Making News: Advice from Columnists at the NHA Conference

by Liz Milner, Writer/Editor, National Hydrogen Association

Now that fuel cells have become big news, members of the hydrogen energy industry face a new challenge that requires a whole new set of skills. That challenge is dealing with the media. Specifically, how can we get good press and keep the media’s attention over the decade or so it may take to make hydrogen fuel part of everyday life?

NHA decided to go directly to the source to learn about the care and feeding of the media. We invited five noted Washington D.C.-area journalists to take part in a panel discussion—“Making News,” a session at the 11th Annual U.S. Hydrogen Meeting of the National Hydrogen Association on 2 March 2000—on how they report complex stories about emerging technologies. We also asked these journalists to explain what factors attract them to a story and what aspects of emerging technology seem the most newsworthy. Finally, we asked them to reveal the sorts of sources they rely on for information and story leads. The panelists were asked to prepare 15-minute presentations.

The Panel members, in order of appearance, were:

The panel was moderated by Joe Bishop, Environmental Science and Policy Professor at Johns Hopkins University.

Nicholas Sundt began the discussion by giving the criteria he uses to decide if an item is newsworthy. He said that he will cover news if it is timely and of general interest. Another important factor is that there should be enough information available so that he can assess the claims made for the product and also have sufficient background information to craft an article that will hold a reader’s interest. Because his publication is a quarterly, he is interested in stories that “have meat in them,” that involve issues that aren’t likely to be forgotten in a short time, and that involve larger trends that affect people’s lives.

He advised the audience that to gain coverage they should keep the following points in mind:

James Kennedy, Occupational and Health Reporter for BNA Environmental Report, was the next presenter. Kennedy writes for a target audience that is much more specialized. His subscribers are regulated industries, policymakers, government, lobbyists, and regulatory agencies. For him, news is what these groups are interested in.

He pays special attention to events or innovations that cause a change in the status quo. Because the main focus of his publication is policy, he runs few stories devoted to a specific technology. He tends to do this only when the story brings larger policy implications to light. “We’re excited about big steps,” he said.

David Whitman, Senior Editor from U.S. News and World Report, said that different media outlets have very different audiences. While Martha Hamilton of The Washington Post, for example, could cover purely local stories, to get U.S. News and World Report to cover an innovation, it should have a national dimension, be a meaningful response to a large problem, and have a national news peg and urgency.

He added that the innovation should also be practical (and affordable) if widely applied and have credibility in the scientific community. He assured the audience that he does check with experts to see if innovations have scientific validity. He added that he has a hard time resisting “man bites dog stories,” which “turn conventional wisdom on its head.”

Martha Hamilton, Business Reporter for the Washington Post, said that she tries to put new developments into a broader social and economic context. She presented a list of “dos and don’ts for obtaining media coverage”:

“Nothing is quite as valuable as someone from industry that can put [a technological development] in broader context,” she said, while noting that “most sources from industry are bad at this.”

News is made when things change, Hamilton said, but a lot of change is incremental, and publications like the Post may not cover those incremental steps very well.

Bette Hileman of the American Chemical Society’s Chemical and Engineering News said that her audience is industry, researchers, and government and, therefore, she is more interested in technology and scientific issues and in regulation and public policy issues that relate to chemistry.

She likes to see the context of an announcement and an understanding of the trends underway. She looks for evidence of how industry is responding to technological change and in business trends (where are investments being made, how is Wall Street reacting).

Hileman and the rest of the panel listed the sources reporters use to find and develop stories. These include:

Hileman and the panel contributed to a list of things that members of the hydrogen industry should avoid when pitching stories to the media:

The panelists are interested in diagrams and timelines. Timelines, they said, were especially useful because they show trends.

Finally, the panel members noted that a reporter for a major media outlet may receive more than 100 faxes a day. To get your point across to this overworked person, it is vital that you tailor your communications to his or her needs. The suggestions presented at this session should help to ensure that your stories go to the right reporters and get used.

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