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Writing for 1A: For staffers

BY MARK FREEMAN
One of the truisms of the newspaper world is that there’s no such thing as a city editor who is not desperate. He or she would trade one of their kids’ kidneys for a decent story package during a slow news cycle, and this is something that can as easily be dreaded by staffers as exploited.
Outdoor writers can find desperate city editors as easy pickings to help get them occasionally out of the sports pages and onto the front page. Sure, it might mean working out of your comfort zone, but it puts you in front of a wider audience while perhaps even helping save your job.
Outdoor writers’ futures in newspapers likely will come down to how prolific, how well read and how effectively your pieces are sprinkled throughout the entire newspaper, including Page 1A.
Staffers relegated to the sports desk can parachute onto the front pages on occasions, and here’s a blueprint for doing so.
First, timing is everything. We know that what ends up on 1A aren’t always the best stories of the year — just the best stories of that day. So focus on those news dead zones like the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day and the last two weeks of August to pitch your packages to editors during their most desperate times. Weekend and Monday packages are also well received. Even editors who scoff at outdoor stuff most of the year will be far more prone to give you that 1A splash than ever during those desperate times.
Now, think format. For weekend packages, a story and a photo are a must. But be ready to add sidebars, fact boxes and locator maps to fill it out. Chances are slim that your photos will pass 1A muster, so plan on working with a staff photographer. Also, figure on working out a week ahead so paginators can really wallow in your package to make it look best.
And blood shots won’t work.
But none of that matters if you don’t have good material.
Stories about invasive species verses native species, trend stories, or unusual animal and plant stories are all topics that will get a city editor’s interest.
Brett Prettyman hit 1A of the Salt Lake Tribune with a mule deer population-trend and predation story built around a day capturing and collaring deer. My stories about a wandering wolf looking for love in all the wrong places netted me 1A in my paper three times in three weeks.
These aren’t Me-and-Joe pieces. They’re not hook and bullet, but rather focus on flora, fauna and human interaction with them. That is what expands your readership because your regular readers will find the story and all those who don’t thumb through the Sports section will give you a shot you never got from them before.
But you don’t have to think big to crack 1A.
Smaller stories that can be packaged with breaking news are dynamite ways to prove your worth in your newsroom.
Rich Landers of The (Spokane) Spokesman-Review has taken this to an art form. Kids die in a kayaking accident and he writes a sidebar talking to experts about how to avoid these tragedies. He’s even landed on 1A with a picture and short story about a goofy-looking kid catching a big fish in town.
Last June my city editor told me a staff photographer got a picture of a black-tailed deer that gave birth to three fawns in front of the window to a hospital birthing center’s lobby. She asked if three fawns at once is rare? No. Is it unique? No. Is it news, somehow? Not really.
But I know a sappy story and photo of three fawns getting “oohed” and “aahed” by doctors and nurses is a slam-dunk 1A-er. A true “Hey, Martha” story that gets people reading and talking.
It not only led my paper that next day, it ran across the country and cracked some papers in Europe as well. EIC-worthy? Of course not. Happy editors? Definitely.
The bottom line is that 1A is fertile ground to expand your readership within your newspaper, get your stuff in front of more noses and show your editors that you know how to maximize your worth to readers.
And the next time the bean-counters come reckoning in the newsroom, all that makes it harder to cut outdoors coverage or the outdoors guy. ◊
A member since 1993, Mark Freeman was recently elected as OWAA’s second vice president. Freeman is a staff writer and columnist for the (Medford) Mail Tribune. He is also an adjunct profession of journalism at Southern Oregon University. Contact him at mfreeman@mailtribune.com

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