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Contributors:Christopher Arnold, Tony Cook, Dennis Koyama, Elizabeth Angeli, Joshua M. Paiz.
Summary:

These resources provide an overview of journalistic writing with explanations of the most important and most often used elements of journalism and the Associated Press style. This resource, revised according to The Associated Press Stylebook 2012, offers examples for the general format of AP style. For more information, please consult The Associated Press Stylebook 2012, 47th edition.

Journalism and Journalistic Writing

Introduction

Why is it that mass media outlets feature particular news stories prominently while others receive little, if any, coverage? Although every outlet is different, mass media gatekeepers have traditionally relied on some predictable values to evaluate the newsworthiness of a story. Their decision might impact how the story is covered, including how many resources are spent following the story, and how prominently the story is featured.

In the present era of audience fragmentation, individual audience members increasingly choose what kind of news content they receive, yet traditional news values often still govern how deeply a news story permeates a community. In 1973, Gatlung and Ruge developed one of the first models of news values. Shoemaker et al. followed up in 1987 with a similar model. Both offer a useful framework for understanding how gatekeepers evaluate potential news stories.

Gatlung and Ruge, 1973

Shoemaimker et al., 1987

Conclusion

Every news outlet has a different protocol for selecting which stories to run, but some traditional values often determine the “newsworthiness” of a story. The more of these news values a story satisfies, the more likely you are to see it prominently featured in mass media outlets.

Sources

Campbell, Vincent. Information Age Journalism: Journalism in an International Context. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2006. 117-123.

Fleming, Carole, et al. An Introduction to Journalism. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 2006. 4-26.

Contributors:Christopher Arnold, Tony Cook, Dennis Koyama, Elizabeth Angeli, Joshua M. Paiz.
Summary:

These resources provide an overview of journalistic writing with explanations of the most important and most often used elements of journalism and the Associated Press style. This resource, revised according to The Associated Press Stylebook 2012, offers examples for the general format of AP style. For more information, please consult The Associated Press Stylebook 2012, 47th edition.

Associated Press Style

Introduction

Associated Press style provides guidelines for news writing. Many newspapers, magazines and public relations offices across the United States use AP style. Although some publications such as the New York Times have developed their own style guidelines, a basic knowledge of AP style is considered essential to those who want to work in print journalism.

This Web page is intended to provide an introduction to AP style and a summary of some AP style rules; however, the Associated Press Stylebook includes more than 5,000 entries – far more than can be covered here. For a complete guide to AP style, writers should consult the most recent edition of the Associated Press Stylebook or visit the AP Stylebook website.

Purpose

The content of newspapers and other mass media is typically the result of many different writers and editors working together. AP style provides consistent guidelines for such publications in terms of grammar, spelling, punctuation and language usage. Some guiding principles behind AP style are:

AP style also aims to avoid stereotypes and unintentionally offensive language.

Common Style Guidelines

The Associated Press Stylebook provides an A-Z guide to issues such as capitalization, abbreviation, punctuation, spelling, numerals and many other questions of language usage. What follows are summaries of some of the most common style rules.

abbreviations and acronyms

Some widely known abbreviations are required in certain situations, while others are acceptable but not required in some contexts. For example, Dr., Gov., Lt. Gov., Rep., the Rev. and Sen. are required before a person’s full name when they occur outside a direct quotation. Please note, that medical and political titles only need to be used on first reference when they appear outside of a direct quote. For courtesy titles, use these on second reference or when specifically requested. Other acronyms and abbreviations are acceptable but not required (i.e. FBI, CIA, GOP). The context should govern such decisions.

