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Archive for March, 2008

Every day, thousands of news releases are emailed. And, every day, thousands of news releases are deleted unread or only partially unread — all because their writers don’t bother to make their news sound important.

Let me explain. Not counting duplicates, I receive several hundred news releases a week. However, I only read about 30-40. I can discard most of them because their distributors haven’t bothered to target their work, and the releases have nothing to do with free software or GNU/Linux. But I also discard many of the rest without reading beyond the first paragraph because they fail to make me care about their news. If the PR people can’t focus enough to make their news interesting, why should I waste more than a minimal amount of time reading their releases?

That may sound harsh. Yet, without ruthless tactics, I would hardly have time to do anything except read releases. Nor did I (or would I) ask for most of the releases I receive.

Besides, I am hardly alone. If anything, I probably receive fewer releases than many computer journalists. A public relations writer who doesn’t know this reality is ignorant about one of the basics facts of their trade. So, really, it is only common sense that they should do what they can to emphasize the relevance of their news, especially when the task is fairly simple.

I always say that, to write successful PR, you need to assume that your everyone in your audience has an attention deficit disorder. They see so many releases that they’re easily bored. A PR writer’s job is to break through that lack of attention so that journalists will read the details and be roused to do a story based on the news.

The best way to attract attention would be to write a custom release for every long term connection. However, that’s hardly practical (although targeting your release is, despite the modern PR writer’s fondness for spamming techniques). But. with a little effort a writer can craft a release that keeps recipients reading.

If you want to attract interest in a release, the place to start is with the head – which should also probably be the subject line if you send the release in an email. Far from being the after-thought that many PR writers seem to make it, the head should be a pithy summary of the news and why it matters. It should not be – as so many PR writers make it – something as bland as “News release from MyPR.”

In fact, it should not just be a bare statement of fact, no matter how specific. For instance, instead of “Jack Parker becomes company CTO” try “Company refocuses on core values by appointing Jack Parker CTO.” The first head sounds irrelevant, while the second explains how the news might affect the company.

A head is usually less than a dozen words, but if you’ve struggled with them the way you should, you won’t need a sub-head. Many long-time writers will actually tell you not to bother with a sub-head, because it’s usually just one more chance to lose the reader. However, if your news is especially complex, those few more words might help keep readers’ attention.

However, most of the time, you’ll want to get directly into the lede. Like the opening of a short story, your first sentence should be the hook you use to catch readers’ attention. You can use the rest of the first paragraph to expand on the gist of what you have to say, but if readers flounder on the first sentence, many of them won’t read beyond the rest of the paragraph, let alone the release.

One thing you do not do is throw away the first sentence with long sentences and cliches. Yes, you want the lede to summarize your news and its importance. But it won’t fill this goal if it’s a compound-complex sentence, and even the most sympathetic reader has trouble following through its entire ten line.

Nor do you want to lose interest by describing your client as a “world leader” in its field or by using any other cliche that the reader has heard thousands of times before. Cliches lose readers’ attention, accomplishing the exact opposite of what you should be trying to do.

Once past the head and the lede, you can relax a bit. However, keep the release short for all but the most monumental news, and put a few quotes in to break up the bald recital of facts. But remember that the quotes should be people talking like people, not like an animated dictionary. Like a cliche, lame prose is just going to lose the reader.

Don’t worry, either, about giving a company bio until the end. Anything more than a clause half a dozen words long will only complicate your basic message unnecessarily. The only reason that anyone will want more about the company is because they are going ahead with a story based on your release. Providing a corporate bio is a courtesy you do journalists, not something that will help you drum up interest in your story.

The idea that a news release should explain why the information it carries is important sounds obvious. Apparently, though, the idea has never occurred to the majority of people working in public relations. Perhaps they are so busy writing a release that pleases their boss or client that they don’t stop to think that they are being paid to offer their expertise as well as please. Or, perhaps, they think the importance of their news is self-evident; the fact that their company has a new point release of a product has kept everyone in the office working overtime for weeks, so why shouldn’t the rest of the world be concerned?

