Beats vs. areas of interest: how to catch a journalist’s attention

by | Mar 2, 2017 | Journalism, Media Relations, Pitching Tips

If you’re seeking journalists to pitch your ideas to and relying strictly on the beat system to find them, you’re limiting your range. All too often, an influencer’s other areas of interest are disregarded, to the detriment of public relations.

I once interviewed the editor of a new medical publication. It was a high-value subscription publication with an experienced editorial crew, and I was curious as to whether it was following a beat system. “There aren’t defined or assigned areas,” he explained, “as much as there are natural historical biases.” By that, he meant that each writer had developed areas of interest in the course of covering the industry, gravitating toward specific therapeutic categories such as cardiovascular disease or orthopedics. It’s not a formal beat system, in which one staffer is identified as the “orthopedics” person, but more likely than not, the writer most interested in the subject will be the writer who is called on to tackle the big stories dealing with orthopedics.

This is not uncommon, even at outlets that do follow beat systems. Reporters often develop specific areas of interest within their beats, or sometimes find themselves writing about topics that have nothing to do with their main job. A classic example was Travis Poling, a former healthcare business reporter for the San Antonio Express-News, who also wrote a column about beer.

Often, when an editor tells me the staffers have “areas of interest” as opposed to beats, they explain that it would be too difficult to communicate this to PR pros, so they just designate a certain staffer as a central point of contact, with the idea that this person can direct the info to the appropriate writer. This approach is understandable, given that too many PR pros don’t target their messages appropriately even when beats are well defined. Still, knowing a journalist’s areas of interest — as opposed to their beats — can go a long way toward establishing a relationship if you happen to have a pitch that falls in their wheelhouse.

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This is why it’s so important to follow the work of the journalists you want to pitch. Obviously, you can’t assume that just because a journalist has covered a certain topic that it’s a particular interest of theirs or that they’ll return to it again. You might see three months’ worth of stories about retail business trends, only to discover that the journalist was filling in for a colleague who was on maternity leave. Even if it’s part of their regular beat, they might decide that it’s a tired subject that they don’t want to revisit. Still, reading their stories will put you ahead of most of the other PR pros trying to pitch them. And if you do it with the right kind of analytical mindset, you’ll likely get a pretty good idea of where their interests lie.

You can also learn a lot from journalists’ activities on social media. A media database like Agility’s includes not just accurate contact information, but with a click you can see their most recent tweets. Whom are they conversing with? What stories are they retweeting?

And don’t forget LinkedIn: seeing a journalist’s past jobs and educational background can provide strong clues as to what kinds of topics they might be inclined to cover in their current role. Suppose a science magazine hires a new editor and you see that they have a PhD in molecular biology. That’s no guarantee that they’ll be keen on writing about biotech, but the odds might be pretty good.

Beats are important, no question: Check out the Media Matchmaker report which is full of insights Business Wire gained from interviewing over 600 journalists. It reveals that, when asked what the best way for a PR professional to build a relationship with you is, 79 per cent of journalists say conducting research on their beat is the most important. But there’s no excuse for stopping there.

By extending your knowledge to an influencer’s other areas of interest, you’ll simply be helping yourself. Of course, the only surefire way to learn about a journalist’s interests is to ask them, but by reading their work, knowing their background, and following them on social media, you’re in a much stronger place to begin that conversation.

 

This post was originally published, in a slightly different format, on February 28, 2016.

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Steve Beale
Stephen Beale is the editor of Bulldog Reporter’s Inside Health Media, a publication for PR people in health and medicine. He covers media news and interviews health journalists about their preferences for dealing with PR people. Based in the San Francisco area, he previously worked as a technology journalist.

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