Three veteran reporters offered legislative staffers some tips about the best way to get their issues and their bosses’ work highlighted in the news.
The Washington Post’s Amber Phillips, who writes the daily email “The 5-Minute Fix”; Emily Wagster Pettus, with The Associated Press in Mississippi; and Mike Dennison, chief political reporter for the Montana Television Network, spoke as part of a virtual roundtable sponsored by NCSL’s Legislative Information and Communications Staff association.
Their message to legislative staffers: We need and value your help on stories.
Here are some of their key tips.
1. Get Personal
The press release has its place, but the reporters agreed that a personal email is better.
“Most reporters, if they see that, they will pick up the phone,” Phillips said. “We love hearing from you guys, especially because you are on the ground and we aren’t.”
Wagster Pettus agreed, urging folks to even call or stop by. “Personal is best.”
But she gave this caveat:
“You might not want to approach a reporter busily banging the keyboard on deadline,” she said. “Just say, ‘I know you are busy now, but would you have time for coffee?’”
They recommend that legislative staffers introduce themselves when they don’t have a story to pitch to acquaint the reporter with issues their legislator or committee is working on, and to learn which issues the reporter is following.
And while charts, photos and videos can be useful material, reporters don’t need all that to sell them on a story. In many cases, newsrooms will craft their own visuals. Offer that material if it’s available for a story, but don’t hold off contacting a reporter if it’s not.
2. Timing Is Everything
It’s important to give reporters as much lead time as possible about an event, hearing or important development in a story.
“Often a press release is after-the-fact,” Pettus said. “It’s much more helpful as a reporter to get a tip beforehand that, ‘Hey, this is a big issue coming up. You might want to go to the Ways and Means Committee or the Education Committee on this day.’”
Reporters also might want to do a “setup piece” to let their audience know an important hearing or vote is coming up. And even if they don’t cover it ahead of time, they need time to research the issue beforehand to ensure the best coverage.
Statehouse reporters are knowledgeable about the session’s big issues, but they are open to learning about new angles and getting a heads-up about potentially important testimony at a hearing. They also want to know if there’s something under the radar they should be paying attention to.
Dennison said reporters who can’t be in the statehouse as much due to COVID have little access to the players who can flag more nuanced developments. While his strong network of sources have kept him informed during two years of remote work, newer reporters are at a disadvantage and would appreciate tips and insights from staffers and lawmakers.
“I had to rely on my sources to tell me what was going on,” Dennison said. “If I hadn’t had the experience, it would have been hard.”
National reporters have different needs, Phillips said.
They track all the states and territories for story ideas, so there’s a lot of ground to cover. She relies on statehouse reporters like Wagster Pettus and Dennison to learn what’s going on but appreciates hearing directly from lawmakers and staff.
“Call us up and tell us, and don’t be afraid to say what the national impact is, because it probably isn’t obvious to us,” Phillips said. “Controversy gets our attention, the business community gets our attention, trends across the states.”
Keep reporters updated, she said. “Follow up to say, ‘This did pass the committee, this is what’s really interesting,’” and reporters may want to weigh in with another story.
Phillips provided a list of several Washington Post reporters and the topics they follow (see box) and suggested that legislative staff get familiar with a reporter’s work before reaching out because it could help shape how to pitch a story.
And when pitching ideas, it helps to know whether a state is part of a national trend or bucking one. NCSL Public Affairs Director Mick Bullock pointed out that the organization’s researchers and resources can help put things in context.
3. Be Clear When It’s Off the Record
The reporters said speaking on background or off the record can be valuable, but they stressed it has to be sorted out before a conversation takes place and clearly defined.
“You need to have the agreement up front,” Wagster Pettus said. “You can’t talk to a reporter for 20 minutes and say it’s off the record. You can’t be invited to give a speech and stand in front of a room full of people and say something and then, ‘Oh that’s off the record.’”
4. Know a Gaggle From a Press Conference
A gaggle is an informal gathering to answer reporters’ questions right after an event, vote or hearing. A press conference is more formal and is accessible to more reporters.
“I’ll take the interviews where I can get them,” Wagster Pettus said. “Sometimes there is a delay when you are calling a press conference. Maybe they’re voting at 2 p.m. and the governor can’t do a press conference until 4. For the people who are there regularly, covering the issue faster is better.”
Kelley Griffin is a reporter in NCSL’s Communications Division.