As a general rule, though, you should avoid what the Associated Press Stylebook calls “alphabet soup.” Consult the Associated Press Stylebook for specific cases.

addresses

For numbered addresses, always use figures. Abbreviate Ave., Blvd., and St. and directional cues when used with a numbered address. Always spell out other words such as alley, drive and road. If the street name or directional cue is used without a numbered address, it should be capitalized and spelled out. If a street name is a number, spell out First through Ninth and use figures for 10th and higher. Here are some examples of correctly formatted addresses: 101 N. Grant St., Northwestern Avenue, South Ninth Street, 102 S. 10th St., 605 Woodside Drive.

ages

For ages, always use figures. If the age is used as an adjective or as a substitute for a noun, then it should be hyphenated. Don’t use apostrophes when describing an age range. Examples: A 21-year-old student. The student is 21 years old. The girl, 8, has a brother, 11. The contest is for 18-year-olds. He is in his 20s.

books, periodicals, reference works, and other types of compositions

Use quotation marks around the titles of books, songs, television shows, computer games, poems, lectures, speeches and works of art. Examples: Author Porter Shreve read from his new book, “When the White House Was Ours.” They sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” before the game.

Do not use quotations around the names of magazine, newspapers, the Bible or books that are catalogues of reference materials. Examples: The Washington Post first reported the story. He reads the Bible every morning.

Do not underline or italicize any of the above.

dates, months, years, days of the week

For dates and years, use figures. Do not use st, nd, rd, or th with dates, and use Arabic figures. Always capitalize months. Spell out the month unless it is used with a date. When used with a date, abbreviate only the following months: Jan., Feb., Aug., Sept., Oct., Nov. and Dec.

Commas are not necessary if only a year and month are given, but commas should be used to set off a year if the date, month and year are given. Use the letter s but not an apostrophe after the figures when expressing decades or centuries. Do, however, use an apostrophe before figures expressing a decade if numerals are left out. Examples: Classes begin Aug. 25. Purdue University was founded May 6, 1869. The semester begins in January. The 1800s. The ’90s.

If you refer to an event that occurred the day prior to when the article will appear, do not use the word yesterday. Instead, use the day of the week. Capitalize days of the week, but do not abbreviate. If an event occurs more than seven days before or after the current date, use the month and a figure.

datelines

Newspapers use datelines when the information for a story is obtained outside the paper’s hometown or general area of service. Datelines appear at the beginning of stories and include the name of the city in all capital letters, usually followed the state or territory in which the city is located. The Associated Press Stylebook lists 30 U.S. cities that do not need to be followed by the name of a state. See states and cities below. Examples:

dimensions

When writing about height, weight or other dimensions, use figures and spell out words such as feet, miles, etc. Examples: She is 5-foot-3. He wrote with a 2-inch pencil.

miles

Use figures for any distances over 10. For any distances below 10, spell out the distance. Examples: My flight covered 1,113 miles. The airport runway is five miles long. 

names

Always use a person’s first and last name the first time they are mentioned in a story. Only use last names on second reference. Do not use courtesy titles such as Mr., Mrs., Miss or Ms. unless they are part of a direct quotation or are needed to differentiate between people who have the same last name.

numerals

Never begin a sentence with a figure, except for sentences that begin with a year. Examples: Two hundred freshmen attended. Five actors took the stage. 1776 was an important year.

Use roman numerals to describe wars and to show sequences for people. Examples: World War II, Pope John Paul II, Elizabeth II.

For ordinal numbers, spell out first through ninth and use figures for 10th and above when describing order in time or location. Examples: second base, 10th in a row. Some ordinal numbers, such as those indicating political or geographic order, should use figures in all cases. Examples: 3rd District Court, 9th ward.

For cardinal numbers, consult individual entries in the Associated Press Stylebook. If no usage is specified, spell out numbers below 10 and use figures for numbers 10 and above. Example: The man had five children and 11 grandchildren.

When referring to money, use numerals. For cents or amounts of $1 million or more, spell the words cents, million, billion, trillion etc. Examples: $26.52, $100,200, $8 million, 6 cents.

punctuation

Use a single space after a period.

Do not use commas before a conjunction in a simple series. Example: In art class, they learned that red, yellow and blue are primary colors. His brothers are Tom, Joe, Frank and Pete. However, a comma should be used before the terminal conjunction in a complex series, if part of that series also contains a conjunction. Example: Purdue University's English Department offers doctoral majors in Literature, Second Language Studies, English Language and Linguistics, and Rhetoric and Composition.

