News Distribution: Wire solution?

Once the domain of business news stories, features are becoming wire services' must-have item. Adam Hill reports.

Getting clients' stories on newswires can be easy enough, with services feeding press releases into a variety of national and international news agencies.

But make no mistake, wires want features as well as news for their customers.

Dow Jones Newswires, for example, recently appointed an enterprise editor, to look after features, columns and investigations as value-added content.

And recent trends, such as the success of Nuts and Zoo, offer a pretty good barometer of media organisations' widespread need for content. 'You've only got to look at the number of new magazine launches in the past year alone - the success of the men's weeklies and the new woman's weekly from NatMags,' says The Press Association (PA) entertainment MD Jennie Campbell.

'The demand for features, in particular celebrity and real life, is huge and continues to grow.'

Wire services better known for business news are now also eager for feature ideas. 'PR pitches for features can be useful, especially in the entertainment and human-interest areas and we would welcome ideas,' says Reuters global head of PR, media and editorial Susan Allsopp. And there are opportunities for client exposure with other 'value-added' content intended to go beyond the news agenda. 'We are constantly looking for columns we can create internally as well as publish from outsiders,' adds Dow Jones Newswires enterprise editor Randy Walerius.

Given that coverage via wire is a broad-brush approach, breadth of appeal is particularly important. Of course, a hook is still required and the usual caveats apply: for example, wire editors say email is generally preferred, with a quick call to say it's on the way if you want, and lengthy phone explanations are a no-no.

Journalists also plead that you check out the quantity and range of material that a wire puts out before approaching it with something totally unsuitable.

Allsopp laments that often they have too much of an element of self-interest or narrowness that just doesn't work for a newswire, which has a variety of customers.

PA features wire acting editor Cathy Winston agrees. 'The vital information we need is, firstly, the peg,' she says. 'Something quirky or unusual always goes down well - if it catches my attention, it's likely to be a good sign that it may interest others.'

Timing is key

Timing is obviously important: a great idea tied in with an event taking place that day is no good - and something three months away may be too far in advance. Three or four weeks should give wires enough time to schedule, write and distribute a feature to subscribers in advance. Providing statistics, background and pictures will all help your case. A celebrity or expert who provides quotes that can be used in a general feature may also be looked on favourably.

PA celebrity and real-life editor Jackie Brown explains: 'It's always useful to know that there are case studies available - it's something the newspapers like to use, which can easily make a general feature specific to their area. And regional information is useful for the same reason.'

Beth Cooper PR offered PA feature material on its client Everywoman, a networking firm helping women set up and run their own businesses, because it wanted regional coverage from high flyers to stay-at-home mothers.

'We felt that if the story was of interest to PA it would also be of interest to numerous female feature writers,' says Monica Poncelas who leads the account.

The pitch to PA was broken down into three main angles: Everywoman and what it offered; the co-founders as potential profile subjects and commentators on business issues; and case studies of its members. This meant that, in addition to pitching the client's story, Cooper was giving PA's features desk 'some food for thought in terms of industry and issue-related stories as well as providing support material for other pieces they may also be compiling', explains Poncelas. The approach worked.

Winston says:'The PR team transformed it to make a great piece about starting up your own business. It had contacts, background, and was very efficient.' Newspapers from Aberdeen to Shropshire, with a total readership of 1.2 million, featured Everywoman.

Dow Jones runs breakfast briefings where company executives or ministerial officials meet journalists to discuss macro-economic issues in what Walerius describes as 'free-wheeling' meetings that regularly spawn feature leads.

'We want to be open to ideas,' he says. Rather than UK regional papers, the company's primary customer is the Wall Street Journal in Europe, the US and Asia as well as Sunday broadsheet The Business. But Dow Jones in Europe also owns half of business broadcaster CNBC, and its journalists are regularly seen on programmes.

Walerius expands on what he is looking for in different columns. 'Focus is the most likely place to pitch feature content, it looks at European industry. If you have a new invention or product, we want to hear about it.'

Dealwatch is concerned primarily with M&A activity. 'We want someone who knows an industry well and understands the value of an acquisition,' he says. 'We run the gamut of business and finance news. We also cover economies and markets, so if PROs represent people such as universities or anyone else with thoughts about monetary, fiscal or trade policies, we'd be interested. Markets, too - new trading strategies or flaws in existing ones, new structures of arbitrage.'

Walerius adds: 'In addition to equities, we also cover energy, commodities and foreign exchange. So pitch feature-style content to us: if you're not on the wire (immediately), don't conclude that you've failed.'

So for services such as Dow Jones and Reuters, known primarily for financial news, there is clearly a great deal of scope for other features material.

And just because it isn't in print or on TV, don't ignore the visual element of a story, says Allsopp: 'The PR agency needs to work with the photodesk to develop an idea that works for both parties.'

'If it is a good idea then I will get back to them - if it is a great idea, they won't be able to get rid of me,' adds Brown. The message is clear: if it is widespread features coverage you are after, you can't afford to ignore the newswires.

CAROLE COLE, ASSISTANT EDITOR, BIRMINGHAM POST

'Generally, we'll rely on Press Association (PA) copy only when we're short of in-house resources and can't generate topical features to deadline.

More often we'll use PA as a starting point and ensure there's some strong local input to make it more relevant to our readers, ie local stockists for fashion/lifestyle/local helplines/support groups, etc.

'A quick check over the past fortnight shows we've tapped into fashion, travel and style features, plus DVD reviews. Again, they have been used mainly to support our own copy rather than being the main article. The danger is that, in the same way we use them as a starting point, so do the nationals. I've often tapped into a subject in one of the dailies or Sundays then proofed something along the same lines in our paper a couple of days later. We've recognised this problem, which is why we're increasingly trying to generate our own material. The news copy is used immediately so we're never behind nationals or other regionals. A reader would never see PA copy in a national one day then read the same story in the Birmingham Post the next.

'(The advantage for readers is that) they can read about issues that affect them, that they identify with and that they know everyone else is reading about. They keep up with health, fashion, lifestyle and consumer issues. But without local input, both in style and content, I don't think we're delivering 100 per cent to the reader.'

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