Sean's Technology and Writing Blog

Greatest story of my life ever!

20 November 2009

From time to time, I get emails from people who tell me they have the greatest story ever that they need help breaking. Sometimes it's a crime story, and other times it's a big political story. Occasionally, it's a campaigning-style story.

I know what you're thinking because I think it too: why me? My journalism experience hasn't yet stirred national newspapers, and my specialist subjects to date have been technology, business and music.

I never know how to respond to these people. Some of them are genuine people, trying to help others out, and struggling to draw attention to something the world should know about. Some of them are just trying to help themselves out, and use the press as a weapon against their opponents. Some of them might actually be insane.

For those who have uncovered a genuine injustice, I usually feel there are others far better placed to break the story. There are people who understand their way around parliament, who have friendly lawyers to advise them, and who know how to get stories of that type into print. I would face a steep learning curve. I do sympathise with many of these stories, but I don't have the time, experience or energy to help. Although I might admire those who are campaigning for justice, I can't give more than a one-time friendly email offering support.

Those who are using the press as a weapon against their opponents often appear to have a valid case, or at least a right to be heard. Sometimes they're being oppressed. After all, the most powerful people have easy access to the media, and it's the less powerful people who can struggle to get heard. But again I don't have the right experience to make these stories fly. Nor do I have the time to really vet the stories so that I can blog about them with confidence in their accuracy. I don't believe that journalists must be impartial, but I do believe that they must base their opinions on facts, which means a lot of independent research.

For the people who show signs of paranoia and instability, I've tried to bow out gracefully and wish them the best with their story. They inevitably won't stop emailing.

I've never broken a national news story before, but if I were planning to, this is what I'd do:
  • Try to identify a named journalist with a professional interest in my story. That might be somebody working on a national newspaper, local newspaper, trade magazine, or website with a significant relevant audience. Ideally somebody with a history of breaking stories, but that would probably be quite hard to find. Private Eye is a fine news publication, and if the story were relevant for one of their columnists, they'd be near the top of my list. I wouldn't automatically go to the Sunday Times or email everybody that Google says is a journalist.

  • If it is possible to get proof using my skills, I'd make sure I do that before approaching anyone. I often receive emails that say I'd need to do a lot of work digging up proof, which means I'm being offered a rumour to investigate, and some of the rumours are too outlandish to justify investigation without more to go on.

  • Prepare my pitch: a short description of the story, how it can be proven to be true, how I came across it, and who I am in relation to the story. Ideally, my pitch would be something like 'I have proof that [this person] has [done this]'. My own credibility is important here too.

  • Telephone the journalist. Check first whether they're on deadline, if not, start to tell them about the story. Let them lead the conversation. They will know the right questions to ask to work out whether the story has legs for them or not. I think the stuff I've prepared for my pitch will answer their top four questions.

  • Send them what they need, or arrange to meet if that's what they need.

  • If I couldn't break the story using the conventional press, I'd research it and write it myself and put it on the internet. I'd then run a PR campaign online to draw attention to the story from other websites, attract links and embed the story in social networks (Facebook etc). I'd see if once the story had been broken, I could get the press to pick up on that: eg '[name] has published evidence that proves that...'

  • If I wanted to try to make money from the story, I'd research it thoroughly, write it up, and then pitch it as a freelance contribution to relevant publications. Alternatively, I'd try to sell it as a tip-off. The difficulty with both approaches is that tabloids in particular have a track record of not paying up, and sometimes it's hard to negotiate the value of the story without giving it away. If the story warrants it, I'd consider writing a book and trying to get the book published, including serialisation in the press. I have assumed, though, that most people emailing me aren't looking to make money from their stories.
As I said, I've never done it before, so it might not work. But since people sometimes approach me for help on this subject, this is the best I can do. I'll respond to comments left here, but I won't be answering any more emails that I believe are covered by this post. I would welcome any advice or tips from others (in the comments) about other ways to break news stories.

(To clarify: I am still happy to receive emails from people who are approaching me because they know their idea is relevant to my interests, perhaps based on what they've read on this website. Personally addressed emails get more attention, and emails that explain why I'm being approached will almost always get a personal reply).

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