Commas and periods go within quotation marks. Example: “I did nothing wrong,” he said. She said, “Let’s go to the Purdue game.”

states and cities

When the name of a state stands alone in a sentence, spell it out. When the name of a city and state are used together, the name of the state should be abbreviated (except for Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Ohio, Texas and Utah). States should also be abbreviated when used as part of a short-form political affiliation. Examples: He came from Lafayette, Ind. The peace accord was signed in Dayton, Ohio. The wildfire began in California and moved east toward Carson City, Nev.

State abbreviations in AP style differ from the two-letter ZIP code abbreviations. Here is how each state is abbreviated in AP style:

State Abbreviations
Ala. Neb.
Ariz. Nev.
Ark. N.H.
Calif. N.J.
Colo. N.M.
Conn. N.Y.
Del. N.C.
Fla. N.D.
Ga. Okla.
Ill. Ore.
Ind. Pa.
Kan. R.I.
Ky. S.C.
La. S.D.
Md. Tenn.
Mass. Vt.
Mich. Va.
Minn. Wash.
Miss. W.Va.
Mo. Wis.
Mont. Wyo.

AP style does not require the name of a state to accompany the names of the following 30 cities:

Cities Not Requiring State Names
Atlanta Phoenix
Baltimore Pittsburgh
Boston St. Louis
Chicago Salt Lake City
Cincinnati San Antonio
Cleveland San Diego
Dallas San Francisco
Denver Seattle
Detroit Washington
Honolulu
Houston
Indianapolis
Las Vegas
Los Angeles
Miami
Milwaukee
Minneapolis
New Orleans
New York
Oklahoma City
Philadelphia

times

The exact time when an event has occurred or will occur is unnecessary for most stories. Of course, there are occasions when the time of day is important. In such cases, use figures, but spell out noon and midnight. Use a colon to separate hours from minutes, but do not use :00. Examples: 1 p.m., 3:30 a.m.

titles

Generally, capitalize formal titles when they appear before a person’s name, but lowercase titles if they are informal, appear without a person’s name, follow a person’s name or are set off before a name by commas. Also, lowercase adjectives that designate the status of a title. If a title is long, place it after the person’s name, or set it off with commas before the person’s name. Examples: President Bush; President-elect Obama; Sen. Harry Reid; Evan Bayh, a senator from Indiana; the senior senator from Indiana, Dick Lugar; former President George H.W. Bush; Paul Schneider, deputy secretary of homeland security.

technological terms

Here are the correct spelling and capitalization rules for some common technological terms:

Contributors:Christopher Arnold, Tony Cook, Dennis Koyama, Elizabeth Angeli, Joshua M. Paiz.
Summary:

These resources provide an overview of journalistic writing with explanations of the most important and most often used elements of journalism and the Associated Press style. This resource, revised according to The Associated Press Stylebook 2012, offers examples for the general format of AP style. For more information, please consult The Associated Press Stylebook 2012, 47th edition.

Media Ethics

Introduction

The same First Amendment freedoms that allow U.S. media outlets to publish without fear of government interference also make it nearly impossible to impose a standard of ethics or professional protocol for journalists. No organization exists to certify journalists, and likewise, no uniform system exists for penalizing unethical behavior.

Nonetheless, professionals in the field generally take great pride and responsibility in their roles, and organizations such as the Associated Press and the Society of Professional Journalists offer thorough and useful guidelines for ethical conduct.

Generally, ethical concerns in the media can be grouped into a few broad categories. The following points synthesize and summarize some important ethical concerns proposed by the Associated Press and the Society of Professional Journalists.

Accuracy

Treatment of Sources

Avoiding Bias

Avoiding Distortions

Gathering Information

Minimizing Harm

Avoiding Conflicts of Interest

Conclusion

There is no standard for ethical journalistic practice, but two widely regarded organizations, The Associated Press and the Society of Professional Journalists, offer useful and time-tested guidelines. When in doubt, always confer with a trusted colleague or supervisor.

Sources

“The Associated Press Statement of News Values and Principles.” www.ap.org 16 Feb 2006. http://www.ap.org/newsvalues/index.html.

“Society of Professional Journalists: Code of Ethics.” www.spj.org 18 Dec 2008. http://spj.org/ethicscode.asp.

