Switching Sides: From covering stories to pitching them

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In the good old days, landing a job as a full-time outdoors reporter at a big daily newspaper represented a career pinnacle for many outdoors writers. When you got the job, you stuck with it.
And why not?
It was a steady (and usually pretty decent) paycheck, in a good and noble industry, and we got to do plenty of what we loved: write about the outdoors.
These jobs were highly coveted. Relatively speaking there weren’t many of them. And the men and women who had them tended to leave only under two circumstances. They either retired or died.
Bill Cochran did the former in 1998, retiring from The Roanoke Times after nearly 40 years at the paper. To my amazement, I got the job. It was everything I had hoped for, and more. I loved it. For me to leave you were going to have to pry the laptop from my cold, dead fingers.
Or so I thought.
As many of my friends and peers got caught up in layoffs that ravaged the newspaper industry, I held on. But doing so required adaptation, such as writing stories off the outdoors beat, working as a pinch-hitting photographer and even spending at least one night per week in the office managing our high school sports score-taking team.
Even though the job changed, it was still a pretty good job. That said, I was all ears last year when Trout Unlimited’s communications honcho Chris Hunt, whom I’d gotten to know well while working together on OWAA’s board, mentioned that he was going to be looking for a communications person in the East.
In May, not quite 16 years into my tenure at The Roanoke Times, I made the leap.
The past nine months have been fun and exciting. And also a little scary. I had so much time in with the previous gig that I felt comfortably knowledgeable. In fact, I was probably too comfortable.
The new job brings something new and unknown daily. While that can be intimidating, learning is part of the fun. Here are some of the key lessons I’ve picked up on so far:

  • If you are going to transition out of outdoor writing, either voluntarily or involuntarily, public relations is a natural fit because of the similarities between life on both sides of the news fence. The fact that both require good communications skills is an obvious one. Outdoors writers, generally speaking, are friendly press. While covering controversies and tough stories is part of the gig, much of what outdoor writers produce is intended to encourage participation in outdoors activities. You know — stories about good places to hunt or fish, or about hot new trends or techniques. Simply put, outdoor writers already have experience promoting an agenda.
  • It’s a lot easier to do public relations when you are passionate about your employer’s mission. I wouldn’t be having this much fun if I were doing PR for a local car dealership or hospital. Not that those businesses aren’t important. But I’d much rather be out there fighting for trout and salmon and their watersheds. As a bonus, it’s empowering and exciting to be surrounded by others who also are passionate about their jobs and mission, and not slinking around waiting for the Grim Reaper to appear.
  • Be judicious with your pitches. Coming from a reporter background is a huge advantage because you already have a good sense of the kinds of things that reporters are looking for. You must prioritize the pitches that are most important. That said, you will sometimes have to make pitches that you don’t expect to be eagerly embraced. So…
  • Get used to hearing “no.” Generally speaking, most folks I approached when I was a reporter were thrilled to talk. Reporters are slammed, and are getting hit from all directions. They can’t jump on every pitch. Don’t take the rejection personally. Just like working as a reporter, the key is to forge long-term connections.
  • You still get to write and shoot photos. The best part of my reporter gig was writing stories about interesting places, people and trends. I still get to do that. The reality of the current media atmosphere, with all of the new channels for information dissemination, is that public relations is no longer just about pitching stories. It’s about producing content. We’re not only working to get reporters to do stories on our employer’s projects and initiatives, we’re doing those stories, too.
  • You still get to write and shoot photos. Wait? Didn’t I just say that? Yes. But in this case I’m talking about freelancing. Another reality of today’s media world is that newspapers and magazines rely more than ever on non-staffers. If you can carve out the time, freelancing is a good way to visit the other side of the fence from time to time.♦

– Mark Taylor is the eastern communications director for Trout Unlimited, covering a region that spans from Georgia to Maine to the upper Midwest. A past OWAA president, he lives in Roanoke, Virginia, and can be reached at mtaylor@tu.org

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