Build your information pipeline to grow content and profits
ONLINE COLUMN: Web Savvy
Published: May 5, 2009
|Prevailing wisdom on the Web says content is king, but how does an independent writer gain access to content prized by large media organizations who are often at the head of the line? Fact is, it's never been easier, and there may even be some great sources right under your nose.|
A long time ago I came to realize that while writing is by necessity a lonely endeavor in the realm of process, writing is also by necessity a people profession. Even if you write fiction, you must learn to observe human behavior and you often need access to experts. How do you suppose crime writers make their work credible?
Many good sources are right under your nose. If you multiply family members, friends or colleagues by the number of people they know, you'll likely come up with a large product. It's not polite to badger people for information, but let others know what interests you professionally and offer them a welcome mat. Let them know it's OK to send experts your way. There may even be an expert right under your nose—you just have to view those close to you through a different lens. Not long ago I wrote a story about the Great Depression. I had a wonderful academic expert, but I wanted to include anecdotes as well. After running through the figurative address book in my mind, I realized my own mother would be a great resource and she was. She even had some old gas ration coupons from that time.
Large data mines can be found in government organizations and private sector businesses. Many of these sources actually want publicity. On almost every Web site, there's a 'media' or 'journalist' link. Use that link to request that the organization add your e-mail and contact information to the preferred media list so that you get releases and announcements when large media outlets get them. It's fine to sleuth press releases posted on Web sites, but it's better to be among the first with important information an editor will value. For instance, I'm on the Centers for Disease Control media list, so I receive information about studies and research before they become public knowledge. Often the information is embargoed, which simply means it can't be released before a specified date. Always honor the embargo, otherwise you may get tossed off the list.
Once you begin to receive information, pay attention and consider an expanded article. When I learned filmmaker Ken Burns would be giving a presentation at the University of North Florida, I communicated several times with the media division at the college. Eventually I landed an interview and a follow-up for questions by phone. The feature was published in the print edition of The Writer. Sometimes for a celebrity interview you have to provide publishing credits or statistical information from your Web site. It's useful to prepare a 300-word or so fact sheet about your work—where you've published, your areas of interest and if you're an independent, how many unique visitors come to your site.
Ken Burns talks to a student at UNF after his presentation.
Photo by (Kay Day)
It's important to remember something when you deal with non-profit organizations. Many of these groups are advocates. So if you use an expert from an advocacy organization, be fair and try to locate an expert outside that organization's scope. Today there's a tendency for news outlets to simply edit releases without considering the content. That does a disservice to your editor and your reader. Something as simple as a common disease can be viewed in a number of different ways depending on whom you're interviewing.
Use the contact information on news releases you receive to establish relationships with professionals. I usually send a link once my article is written and I often receive a thank you in return. That makes it a little smoother when I have to call a source for clarification or a fuller explanation about statements in the release.
If you operate a Web site or blog, every reader who comments on your content is a potential source. I try hard to answer reader e-mail and respond to comments. This sets up a communications channel for those readers to send tips. I've scooped several national level stories by vetting something a reader told me in an email.
Build your own e-mail list of contacts and sources, but be sure to categorize them by type and subject. Several times a year I send an e-mail to my whole list, if the topic is significant and of national interest. But these lists are also useful for trolling—posting an official announcement about your need—to find an expert. Message boards and social media sites like Facebook can be useful for this as well, but if you're working on a hot topic, you may want to troll carefully. Otherwise, you may see your idea in print before you finish your own article.
It doesn't matter whether you're shy or outgoing in your personal sphere, you still need people to help you discover information that can be processed into solid content. It's my experience content is king (or queen), and the longer the pipeline, the broader your scope and your opportunities.
Read related articles in Web Savvy archives at The Writer:
Social networks harbor pitfalls and profit potential for writers
Hook local news to Web content and increase your freelance sales
---Published May 5, 2009
In our next Web Savvy, learn how to track your work on the Web. Is your content being used without permission? What's the best way to protect your content? How do you know who has used your work? Join us for answers.
Kay B. Day
Florida journalist Kay B. Day has won awards for poetry, nonfiction and fiction. The author of two books, she has written for The Christian Science Monitor, United Press International, The Florida Times-Union and Sky News. To read Kay's other Web Savvy columns about writing for the Web, click here.