Contributors:Christopher Arnold, Tony Cook, Dennis Koyama, Elizabeth Angeli, Joshua M. Paiz.
Summary:

These resources provide an overview of journalistic writing with explanations of the most important and most often used elements of journalism and the Associated Press style. This resource, revised according to The Associated Press Stylebook 2012, offers examples for the general format of AP style. For more information, please consult The Associated Press Stylebook 2012, 47th edition.

The Inverted Pyramid Structure

Introduction

For decades, the “inverted pyramid” structure has been a mainstay of traditional mass media writing. Following this structure, the “base” of the pyramid—the most fundamental facts—appear at the top of the story, in the lead paragraph. Non-essential information appears in the following paragraphs, or “nut” graphs, in order of importance.

While some media writers are critical of the inverted pyramid structure, it remains one of the most widely used and time tested structures in mass media writing.

What’s Essential?

Essential information generally refers to the oft-cited “Five Ws” of journalism: Who, What, When, Where, and Why. A successful lead paragraph communicates, on a basic level, the essential facts of who did what, when, where, and why.

The “nut” graphs that follow contain additional details, quotes from sources, statistics, background, or other information. These are added to the article in order of importance, so that the least important items are at the bottom.

Origins

The inverted pyramid structure is the product of an old media technology—the telegraph. When news outlets would telegraph information over the wires, it made sense to use the inverted pyramid because the most vital information in the story was transmitted first. In the event of a lost connection, whoever received the story could still print the essential facts.

The inverted pyramid structure also benefits editors. If an editor needs to cut an article, they can simply cut from the bottom. If their reporter was writing in the reliable inverted pyramid structure, the most essential information would remain at the top.

Criticisms

Some in the media critique the inverted pyramid for being artless, and certainly, it is not right for every news story, as it removes a great detail of autonomy from the reporter. Others link inverted pyramid style to the decline in newspaper readership, arguing that, by giving away the ending first, the structure goes against the very fundamentals of narrative. Some scholars have theorized that the inverted pyramid structure might actually be more difficult for readers to understand.

With the emergence of online news writing, the inverted pyramid structure is not as prominent as it once was. In the online format, where editors are no longer bound by column inches, an article’s length is more flexible. Similarly, online journalism is increasingly influenced by the presence of bloggers, who typically eschew traditional news writing structure.

Conclusion

The inverted pyramid structure simply means placing the most fundamental information in the lead paragraph of the story, and then arranging the remaining details, from most important to least important, in the following nut graphs. Although there are critics of the inverted pyramid style, it remains a widely used approach to mass media news writing.

Source

Scanlan, Chip. “Writing from the Top Down: Pros and Cons of the Inverted Pyramid.” www.poynter.org. 18 Dec 2008.

Contributors:Christopher Arnold, Tony Cook, Dennis Koyama, Elizabeth Angeli, Joshua M. Paiz.
Summary:

These resources provide an overview of journalistic writing with explanations of the most important and most often used elements of journalism and the Associated Press style. This resource, revised according to The Associated Press Stylebook 2012, offers examples for the general format of AP style. For more information, please consult The Associated Press Stylebook 2012, 47th edition.

How to Write a Lead

Introduction

The lead, or opening paragraph, is the most important part of a news story. With so many sources of information – newspapers, magazines, TV, radio and the Internet – audiences simply are not willing to read beyond the first paragraph (and even sentence) of a story unless it grabs their interest. A good lead does just that. It gives readers the most important information in a clear, concise and interesting manner. It also establishes the voice and direction of an article.