I suspect, though, that many PR writers simply find mass mailouts easier than taking the time to craft a release that journalists will read. Spam, after all, is easy, and effective writing hard. But it is only by effective writing that the composers of news releases can even hope to have their efforts read. Otherwise, they may as well not even bother.

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Once you’ve been an instructor, the habit of teaching is hard to break. That fact, as much as anything, explains why I am not only attending the Open Web Vancouver conference this year, but giving a talk entitled, “Working with the free software media.” Moreover, since Peter Gordon and Audrey Foo, the main organizers of the conference, are kind enough to let me in on a media pass to wander the conference and buttonhole presenters, I feel that’s the least I can do. And considering that I can’t code well enough to say anything worthwhile about programming, and the social aspects of the open web are already being presented by others, I may as well talk about what I know best.

The Open Web Vancouver conference is being held April 14-15 at the Vancouver Conference Center. It’s a rebranding of last year’s highly successful Vancouver PHP conference. Like its predecessor, this year’s conference is mostly a volunteer effort, and takes advantage of both local and international experts to present a well-rounded program to a small audience.

I chose my topic because I’ve been writing about aspects of this topic in my blog for about a year now, and those entries have been well-received – probably because there’s a real need. A few free and open source software (FOSS) organizations, such as the Linux Foundation and the Software Freedom Law Center, have people and policies in place for dealing with the media, but most do not.

The truth is, typical FOSS developers tend to be suspicious of the media – unsurprisingly, since marketing communications experts tend not only to have an entirely different mindset and to be absolutely clueless about technology. Yet many projects could benefit from more publicity in order to attract new developers or funding, and much of the community would like to know about them.

I’m still developing what I will say, and I have to admit that my teaching skills are rusty. However, my instinct is to forego the usual slide show, and make the talk as interactive with the audience as possible. Topics I’m considering include an explanation of where the free software media stands between traditional media and free software, why cultivating a relationship is worth everybody’s trouble, and how to pitch news and have more of a chance of receiving coverage.

It occurs to me that, with this talk, I’ve come full circle. When I was a technical writer a decade ago, I used to say that my job consisted of explaining the geeks to the suits. Now, I could be said to explaining the suits (or, perhaps more accurately, the shorts and sandals) to the geeks.

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“I’d like to write more often for your organization,” a some-time contributor to Linux.com wrote to the editors the other day. “However, I was hoping you’d have some advice for someone like me that suffers from writer’s block. Sometimes I’ll come up with a topic, other times I struggle for ideas, then I read other articles on Linux.com and think to myself, ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’”

By the time I logged on in the morning, Lisa Hoover had already given a comprehensive answer, to which I could only add a few points (I’m on Pacific time, so I log in long after everyone else in North America, although I sometimes get there before the Indian editors). Lisa posted her reply in the Linux.com forums, and I urge anyone interested to read it.

Meanwhile, here’s my suggestions, which includes my rewriting of Lisa’s as well. I’m talking about free and open source software. but I think that with a few changes of context most of the points would apply equally to any kind of journalism:

  • Know the field you’re writing about. In this case, that means keeping up to date on the other basic news sites, such as Linux Today, LWN, and FS Daily. It also means checking out information on new software from FreshMeat, and keeping track of what’s happening with major organizations in the field, such as the Free Software Foundation or The Linux Foundation. Often, these sites just give the bare bones announcement of events, so there is almost always room to go deeper. Moreover, once you have extensive knowledge, you’ll be able to see connections – and, therefore, possible stories – as you make connections between different pieces of information.
  • Subscribe to mail forums in areas that you’d like to write about, and join local meetups of people with similar interests. Their problems and interests will provide endless stories, and, occasionally, a piece of breaking news.
  • When you read a how-to, try it out. What information does it leave out? What information is now outdated in it? Could the information be presented more coherently? Is there a related topic that is left out? Could your personal experience add anything to the instructions? Answering any of these questions can lead to an article.
  • Question what you read. If someone makes a claim about a particular piece of software, go see for yourself. If someone is quoted, contact them to expand on their comments. The more you know about the field, the more you are likely to question. For instance, a few months ago, I got a story when a software project’s members were being quoted as having an opinion which I knew was likely to be wrong.
  • Read bloggers and columnists in the field. Note their opinion, and see if you can come up with a counter-argument (For the record, I write a lot of blog entries using this technique, especially when the subject is career advice).
  • As you get to know your chosen field, you will become familiar with the truisms that everyone knows. Play the contrarian, and see if you can come up with a valid argument that qualifies or over-turns conventional wisdom. An example is my article for Datamation, “It’s time to get over Microsoft,” which suggested that free software was now strong enough to have no need to fear its traditional nemesis. Of course, I received plenty of negative criticism, but I still feel that the point needed to be made.
  • Everyone has a story, and so does every group. I’ve never yet met someone who was boring when talking about what matters to them, so get in touch and tell those stories.
  • Watch for common problems that people have, either in online forum or in your everyday life. Lists of resources or steps to overcome these problems are articles that editors will love, because they’ll continue to be read for months after they’re published.
  • Make lists. For instance, in the last 3 years, I’ve written “11 tips for moving to OpenOffice.org,” “9 characteristics of free software users,” and at least a dozen more. Lists are an excellent way to make use of random observations and thoughts.
  • Think of what’s appropriate to the season. For instance, last Christmas, Linux.com carried articles about gifts for geeks, and non-profits to which people might want to donate before the end of the year to get a tax break. For Valentine’s Day, the site carried suggestions of how to mark the day using free software. In the past, other articles were published to mark the university of the OpenOffice.org and Debian projects.
  • Think about your own experience in the field, whether with your home computers or at the office. Often, what you’re doing with your computer will make a good how-to article, especially for beginners. For instance, I got at least half a dozen stories from my customization of my new laptop last summer.
  • Contact companies and experts, asking for more information about new software or new policies. If you see something interesting in the way of hardware, ask about getting a review unit.
  • Network like crazy, not only with movers and shakers, but also PR experts and ordinary developers. This advice is always sound no matter what you’re doing, but, in journalism, it pays greater and greater dividends as you continue to write, because people will contact you when they think they have a possible story. I don’t know how it works for other journalists, but I now get 2-3 stories and another 2-3 possible leads per month – a substantial reduction of my need to generate ideas. Three years ago, when I started, I got none. And, increasingly, those stories are scoops, given to me because people feel that I’ve written about them or their colleagues with some fairness or insight in the past. Of course, many of these contacts have their own agenda, but generally that agenda is only to get publicity, so you generally don’t have to worry about preserving your independence.

You see the common thread? Consistently generating ideas to write about means that a part of you is always hunting for stories. As you go about your business, a part of you needs to be always analyzing the story potential of what you encounter.

If my experience is anything to go by, once you have this habit, your problem won’t be coming up with ideas. It will be choosing which stories you want to write in the limited time that you have in the day.

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Parrots are such curious and lively creatures that you can easily forget that they are a prey species – until, at least, they are faced with something new. A cup or toy that they have seen before can often be replaced with one of the same shape, but add a new object to their environment, and their reaction is either a retreat with feathers held tight, or else aggressive posturing designed to intimidate (posturing that lasts only until the new object nears them). A case in point is the new cage we bought for Rambunctious, whom we hand-fed as a baby.

When Ram was pulled from the nest with a foot injury, he grew up in a glass aquarium with a heating pad underneath it. After he was weaned, he was put into the cage that he still occupies.

