A Journalist Tells All: Busy Daily News Reporters Like to Laugh, Too!

If you want to capture the attention of Baltimore Sun investigative reporter Doug Donovan as he navigates hundreds of emails daily, you'd better keep the topic relevant to the areas he covers—and try to make him laugh!  A funny subject line is pretty much a guarantee that he will open your message. Donovan shared with PRNEWS some tips for success with reaching a busy reporter with your pitch, as well as some examples of subject lines that actually won his click:

What’s the best way to get you to read an email?

Doug Donovan

You have to know who you’re pitching and what interests them. That’s obvious, I know; but there’s so much out there now on LinkedIn and other social media sites that allow you to get information on a reporter before you pitch. Use it. I have a sense of humor but others are way more serious. You have a chance at trying to make me laugh in a subject line or if you saw something interesting about me online and you reference it. “Saw you were an extra in a true crime episode and…” That’s a subject line I’d open.

You also might find that I worked somewhere that you’re connected to: Did you work with Jay Akasie at Forbes? If you happen to have worked with someone at another publication or know them in some other way, I wouldn’t be shy about leaning on that to get my attention.

If I get a pitch related that has nothing to do with my coverage or interests, I will block that email.

Recently I’ve been getting lots of pitches related to medical cannabis, so clearly the PR person has done their homework about my coverage. I have opened most of those emails because the subject lines are clear that the topic is cannabis and business. I’m most interested to know how the pitch ties into a bigger trend—hopefully one that hasn’t been written about already by the mainstream media. So if a subject line can contain both the subject and its bigger theme, I’m most likely to open.

Here are emails I’ve opened from PR folks who I have no relationship with based solely on these subject lines:

  • “Cannabis Business Leaders in Washington Next Week to Advocate for Federal Reform”
  • “Oregon Hemp Litigation: Multi-Million Dollar Crop Delivery Lawsuit Filed”
  • Cannabis Trade Federation, National Civil Rights Leaders Launch Task Force” (Although I would have written it as “U.S. Civil Rights Leaders Launch Cannabis Task Force with Trade Federation” … because it’s more interesting that “civil rights leaders” are involved, not that Cannabis Trade Federation is involved. That to me is a basic mistake – if you put your client ahead of what makes the pitch interesting I’m less likely to be interested. This was an email from the CTFederation

Is it okay for PR professionals to contact you on social media or is that a deterrent for you?

I’ll never see it. Email is the best way for me. LinkedIn is second. Twitter is third. Never Facebook/Instagram. LinkedIn is totally appropriate given the context. You can kill two birds with one stone if you can both connect through a mutual connection as well as pique my interest with a relevant topic.

What creative ways come to mind in terms of PR professionals improving their relationships with reporters?

A reporter wants to break a trend story before everyone else. Or if the trend is already trendy, then a new twist on the trend is also quite alluring. If you have evidence to back up what you’re pitching—sources that we can easily verify and trust—then we’re more likely to be responsive. We can be stretched so thin that we may be interested but intimidated of the effort it would take to verify the basics of what you’re pitching. So if you can make that process as easy as possible, that’s a big help.

Also, if you know that a story on your client is unlikely on the first go-around with a reporter, you should still reach out if you have expertise on a subject that you know is of interest to the reporter. It’s flattering to reporters that you have been following their stories. Ah, so you’re the one! If you show them you know their work they’ll be more likely to give you some time—especially if you pass on something you have gleaned from your clients that could be helpful even if it doesn’t involve your client. I’d be more likely to think you’re a decent person for passing on a tip and then more likely to hear you out on a specific pitch about your client.

Is there a certain day of week or time of day that works best for you to receive a pitch?

Late morning on Mondays through Tuesday 3 p.m. After that I’m usually off to the races on something specific. Then try again early Friday afternoon when my work is likely to have been turned in and edited and I’m starting to plan for the next week.

Press Conferences:  Are you a fan?  Why or why not?

A press conference rarely generates an article unless someone really special is appearing to say something amazing. Or if there a spectacle associated with it—like, say, a press conference to announce an upcoming Cirque show that features performers. Other reasons to attend a press conference would be to get real people who have benefitted from what your client does or whose lives have been improved by your client’s products.

 Doug Donovan is a veteran reporter who writes for The Baltimore Sun.  He previously worked at Forbes Magazine, the Chronicle of Philanthropy and AOL-Patch.