Tips for Writing a Lead

  1. The Five W’s and H: Before writing a lead, decide which aspect of the story – who, what, when, where, why, how – is most important. You should emphasize those aspects in your lead. Wait to explain less important aspects until the second or third sentence.
  2. Conflict: Good stories have conflict. So do many good leads.
  3. Specificity: Though you are essentially summarizing information in most leads, try to be specific as possible. If your lead is too broad, it won’t be informative or interesting.
  4. Brevity: Readers want to know why the story matters to them and they won’t wait long for the answer. Leads are often one sentence, sometimes two. Generally, they are 25 to 30 words and should rarely be more than 40. This is somewhat arbitrary, but it’s important – especially for young journalists – to learn how to deliver information concisely. See the OWL’s page on concise writing for specific tips. The Paramedic Method is also good for writing concisely.
  5. Active sentences: Strong verbs will make your lead lively and interesting. Passive constructions, on the other hand, can sound dull and leave out important information, such as the person or thing that caused the action. Incomplete reporting is often a source of passive leads.
  6. Audience and context: Take into account what your reader already knows. Remember that in today’s media culture, most readers become aware of breaking news as it happens. If you’re writing for a print publication the next day, your lead should do more than merely regurgitate yesterday’s news.
  7. Honesty: A lead is an implicit promise to your readers. You must be able to deliver what you promise in your lead.

What to Avoid

  1. Flowery language: Many beginning writers make the mistake of overusing adverbs and adjectives in their leads. Concentrate instead on using strong verbs and nouns.
  2. Unnecessary words or phrases: Watch out for unintentional redundancy. For example, 2 p.m. Wednesday afternoon, or very unique. You can’t afford to waste space in a news story, especially in the lead. Avoid clutter and cut right to the heart of the story.
  3. Formulaic leads: Because a lot of news writing is done on deadline, the temptation to write tired leads is strong. Resist it. Readers want information, but they also want to be entertained. Your lead must sound genuine, not merely mechanical.
  4. It: Most editors frown on leads that begin with the word it because it is not precise and disorients the reader.

Types of Leads

Summary lead: This is perhaps the most traditional lead in news writing. It is often used for breaking news. A story about a city council vote might use this “just the facts” approach. Straight news leads tend to provide answers to the most important three or four of the Five W’s and H. Historically this type of lead has been used to convey who, what, when and where. But in today’s fast-paced media atmosphere, a straightforward recitation of who, what, when and where can sound stale by the time a newspaper hits the stands. Some newspapers are adjusting to this reality by posting breaking news online as it happens and filling the print edition with more evaluative and analytical stories focused on why and how. Leads should reflect this.

Anecdotal lead: Sometimes, beginning a story with a quick anecdote can draw in readers. The anecdote must be interesting and must closely illustrate the article’s broader point. If you use this approach, specificity and concrete detail are essential and the broader significance of the anecdote should be explained within the first few sentences following the lead.

Other types of leads: A large number of other approaches exist, and writers should not feel boxed in by formulas. That said, beginning writers can abuse certain kinds of leads. These include leads that begin with a question or direct quotation and those that make a direct appeal using the word you. While such leads might be appropriate in some circumstances, use them sparsely and cautiously.

Examples

Summary lead:

County administrator faces ouster

By Tony Cook for The Cincinnati Post, Jan. 14, 2005

Two Hamilton County Commissioners plan to force the county’s top administrator out of office today.

Commentary: This lead addresses the traditional who, what and when. If this information had been reported on TV or radio the day before, this lead might not be a good one for the print edition of the newspaper; however, if the reporter had an exclusive or posted this information online as soon as it became available, then this lead would make sense. Note that it is brief (15 words) and uses an active sentence construction.

Summary lead:

Lobbyists flout disclosure rules in talks with commissioners

By Tony Cook and Michael Mishak for the Las Vegas Sun, July 13, 2008

On more than 170 occasions this year, lobbyists failed to file disclosure forms when they visited Clark County commissioners, leaving the public in the dark about what issues they were pushing and on whose behalf.

Commentary: This lead is more representative of the less timely, more analytical approach that some newspapers are taking in their print editions. It covers who, what and when, but also why it matters to readers. Again, it uses active verbs, it is specific (170 occasions) and it is brief (35 words).

Anecdotal lead:

Tri-staters tell stories of the devastating tsunami

By Tony Cook for The Cincinnati Post, Jan. 8, 2005

From Dan Ralescu’s sun-warmed beach chair in Thailand, the Indian Ocean began to look, oddly, not so much like waves but bread dough.

Commentary: This article is a local angle on the devastating tsunami that struck Southeast Asia in 2005. As a result of the massive death toll and worldwide impact, most readers would have been inundated with basic information about the tsunami. Given that context, this lead uses an unexpected image to capture the reader’s attention and prepare them for a new take on the tsunami. Again, it is brief (23 words).