The cage is smaller that we’d give an unhandicapped bird, but Ram is a sturdy cripple, and could use more room. Besides, the plastic cage bottom is falling apart, and won’t last longer. For these reasons, we’ve been looking for a new cage for over a year. The quest isn’t easier, because most cages have bar spacing designed for much larger bird, which a Nanday conure like Ram could easily get his head stuck between.

Finally, last month, we found an ideal cage, about two-thirds larger than his present one, and with the right bar spacing. Last week, we outfitted it at the parrot supply shop, and deposited it on the counter near Ram’s cage.

His reaction was predictable. He retreated to the back of his cage, eying the new one warily. When we took him from his cage, he refused to come out; in fact, his good foot had to be pried loose from the perch it was gripping. I could feel his heart racing as I held him in my palm.

I sort of got the impression that we would not simply be dropping him in the cage. He was going to need to get used to it.

This past week, his reaction would be humorous, except that the matter was so obviously in deadly earnest to him. When his cage door was open, he sidles out as quickly as he can, climbing on the outside of his cage to a position on the top as far away from the new cage as he can manage. When I tried to place him on the cage, he flapped and scuttled up my arm with a piteous squawk and look of the utmost alarm and utmost betrayal in his eye. Only when we put the cage down on the floor would he manage to calm down.

After seven days, he has reached the point where, brought near the cage, he actually reached out to beak it. This is an encouraging sign, since it suggests that curiosity is starting to win out over fear for him. And when I started making some adjustment to the positions of the perches, toys and seedcups in his cage, he flew on to my shoulder, chirping with excitement and happiness as I worked.

The next step is to put him in the new cage for a while, with one of us close by to reassure him. If he eats while in the cage, or plays with a toy, then we can proceed with the move. But the whole operation is still going to take another one to three weeks. Parrots didn’t evolve by taking unnecessary chances, and, in changing Ram’s cage, we’re fighting instincts embedded by generations of natural selection. So we have to figure that it’s going to take a while.

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Having been a student and a freelancer for much of my marriage, I’ve also tended to be the chef. I’ve been home more often, and preparing the evening meal helps to divide my working day from my personal time. Besides, while I enjoy the creativity of cooking, I have a pronounced distaste for washing dishes while my partner doesn’t mind the task and dislikes cooking, so the division of labor is a natural one (although I probably take unfair advantage by dirtying more pots than I would if I had to clean them myself) . And, like any domestic chef, I’ve developed my own repertoire of specialties – most of them hearty peasant dishes, which I’ve always found has more possibilities than haute cuisine.

The one I’ve been making the longest is lasagna As made by most people, lasagna is protein and carbohydrate-heavy, and mine is no exception, with three cheeses (in the current incarnation, Chevrai, fresh Parmesan, and Swiss) and lean turkey forming the layers between whole wheat pasta. To round off the meal, I had snap peas and basil leaves, along with a heaping mound of shredded spinach, and season with garlic and basil.

Another long-time favorite is sweet potato pie. It starts with a crust of semolina, barley and shredded carrots. Within the crust, I place a mixture of sweet potato, honey, lemon, HP sauce Parmesan, and cashews rather than the usual pecan – a habit begun because of the high cost of pecans but continued in our latter days of relative affluence because of the smoother taste. On top of this mixture, I place a layer of wheat germ, and whatever cheese is at hand on top of that. I often serve it with sausages and roast potato, but it can easily be a vegetarian meal by itself.

Then there’s my Greek meal. It begins with saganaki, or kefaloteri cheese rolled in egg and semolina, fried with constant flipping in olive oil, and served with a capful of lemon juice. On the side, I do whole wheat pita bread baked in an oven – never fried! — and spread with either butter or humous. The main course is dolmathes (grape vine leaves stuffed with meat, cheese, rice and sometimes a bit of carrot, as my whimsy takes me, and topped with an egg lemon or pesto sauce), potatoes roasted in butter, lemon juice and dill, spanakopita (spinach, feta cheese, and spices wrapped in phyllo pastry), and – just for contrast – unadorned peas and corn. Ideally, the meal is served with retsina, the rotgut resinous wine that you either adore or hate at first sip (I adored).

