their friends and neighbors. That's what the small local papers are all about.
How can a nonprofit make it easy for local newspapers to run its stories?
I put that question to a couple of news-hound friends, over the weekend — a longtime editor of a community newspaper and a freelance reporter. Here’s their advice for nonprofits who want to get coverage in a local paper:
Get familiar with the publication.
What kind of stories do they normally run? Press releases and handshake photos with brief captions, or human-interest features about local personalities?
Build a relationship with a reporter.
Rather than send your materials ‘over the transom’ to the editor’s attention, check back issues of the newspaper for local stories like your own and take note of who has written them. Establishing a relationship with one or two individuals at the paper can sometimes win you a champion when it comes to pitching stories.
Get to the point of your pitch.
Reporters and editors are always, always, always pressed for time, so prepare ahead of time, know exactly what you’re looking for (both what the minimum coverage is likely to be and what, in an ideal world, you’d love to have happen), and get to the point. If you phone up with a long rambling introduction to your organization, working towards asking for “a story on our event” you’re likely to get short shrift unless you’ve got a wowser of an opening line. Better, ask how to go about submitting an item to the Local Events Calendar or some other specific column. That’s your foot in the door.
Tell a good story.
Never mind the DIY public relations advice about reverse pyramid structure and press release formats, when you’re dealing with the local weeklies; hook them with a story that will practically write itself. Talk about the Boy Scout who peels potatoes at the soup kitchen on weekends, or the local celebrity who promised to paint his face green if his colleagues can meet your fundraising target. If you’ve got a one-sentence “elevator pitch” that immediately plants a picture in the reporter’s mind, you’ve got a great shot at getting into print.
Check the editorial calendar.
What kinds of coverage are planned in advance? How much lead time does the paper generally require? Are they likely to print your story on shorter notice if it is submitted in publishable form, rather than pitched as a story idea only or submitted as a press release? Does the paper have regular features or special seasonal issues that fit in with your nonprofit’s schedule of activities, events and fundraising campaigns?
Put together a media kit.
Local newspapers will often take an easy story over one that requires a lot of legwork. What work can you do on your end to make it easier for the reporter, editor, and layout department? Do provide a collection of backgrounders, artwork (photographs, logos, and other graphic elements to accompany your story), quotable interviews with key individuals, maps, contacts for more information, and whatever other assets might help to tell your story.
What tips would you add to this list, for small nonprofits looking to get some local newspaper coverage?