Question lead:

Same lobbyist for courts, shorter term, more money

By Tony Cook for the Las Vegas Sun, June 29, 2008

What’s increasing faster than the price of gasoline? Apparently, the cost of court lobbyists.
District and Justice Court Judges want to hire lobbyist Rick Loop for $150,000 to represent the court system in Carson City through the 2009 legislative session. During the past session, Loop’s price tag was $80,000.

Commentary: Question leads can be useful in grabbing attention, but they are rarely as effective as other types of leads in terms of clearly and concisely providing the main point of a story. In this case, the second paragraph must carry a lot of the weight that would normally be handled in the lead.

Contributors:Christopher Arnold, Tony Cook, Dennis Koyama, Elizabeth Angeli, Joshua M. Paiz.
Summary:

These resources provide an overview of journalistic writing with explanations of the most important and most often used elements of journalism and the Associated Press style. This resource, revised according to The Associated Press Stylebook 2012, offers examples for the general format of AP style. For more information, please consult The Associated Press Stylebook 2012, 47th edition.

Writing Press Releases

An Introduction to Press Releases

New and useful information are the key facets for creating effective press releases.  On a daily basis, press releases are used for a number of reasons (e.g., apologizing for a product recall, announcing a new charity, recruiting plaintiffs for a class action lawsuit).  Although press releases are issued every day, there is an expectation that the press release will contain some new information given or valuable information that readers will want to or need to know.

While most companies and people who use press releases feel their information is newsworthy, it may be more useful to consider the target audience (i.e., the reader of the press release) when making a decision on the news worthiness of the press release.  Since the press release will be judge by an editor or director of a given media outlet, it is important to understand that the time and space available for such releases are limited.  This means if the information in the press release is not new or useful—it will not likely be printed or aired—even if the release is well written.  To better assure that your press release is given maximum consideration, you should follow a few basic requirements.

Press releases: Basic requirements

First, you should ask yourself, “Is there serious value in the information I want to disseminate?”  If the answer is “yes!” and you know the information will impact people’s lives, you probably need to craft a press release.  While press releases are not obligatory, if used properly, they can increase the coverage of your information among your target audiences.

Once you have decided that you need a press release, you should draft your release to include information that is easy to comprehend for journalists who will use your material to reach your target audience.

What is “easy to comprehend?” Try answering the five W's and H questions from the complimentary perspectives of the person writing the release and the target audience.

The 5 W and H questions

Who?

From the perspective of the people writing the press release:

Who are the people that want the release?  Is the whole company making the release (e.g., “Vanish Travel Company sponsors annual fund raising marathon”), or is the release from a single division or person (e.g., “The president of Widget Keys announces new company holiday”)?

From the perspective of the target audience:

Who do you want to take action on the release?  Who does your news affect or benefit? In the case of the marathon, it is likely to have all able runners as its target audience.  For the company holiday, the company workers are likely the target audience.  If the holiday is related to a local event or pays respect to people unrelated to Widget Keys, the press release may have a wider target audience outside of Widget Keys.

TIP: Consider that there may be secondary audience members outside of your target audience, but write specifically for your target audience.

What?

From the perspective of the people writing the press release:

What information are you trying to announce? Is the information new? (e.g., “Widget Keys announces keypad malfunction. All platinum home security systems will receive a new panic button to replace faulty button on current models.”)

From the perspective of the target audience:

If the information is technical, you may need graphics to help clearly convey your message.  For example: What qualifies as “platinum home security?” What if there is more than one security pad in a home? What are the signs of a faulty switch?  Clearly, a technical announcement such as this one may require more information than can be clearly conveyed in a short press release.  In these cases, it is best to include contact information for customers to use so they can learn about replacement strategies.

TIP: Always include all forms of possible contact information, such as facsimile and telephone numbers, websites, emails, postal addresses, and other services like bilingual customer support.

Where?

From the perspective of the people writing the press release:

Where is this new information most relevant?  Is the announced information needed in all geographical locations, or is the information mostly useful in confined, specific locations?