A couple of years ago, I added a meal based on Spanish tapas I’d enjoyed at the now closed El Patio restaurant at the edge of Vancouver’s Yaletown district. The main dish, which has deviated so far from its origins that I no longer have a name for it) consists of shredded ham and a mixture composed of equal amounts of semolina and Parmesan, as well as rosemary, garlic, and a hearty splash of red wine. I knead this mixture into small balls, which I coat with pesto or fine herb sauce, then bake in the oven. I serve the dish with potat bravas, or diced potato baked or fried in olive oil until just short of crispy, then baked for another ten minutes with a mixture of tomato sauce and mustard with paprika and cayenne pepper.

These aren’t all my special meals. In homage to my ancestry, I used to do a mean Yorkshire pudding, although I haven’t made it for a while. I also do a risotto, three bean chile, meat loaf, and turkey fillet in a lemon-honey sauce, all with my own original touches. However, the four described in detail are the ones I’m proudest of, and most likely to serve to a guest or bring along to a potluck. I’m very far from an expert chef, but, with these four meals, I’ve improvised enough to make them distinctly mine.

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In high school, I ran long distance track with some success. But it was the four meet cross-country season that I loved best. Long distances around a track require a tolerance for repetition that even the most disciplined teenager lacks, while cross-country requires endurance over changing terrain, making it better suited to the strengths of a boy with overly short legs. Over five years, I received two first place season total and two second place ones – and would have had a strong chance of another first place finish, if a crippling ‘flu hadn’t caused me to miss a couple of races. But, of all my victories, the one that was most satisfying was the first race of my Grade 9 year – not least because it was a group victory as well.

I had been a strong but largely untrained runner in elementary school, finishing fifth in the provincial championships in Grade 7. I managed a consistent second place finish in my Grade 8 cross-country season, and was well-satisfied with it; I’ve never been one to believe that “silver is the first loser’s metal,” and was pleased to be a contender.

However, at the same time, I was determined that, next year, I would beat the runner who had always finished first to my second. That was the year that I began to train seriously, running every day over the summer and fall, and boosting my daily mileage, first to fifty miles a week, and then to sixty and seventy, and encouraging some of the other lead runners on the team to do the same. Come the March cross country season next year, I was fitter than I had ever been in my life.

Nervous but focused, I arrived with my school team at the first meet of the season. As I warmed up, I kept looking for my nemesis of the previous year, but couldn’t see him. However, with a couple of hundred runners in each of eight categories, that wasn’t surprising.

At the gun, I was running hard to take an early lead, certain I’d see my nemesis near the front with me. I didn’t, but I kept going strongly. Taking an early lead is a tactic that can sap your strength if you aren’t well-trained, but can be psychologically devastating to others, especially when they face you repeatedly; I believe that I won one of the races in the year of the ‘flu simply because people expected to see me out front, despite the fact that I was still feeling weak.

Besides, my nervous tension left me little choice except to explode into action at the start.

Before half a mile, I had enough of a lead that I couldn’t hear any footsteps behind me. However, as a Vancouver runner, I had been raised on the story of the 1954 Miracle Mile, in which Arthur Landry lost to Roger Bannister because he looked back at the last moment, and I was determined not to do the same. For the first mile, I ran all out, and kept my eyes front, resisting the temptation to look back.

At the halfway point, when the course turned into a path through the woods, I could wait no longer. I twisted back, and suddenly I had one of the moments of pure joy in my life.

Ten yards behind me was another runner from my school. Twenty yards behind him were another two from my team, with the next runners a good thirty years back.

I was elated, but also alarmed to see the next runner closer than I had imagined. As the cedar chips began to fly up from under my shoes, I accelerated down the trail as fast as I could. By the time I reached the finish line, I had at least a thirty yard lead. Then, bending over to catch my breath, I watched with fierce exaltation as our team took the first four positions.

