Your News Release Needs News. A Little More on How (or How Not) to Handle That News Release

Periodically, and one of those times was not long ago, I talked here about how when you write a news release you need to include several types of information commonly referred to as the 5Ws and an H (who, what, when, where, how, and why).

But big oops. Looks like I skipped over something kind of crucial.

The thing is, you also have to lead with some news.

In fact, that’s what journalists call the very first, super short paragraph of a news story. The lead.

That news angle is also summarized in the headline of the news release. In the olden days, the reporters wrote the stories and then someone else came along to do layout and write the headline. In a straight news story, they referred primarily to the lead to write the headline, summarizing it and putting it into headline form. So, both the lead and the headline contain basically the same info, though the lead usually has more detail. Subsequent paragraphs go on to say more about the news.

So…what makes something news?

First, you need to communicate something NEW and not already common knowledge.

For a ridiculous example, one could not do a real news release in 2024 announcing that man had landed on the moon in 1969.

But not all things that are new are news either.

The fact that my friend Pam’s son Brad finally stopped eating only peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and moved onto macaroni and cheese is not news to most people either, even if it just happened today.

Why not? Here’s a list of attributes from a journalism textbook. At least one but often several of these elements combined are needed to make something news:

Impact – how much will it affect your audience? [jobs lost, new technology, lives saved]

Immediacy – is it happening right now or about to happen?

Proximity – is it happening near the audience?

Prominence – is someone famous involved?

Novelty – something unusual, odd, intriguing?

Conflict – are political candidates slinging insults or sports rivals facing off?

Emotions – do we react emotionally with sadness, or find something touching or uplifting?

That list might be helpful for getting across the concept of news categories.

And they combine in ways that should make sense, and differ from location to location, audience to audience. Job losses in London are not big news in Libertyville. New salt trucks for Cookeville might be news in the county, but not even in Nashville. But footage of that injured runner limping to the finish line surrounded by teammates and rivals?That heartstring pull plays anywhere.

But back to you.

For a quick, practical way of evaluating something, for years I’ve asked this: Does it pass the “So what” test?

I spent a lot of years in company PR departments. Part of that job was always negotiating with bosses of various kinds who wanted a news release out on something or other important to them but less exciting to the rest of us.

We tend to get so close to the projects and causes about which we care passionately we can’t always see the bigger picture that what is big news to us, might not be to other people.

That’s when I could ask if the item passed the “So what?” test.

Similarly, for many authors (and alas, some publishers), folks sometimes think that because a book has just been published, that’s news. Most of the time, on its own, it isn’t.

In case this still isn’t clear, here’s an example inspired by a true story.

Let’s say an educator named Erin is developing a new tutoring endeavor that will help middle school students. She’s heading off to a state teacher’s convention and wants to meet informally with people who might be able to help move the project along, and she knows there are going to be people there who will want to know about the idea.

She wants to do a news release about this.

But what is her news?

In my example, the educator’s team wrote a news release with a headline calling her the creator of the project and saying she was going to the teacher’s convention. Then the rest of the paragraphs started with “About the project” and described it something like this: The Middle School Tutoring Project will help students still recovering from pandemic losses make up for lost ground using new software being introduced in a pilot program in Naperville in fall 2024. {do you see them? In this order but all there: what, who, why, how, where, when. The primary who, Erin, was in the headline, though.}

But there was no lead paragraph of news.

And even with a new program, just announcing Erin attending the teacher’s convention, like thousands of other people, doesn’t pass the So What test.

When we got done with the news release, there was a lead. Both the headline and the lead talked about how Erin was announcing this new endeavor and would be at the convention.

Describing the new project in several short paragraphs after the lead, and including direct quotes from Erin about the innovative elements of the software, now we had some news.

At least to teachers.

And that brings us to another aspect of writing news releases. What you write and what is news will vary with the intended audience.

However, that’s a topic for a different day.

But let me say one more thing in closing.  If this now sounds a bit more nuanced than you previously realized and you think you might want some help, reach out. I’ll be happy to chat further with you and see how the Buoyancy team might be able to lift your news, too.

Originally sent as an email to the Buoyancy community on February 2, 2024.
Joni Sullivan Baker
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