What makes a story worthy of coverage, either as news or as a feature? Some developments are so big that we can all agree they belong on the front page—the Flint water crisis, problems with the Obamacare website, etc. Others exist on the margins, depending on a writer or editor’s subjective viewpoint. You know it’s news when you see it, even if you can’t always explain why.
The challenge for PR pros is that it’s easy to lose perspective on what is or isn’t newsworthy because you’re so close to the subject matter. Even if you know that your client’s new pomegranate-flavored toothpaste isn’t exactly front-page material, how do you explain that to the CEO or product manager who made it their life work? How do you articulate news value? And how do you find it in a story that otherwise might be fit only for the company newsletter?
There’s no simple definition, but journalists often point to the following factors as keys:
Impact. As some journalists have noted, this boils down to two questions: “So what?” and “Who cares?” How many people are affected by the news, and how significant is the impact? The impact can be national or local, within a certain industry or among a certain demographic category. The mayor’s race in Pensacola may be big news in the Florida Panhandle, but not in New York or Boston. On the other hand, the BART transit strike in the San Francisco Bay Area garnered a fair amount of national news coverage because it disrupted the transportation system in one of nation’s largest metro areas.
Timeliness. Did the news just happen, or was it days, weeks or months ago? Even a long-lead magazine will look for stories that have timely elements to them, or at least a way to put a fresh spin on a story that’s already been reported.
Surprise. Is the development surprising or unusual, the classic “man bites dog” story? In science journalism, this is often referred to as the “wow factor.”
Contrarian elements. This is related to surprise—does the story point to something that’s counter intuitive or goes against conventional wisdom? For example, we’ve been told for years about the dangers of too much salt in diets. But earlier this year, a group of respected scientists received media attention for a report suggesting that those concerns may be overblown.
Trendiness. Does the story exemplify an important trend, or—as noted above—does it contradict a well-publicized trend?
Conflict. Does the story involve opposing forces? The news media is often criticized for focusing obsessively on the “horse race” aspect of stories, especially in politics. But there’s a good reason for this: Conflict is the key element in drama, and when it happens in real life, it often makes for compelling reading. That’s why so many people can’t resist true-crime stories and why the sports pages are so popular.
Human interest. Is there an interesting, relatable person at the heart of the story? This is the fuel that drives countless celebrity magazines, but you’ll find human-interest stories everywhere, even in B2B publications. Like that product manager whose obsession was bringing tropical fruit flavors to toothpaste.
Humor. Is there something just plain funny about the story? More than one journalist has told me that they’ll sometimes jump on a story because it hits their “quirky button.”
Beyond these factors, many journalists have suggested helpful—if subjective—yardsticks for determining news value. The most common is the “cocktail party” or “watercooler” test—is this the kind of story likely to spark discussion with friends or coworkers? Or, as one journalist put it, “Can you picture this story on the front page of The New York Times? Then it’s news.”