The So-What? Test

In the past couple of weeks as we’ve been discussing press kits, including news releases, I was reminded of a principle I use that might be helpful for those of you seeking to write your own news releases and decide what is the best news angle.

It’s not a principle that’s unique with me, but I call it the “So What?” test.

If you can picture these words erupting from a smart-mouthed teenager, you’ve got the tone right. And like that teen, who often has a valid point even if it’s not delivered with respect, the “So What?” test pointedly challenges the news release writer to assess if the angle or subject of the news release is really news and really something the world – or audience for the publication receiving the news item — wants to know about.

As we mentioned here recently, the fact that you’ve released a book is not necessarily news outside your circle of family and friends so sorry, that means it doesn’t pass the “So What?” test.

The good news is that once you understand that, you can often find an angle that would be of interest and help get your story noticed. You really are trying to get attention for the fact that you have published a book, but you need to say more than that.

What is your area of expertise? Cite some statistics from your own research or find recent ones from a well-respected source and offer tips to solving a problem. Pay attention to the calendar also and take to heart the view that a good story from you could be helping the media outlet achieve its own goals to be timely, even on softer news subjects. If you have written about child loss or infertility, you may want to time your news release offering tips on being kind to others to a few weeks before Mother’s Day, often a painful time for women who have sorrow around the topic of empty arms. And sent early enough for the media outlet to be able to use it before the holiday.

Hmn, soft news? A general media outlet doesn’t only want hard news, which would be what’s happening right now with heartbreaking regularity in crime and war. They also want “softer” news and information that serves their audiences. If you are old enough to have read (or still read) actual newspapers, you know they had sections in back, like one on sports and one on life or home, in addition to their national and local news coverage of government, crime and business. The news outlet sites generally still divide news into similar sections, and feature articles are often found there.

And then of course passing the “So What?” test differs depending on the context or the audience of the media outlet. So sometimes it’s a matter of finding the right media outlet.

And that could mean you will be doing different versions of your news release for different places.

If you have written a book that relates to Christian living, like Bill Mountsier’s devotional aimed at getting Christians off the couch and taking action (he calls it a “DO-votional”), Christian radio and TV as well as other Christian living media outlets could well be interested.

Similarly with a book on raising a Christian family.

Those outlets want to help their audiences and their families grow in their faith.

But if you want to share news about your book with your local community news organizations (which by the way you should do) they are going be more interested in you, a local resident, because their audience and news coverage goals are your community. You won’t be the only person in your community to have written a book, of course, so adding some additional facts or a local angle could help make your news release stand out. Perhaps you received an award for the book or give credit to a well-known teacher who inspired you to write, or you set the book in the campgrounds outside of your own town. This connection to your local area, or “proximity,” is one value of a journalism textbook definition of news.

One day we’ll come back to more of those elements in defining news, but for today, it’s enough to remind you that there are different elements that make something newsworthy. Some of them are quite obvious – others perhaps a bit less so.

Then just this week while already working on today’s missive, I learned something else related to this concept. Apparently this “So What?” test is a skill fledgling journalists also have to hone, and that was a comforting reminder that we are all learners here.

Here’s what I heard. At a seminar called Media Day sponsored by Cincinnati’s PRSA chapter, I heard some working journalists doing a presentation and one of them shared this story from her past.

She said she showed up for her first day of work as a reporter for a notoriously cantankerous editor to find a sticky on her monitor with the abbreviation of a much less polite version of a similar concept – perhaps summarized politely as “Who Cares?” — so journalists face it too. In having to persuade their editors that a story they are working on is worth space or airtime, as well as being a good use of their time to report and write it, they need to suggest stories that people will care about.

So proceed cautiously. Ask other people you know who will be honest with you if a story idea you have would interest them if they didn’t know you.

And then seek to make your news release pass the “So What?” test for the media outlets you want to interest and realize you may well need different versions of a similar release depending on who is receiving it.

Originally sent as an email to the Buoyancy community on May 27, 2022.
Joni Sullivan Baker
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