Considerable wordless shouting and thumping of backs ensued, you might say. Even our coach, whose normal mode of expression was sarcasm, couldn’t help grinning happily at us.

The only disappointment was that my rival from the previous year was no longer running. But I did beat his course record by almost thirty-five seconds, so I felt that, in one sense, I had defeated him regardless. I kept hoping for the rest of the season that he would show up, but he never did, not until a couple of years later, when smoking and lack of training made him finish well back in the pack.

We couldn’t keep up our perfect score all season – not quite. But we did win the team score that season, as well as three of the top four individual positions, including my perfect first place score. Yet none of the other wins could quite compare with the feeling of pure victory of that first one, or the sense of being part of an apparently unbeatable team.

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Probably the best piece of advice I’ve heard for writers is from screen writer William Goldman the writer of The Princess Bride (You know, the book and the movie with the immortal line: “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”). When writing a script, Goldman says in Adventures in the Screen Trade and Which Lie Did I Tell?, you need to discover what he calls the spine of the story – that is, the impression you want to leave with the audience, or what the story is about besides the bare events. If you’re an English major, you could say he is talking about the main theme. But, whatever you call it, the advice holds true for both fiction and non-fiction.

The point is easiest to understand if you think in terms of fiction. Imagine that you are writing one of those time-honored stories in which a young man rises from obscurity to become rich and influential. It is not enough simply to narrate the events in his life; if that is all you do, then the result will be like one of those endless cell phone conversations teenagers seem to have at the top of their voices when you’re trapped with with them on a bus (“Then he says, and I say, then he goes . . .”), until you want to scream with boredom.

Instead, you need to understand how you want the audience to view the events. Will the story be about how the young man is unable to shed conventions until he finds himself trapped by his own success? Or will it be about personal courage and having the strength to realize your dreams? Either of these perspectives could be a legitimate spine, and each could apply to the same sequence of events. But without discovering the spine, you won’t know what to emphasize, or even the metaphors you need to tell the story.

This need explains why telling a real person’s story is notoriously difficult to do well. Very few people’s lives have a spine – even a well-known person’s life contains a lot of living for the moment and random incidents. You need to find a perspective from which to tell a person’s life, and usually it’s easier to find meaning in a small portion of a life rather than the whole thing.

Goldman is talking about fiction, of course – specifically, writing movie scripts, although his comment applies equally well to short stories or novels. I’ve found it useful when writing the handful of stories I’ve published professionally. However, as I’ve slowly struggled to learn journalism over the last few years, I’ve realized that his advice applies equally well to features and news items.

It’s not surprising, really, because articles are narratives, too. Take, for example, a simple news release. A company issues a news release because it has a story it wants told – it has a new product, it has hired a new executive, or maybe it has a comment on industry news. The publicist’s job is find the perspective that the company wants on the news, while a journalist’s is to find the perspective that makes the story worth the attention of the audience. The publicist who has found the spine of the story is working hard to make sure that journalists believe the perspective offered, while journalists – if they have any integrity – are trying to discover the spine for themselves.

At least, that’s the way it should be. In reality, many publicists and journalists never discover what the spine of a particular story should be, either because they are in a rush or lazy or just plain ignorant of their roles. A publicist without a spine sends out a boring release that no one wants to read, technically fulfilling the needs of their client or employer, but in truth doing them no favor at all. Similarly, a journalist who doesn’t bother to find the spine either tells a disconnected story, or worst, shows a lack of integrity by simply accepting the one that the publicist offers. You can find hundreds of such releases or stories on any given day, but, unless the news is so major that it tells itself, none of them are of any value to the audience.

In both fiction and non-fiction, finding the spine takes time. Yet the effort is always worth making. Not only is the search a matter of integrity, but writing without the spine is infinitely harder, and is far more likely to produce rambling or mediocre results – and to be excruciatingly boring and painful to produce.

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