Press releases give me a lot of article ideas. Writing shorts based on a single press release used to be a major part of my freelance magazine writing business. Online news sites were particularly lucrative. However, over the last several years I have found that it has become more difficult to get queries based on a single press release accepted by editors. Several other freelancers I have spoken with have said the same thing. Why is this? What strategies can you use to get article assignments based on press releases?
The answer to the first question is that many organizations, particularly universities and large nonprofits, have become much better at sending their press releases to publications that might publish news articles based on them. With tightening freelance budgets, many publications, particularly newspapers, are more likely to assign such articles to staff writers or publish press releases as-is, or in condensed form. Press releases often appear verbatim on blogs, reducing other publications’ interest in paying a freelancer to write an article based on a single press release. A final factor is that a press release may be too “newsy” for a publication to deal with, given the often lengthy timeline of receiving and reviewing a freelancer’s query, accepting it and receiving the manuscript. It is faster to have a staff writer prepare an article.
To answer the second question, there are strategies that will increase the odds of having their queries based on press releases accepted.
First, base your query not on a single press release but on two or more. This may require holding a press release until one or more related press releases issue, and then preparing a query broader in scope, based all these press releases. Doing so also increases the chances of getting a feature length assignment rather than an FOB short assignment. For example, I combined two press releases on domestication of the horse into a query that resulted in a feature article published in “Equus.” The two press releases issued about five months apart.
When I read a particularly interesting press release, I save it. Press releases on the same or very similar subject go into the same electronic file folder. I make sure to save the contact information provided with press releases so I can contact sources. This saves time when I get an assignment. I also download any high-resolution digital photographs that issue with the press release.
Basing articles on two or more press releases usually means you are writing features rather than news stories. Since features are usually longer than news stories, this can mean bigger paychecks. It also means you have to do more interviewing and go into greater depth than when writing a short news article. However, the extra effort is worth it.
The second strategy is to time your press release-based queries to a magazine’s editorial calendar. Many organizations poorly time their press releases relative to a magazine’s editorial calendar. This strategy may mean you need to update the information in your query and then timing it to a magazine’s editorial calendar. For example, last February several press releases issued based on papers presented at a medical conference. These described studies of football injuries suffered by high school and college athletes. However, the press releases issued after the college and high school football seasons. You could combine and use these press releases as the basis of queries timed to target issues of sports and parenting magazines coinciding with the start of the 2011-2012 football season.
The third strategy is to find a slant that will get your query seriously considered by a magazine apparently unrelated to the subject of the press release. For example, I read a press release on the environmental impact of concrete railroad ties compared to conventional wood ties. I did some digging and found several press releases on current projects replacing wood railroad ties with concrete ones.
My query was rejected by the largest railroad industry trade magazine. The editor’s comments convinced me that I would have no better luck with other railroad trade magazines. I reslanted my query to focus on concrete manufacturers. Then, I submitted it to “Precast Solutions,” a trade magazine for companies manufacturing preformed concrete objects such as railroad ties timing it for their annual environmental issue. My query was accepted and my manuscript published. The sources I interviewed were the scientist whose work was the subject of the press release, executives of two concrete tie manufacturing companies and two railroad executives.
I have used this approach elsewhere and written several articles on human resources subjects and engineering projects based in part on multiple press releases. No wonder one of my first activities every morning is to check press releases on-line!
John Borchardt is a freelance writer who covers business, employment, career management, science and technology. More than 1,200 of his articles have been published in a variety of trade and consumer magazines and online publications. His Oxford University Press book Career Management for Scientists and Engineers was a Science Book Club Alternate Selection.