“The news release is dead.” If you work in journalism or public relations circles, you’ve heard this before. But institutions keep rolling out news releases. Are news releases actually still effective or has their time passed? It depends on how you look at it.
How News Releases No Longer Work
News releases don’t work the way they used to.
For a long time, institutions would write releases that theoretically contained all of the salient details reporters would need to determine whether they wanted to follow up and write a news story. The releases were sent out en masse to a lengthy list of reporters via fax and, more recently, via email.
But we now have a term for unsolicited mass emails that vie for our attention: spam.
Reporters and editors often get dozens or (at larger outlets) hundreds of these spam news releases in their email inbox every day. They rarely have the time or inclination to sort through those releases, so they make an efficient business decision – and delete all of them, unread.
Sometimes a news release email is opened and read, and sometimes that email leads to a reporter writing a story (particularly at smaller outlets, which often face a less overwhelming deluge of releases). But this is the exception. Most of these mass emails are read by no one. That is, I think, what most people are referring to when they say the news release is dead.
However, I think mass email distribution is what is dead (or dying); news releases are alive and well. Here are three ways that I think news releases are still valuable.
1). News Release Distribution Sites
One way that news releases are still useful is that they can be posted on distribution sites like Newswise or EurekAlert! (I’m dispensing with the EurekAlert! exclamation point from here on out).
EurekAlert and similar sites are basically online bulletin boards. Public information officers (PIOs) or other public relations folks can join EurekAlert and post news releases or other information about recent or forthcoming news (EurekAlert focuses specifically on science and technology).
Reporters and editors can also join EurekAlert. This gives them access to all of the material that PIOs post there, including contact information for relevant researchers and embargoed news releases about forthcoming journal articles. (I wrote about EurekAlert at greater length here, if you’re curious.)
What sets these release distribution sites apart is that reporters come to these sites looking for story ideas. This is an important distinction: instead of wading through a digital pile of unsolicited emails, reporters are the ones making decisions about what to look for and where to look for it.
That sense of control is important. Looking at the releases I’ve posted on EurekAlert in recent months, all of them have gotten hundreds or thousands of views. Because people chose to click on the releases, I will assume that they at least glanced over the content – which is more than can be said for releases sent out in mass emails.
2). Churnalism and Straight Reprints
Churnalism refers to the practice of taking a news release and modifying it slightly (if at all) before running it as a story on a news site. The “news story” may or may not say who wrote the piece (“staff reports” is a popular moniker on these stories). I refer to stories where the release isn’t modified at all as straight reprints. I have mixed feelings about this.
As a former reporter, churnalism drives me nuts. I think journalism is important. We need people to check facts and talk to third-party sources before they write stories. This matters. This has value. And while some organizations have begun incorporating third-party comment into their news releases, it is still not clear to me why reporters (or others) would trust these third-party comments. (After all, what’s to stop an organization from cherry-picking the third-party comments it gets?)
Because churnalism drives me nuts, for a long time I had a very low opinion of news sites like Phys.org that do nothing but run straight reprints of news releases that they pick up via RSS feeds or through outlets like EurekAlert.
Frankly, I still don’t have a very high opinion of them. But now I know that they are useful.
In recent years I’ve learned that a lot of people follow sites like Phys.org – including a lot of people I respect. There are reporters and bloggers who scan these sites for offbeat story ideas. And there are a surprising (at least to me) number of scientists who track these sites to see what other researchers are up to. (Note: As a research-focused PIO at a university, reaching an audience of scientists and science writers is appealing. E.g., I saw a scientist tweet about research at my university this week. The tweet linked to a version of the press release I wrote…as featured on Phys.org.)
In other words, while I may not be a fan of sites that make churnalism their stock-in-trade, I do appreciate that they can be helpful to my institution. And the only way to show up on those sites is to write news releases.
3). As a Pitching Tool
But in my opinion, the most important way that news releases are still useful is as a tool that I can use to pitch stories to reporters.
The most important element of a good pitch is that it should be personalized, demonstrating that you’re familiar with what a reporter covers. The second most important element (in my opinion) is that the pitch should be short. Really short.
But if you want a reporter to write about something, you need to give them enough information to make a decision. How can you give them that information and still keep it short?
Easy. Write a one or two sentence pitch, then include a link to the news release. If they found the pitch interesting, they’ll go to the release to get more information. (I wrote about how to pitch reporters without being annoying here.)
This is very different from simply sending out one of those mass emails I mentioned earlier.
For one thing, the reporter can tell the difference between a pitch and a news release email at a glance. The pitch’s subject line would include the reporters name and a (very) few words about the pitch that you think they’ll be interested in. (Remember: be honest. Sensational subject lines, like overhyped news releases, will get you on the sh*t list in a hurry.) A news release email has a subject line that usually includes either the name of your institution or the words “news release.” Either is likely to get the email sent straight to the trash bin.
Another key difference is that including a link to the news release in an email pitch gives the control to the reporter. If they’re not interested in your very short pitch, you haven’t wasted much of their time. If they are interested in your pitch, then they have the option of clicking on your link to get more information. That’s key. You are giving them an option, not trying to ram something down their throat. I think that makes a difference.
What do you think, readers? Is the news release dead? Or long live the news release?