December 07, 2012
/ by Laura Spaventa
Welcome to the HARO Limelight Series (HLS), where we will highlight either a reporter or source who has had success(es) with our service each week.
Our purpose with this series is to educate readers on how to more effectively pitch reporters and garner media hits.
We hope you find this series useful. Please leave any comments or questions below!
In this edition of HLS, we interviewed John Platt, a journalist covering environmental issues, endangered species, cutting-edge technology, entrepreneurship and comic books.
1. What beats/topics do you normally write about? Why do these particular subjects interest you?
I cover endangered species for Scientific American, a wide range of environmental and consumer topics for Mother Nature Network, high-tech careers for Today’s Engineer and other publications, philanthropy for Lion magazine, and other topics for several other publications. I think I have always focused on environmental issues in my life, and I find endless fascination in new technologies, so delving into stories that can help people live better lives or improves their careers never fails to fascinate me.
2. What is your favorite part about your job?
I enjoy finding stories in unexpected places. My sources frequently come from the sciences, where people may not necessarily know how to communicate their ideas and discoveries to a general audience. Translating their messages and making them understandable is a challenge that I welcome.
I also like sending invoices for completed articles.
3. What is your least favorite part about your job?
I cover a lot of breaking news, but I also work on features that might take me a month or two (or three) to complete. As a result, I often find myself working on four, five or six articles at once. Switching back and forth can be mentally exhausting, but it’s still a challenge that I welcome.
I also hate chasing down unpaid invoices. (Luckily, that only happens once or twice a year.)
4. What has been the biggest challenge you have faced in your career and how did you overcome it?
I live in a fairly rural part of Maine. I love it here, but we’re about an hour from the nearest big city. That makes meeting potential new clients tough, to say the least. I tried networking at local chambers of commerce, and I met a lot of great people that way, but it didn’t lead to any work.
The Internet is the great equalizer, though. I meet people online all the time, and that frequently leads to more work, but I know many editors would like to meet and chat with the writers they hire. I just keep pressing on, though. I drop people emails and keep connected through social networking. The more I keep myself out there, the better it is for my career.
In addition to not being able to meet editors, the isolation of working at home in such a remote location also weighs heavily on me from time to time. My partner Colleen also works at home, and we have often gone days without seeing a single other soul – especially in winter. I solved this problem by getting involved with my local Lions Club, which gets me out of the house, keeps me involved in my community and lets me give back to people in need. I was also a member of Rotary for a while and served on the board of the nearby library. Volunteering is extremely satisfying – and it frequently provides me with great story ideas, so it’s a win-win.
5. How has the journalism field changed since you first started writing and what are you doing to adapt?
Pay rates for a lot of sites are low, low, low – if they exist at all. I won’t work below a certain pay rate, though. I am worth a certain amount and I make sure I get it. If a publisher doesn’t want to pay my rate, I’ll find other markets that can. Sure, it means hitting the bushes for assignments, but I am confident of my talents and I have steadily brought my total income up every year, even in a down economy.
6. When did you first learn of HARO and how has it changed your job?
I first used HARO in January of 2011. I love it: it allows me to send out blanket requests and get responses from parties I had not previously considered. I almost always use HARO in addition to finding sources of my own, but HARO helps me fill in the gaps and often provides me with a wide range of responses, which are great when I’m working on consumer-based stories.
7. Do you have any pet peeves when it comes to PR professionals pitching you a story?
Yes. I have sent out a few very specific queries that needed very specific replies and gotten PR responses that were only tangentially related (and basically boiled down to “write about our product!”). That doesn’t help me or my readers.
On the other side of the equation, once I sent out a query and a PR person responded in a way that totally changed the focus of the article for the better. She knew the field I was trying to write about and also knew that my query really, at its heart, wasn’t much of a story. She recognized that and asked me if I wanted to explore things from a slightly different angle. That set me off down the new avenue. I’m really proud of the resulting article.
8. What tips or pointers would you offer to PR professionals looking to pitch you a story?
First, if I’m looking for something specific, answer my query in as complete a manner as possible. Don’t just paste your client’s mission statement into an email and say “if you want to know more, let me know.”
Second, after you answer my query, think about any related topics that I might want to cover. You can even look at my previous articles – they’re all online – to see what I have covered in the past and make connections to how their client might fit into future stories. Knowing the journalist is a key part of pitching.
Third, and related to the above, understand that in almost all cases your client will be one of several sources quoted in an article. I rarely, if ever, write about the release of a single product. I am more interested in the bigger picture and the intersection of ideas.
Fourth, know your client’s availability. Don’t pitch me if your client isn’t going to be available for an interview in the next week. (This happens more often than you’d think.)
Fifth, if I don’t bite on your query, don’t pitch it to me over and over and over again. I’m not interested – and I’ll probably stop opening all of your emails, even if you’re working for a different client.
(Okay, one brief, gentle, personalized reminder or follow-up email is okay. But after that you aren’t doing yourself any favors.)
Finally, don’t pitch me an idea with a lifespan of two minutes. Sending me Halloween-related pitches on October 30 doesn’t do anyone any good. I won’t cover something like that because by the time I did it would be useless to my readers.
The single greatest non-HARO pitch I ever got was a short, personalized, email from a PR guy who know my beat and said, “You know, this thing is coming up in about a week and here’s why it’s a pretty big deal. I’d love to tell you more and connect you with an interview source.” No press release, no PR jargon, no hype – and I totally bit. It turned into a great story.
9. Does social media play a role in your job? If so, how big of a role?
Definitely. A lot of readers find my articles through social media. I also use Twitter to find story ideas and even a few sources. And social media always point me to some great articles to read, which helps to keep me informed and, in the process, tells me what news stories other people find to be important.
10. Where can people find you in the social media sphere? Do you welcome people pitching you via social media?
I’d prefer people not pitch me through Twitter. It’s too abbreviated and I don’t like pitch conversations being public.
11. What advice would you give someone who is looking to get started in the journalism field?
Read. Always ask questions, even when you have are presented with answers. Try to make connections between the story you think you see in front of you and something else that others might have missed. Experiment in brevity: sometimes the best way to tell a story involves the fewest number of words. Experiment with techniques from fiction: sometimes the best way to tell a story requires character and narrative. Learn to search beyond the first result in Google: the best stories are often hidden somewhere down the rabbit hole.
If you’d like to be featured in the HARO Limelight series as a member of the media or a source, email: laura(at)helpareporter(dot)com.
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