Press Release Checklist (continued)
Your "Why" or "How" aren't interesting -- On your message planner, if your "Who-What" combo helps you figure out what your story is about, your "Why-How" helps you figure out what makes it news. There will never be a single answer to this question. "Why" the food drive? -- well, to feed the hungry, of course... but also, more precisely, to collect food for the program of free meals that will begin Feb. 14... but also, more generally, to realize the students' aim of making a difference in their community... but also, by the way, because of what sociology students found out about their own community, which set everything in motion... that is, because of the problems following the layoffs at the marshmallow factory... but that's on top of the previous problems of poverty in Persimmon County... but also because the Westland College Student Association exists to translate good intentions into actions... but also because the Anodyne Center is there and can handle the traffic... but also because the students want to take responsibility for one night a week and set an example that will challenge other civic organizations to pick up the other six nights... and also because Mayor Jimmy Cline is willing to put the town of Turtle Bay behind this effort... and so forth. There may be more emphasis on "How" than "Why" if the story is about a product or service -- but either way, your pre-writing will generate a wide range of ideas. There are many possible approaches to "Why" or "How" and you need to list them all and then pick out the most interesting. Which leads to the next most common problem:
Not enough Key Ideas -- When you are working out all the possible answers to "Why," you keep a record of your brainstorming in the form of a list of Key Ideas. Some of those ideas may be pretty much off-the-wall, and others may be obvious. But sometimes those "obvious" ideas turn out to be the key to your lead. For example, the story of Eva Peron is a story of a problematic First Lady -- someone who was simultaneously both an asset and a huge headache to her husband -- a lively leader who was criticized for his womanizing, among other things... Remind you of anything? Does it present a suggestive opportunity for you to attract an editor's attention? It's a viable approach, and it starts from the "obvious" fact that "Evita" is about Argentina's leader's wife. When I see a Message Planner with only four or five Key Ideas I know I'm looking at the work of someone who felt they could do the assignment without really giving it much careful thought... without doing the hard work of sifting through all the material available to them... that is, without doing the pre-writing work. Usually, when you're "winging it," that becomes apparent in the results.
An angle that isn't sharp -- Remember, the difference between an item of information that belongs on a bulletin board, and a real news story, is the news angle. It can't be a mushy generality -- it has to be the most unique, unusual, significant, notable fact about your story. Otherwise your story makes an editor say "Aw, ain't that nice, but why are you telling me all this?" Or, more curtly: "So What?" Before the editor says "So What?" you should ask yourself that same question -- anticipate it, and answer the question before it comes up. The quality of the news angle is the biggest difference between press releases that get prominent placement in the news, and those that merely make the listings, the "news notes," and the back pages. Often an editor will do a favor for a worthy cause by including an item somewhere in the paper -- so long as there's no real news to bump it... but you don't want charity -- you want your story on the front page, dammit.
A message that isn't complete -- I can always tell when a student hasn't been paying attention when I read a partial message on the Message Planner. The whole point of the Message Planner, remember, is to focus your message. By the time you get to the end of your pre-writing you should have a message of two sentences (but sometimes three, and occasionally just one) that says it all. The test of a good message is that it contains all the information you would expect to hear in a succinct radio news summary. That means it will include most or all of the 5 W's, and it will emphasize the angle -- whatever makes it news and not simply information. You can't assume the reader (or the listener) knows anything about your story, so you have to simultaneously tell them what it's about and also why it matters. If the 5 W's are the essential facts, the message is the complete story in a nutshell. Do it right, and your lead paragraph will write itself. Do it wrong, and you'll be limping all the way.