From the perspective of the target audience:

Where do I need to be to be affected by the press release?  For example, the target audience of a price increase for services in a specific region of a country will want to know exactly which stores will have the price increase.  Other people will want to know that their prices are not going to change.

TIP: Some situations call for two press releases, one for the areas affected by the announcement and another for areas unaffected by the announcement.

When?

From the perspective of the people writing the press release:

When is the information going to become useful, or when will the information become useless?  Understanding timelines on information is important.  If the information has a start date, (e.g., “Vanish Travel Company sponsors fund raising marathon”) it is necessary to have that date clearly identified on all press releases.  Also, allow for maximum time for preparations. Some releases have time frames, (e.g., “Widget Keys announces complimentary upgrades on home security systems from February 2014 until September 2015.”).

While the “February 2014 until September 2015” seems clear, when are the true start and end dates?  A more precise date will be appreciated by the news outlet and the customer.  For example a more specific time frame is: “February 01, 2014 until September 15, 2015; all dates are according to Eastern Standard time.”

From the perspective of the target audience:

When will I have to act on this information?  Telling the target audience as much information about when something needs to happen is paramount in successful press releases.  There is a huge difference in announcing a marathon’s applications are due in a week’s time, and announcing the marathon will occur in a week’s time.

TIP: Be certain that not only the date is clear but also the action that needs to occur is clear.

Why?

From the perspective of the people writing the press release:

Why is this important news?  What will make the target audience care about our announcement?

From the perspective of the people writing the press release:

Why should the customer care about this press release?  The customer may think, “This another publicity stunt,” or “Is this information truly important?”  Sometimes this is hard to tell, depending on how the press release is read by reporters.  For example, the recall of an automobile for safety reasons is very serious and should be taken seriously by most people without finding a reason for people to care about their own personal safety.  However, it is not always clear why someone should care about a bake sale at a local school.  This is where clarity and focus can help a writer guide the reader to the main point.

TIP: Put the main idea and purpose of the press release in the beginning of the release.

How?

From the perspective of the people writing the press release:

How did this come about?

From the perspective of the target audience:

One of the main uses of press releases is to explain how something occurred.  Sometimes a press release is crafted in a way that places responsibility on a specific person or division of a company.  Other times the release will be designed to show that the fault lies outside of a company, but the company making the release is doing all they can to improve the situation (e.g., a company apologizing for a chemical spill that occurred because of a natural disaster, and not directly because of human error).

TIP: Remember to keep the information relevant to the target audience, and not to use a press release for placing blame or pointing fingers.  News and media outlets will not likely use your release if there is propaganda or self-serving details included in it.

 

Once you have answered the 5 W and 1 H questions, you should begin the rough draft of your press release.  The short answers you have to answer: who, what where, when, why, and how, are useful beginnings that will need to be shaped for maximum effectiveness.  Writing with brevity will catch the eye of editors as being clear and straightforward.  Adding a few sentences for editorial flare might improve the sound of the press release, but it may confuse editors about the tone and voice of the press release.

TIP: Preserve the integrity of your press release by including only the essential and relevant information needed by the target audience.

While this sounds simple, it can be a rather tough choice between necessary information and gratuitous details.  Drafting several copies of a press release is standard operating procedure for most companies.  In fact, many press releases are crafted several months in advance of their release—if you don’t find the right words on the first pass keep drafting and have other people read your release to check it for clarity and brevity.

Press releases can be sent to media outlets well in advance of their release.  These press releases are put under embargo.  This allows media outlets to prepare stories that might help viewers and readers understand the content of a release before they release the information. Sometimes, media outlets will want to raise awareness of its audience by helping them become sensitive to something that will be announced soon.  For example, a news outlet might spend a week broadcasting short vignettes and research reports on the importance of a local river on the ecology of a town because a press release on trash disposal reform is on embargo now but will be announced soon.

TIP: Do not use embargoed press releases.  Media outlets do not usually like to hold onto embargoed releases, unless there is a clear need for it.  Sending an embargoed press release leaves the chance that media outlets will not use it in their news cycle.

Press releases: Know your media 

As mentioned earlier, it is important to stay brief.  Try to write no more than 50 words for your release, and try to make sure each sentence is meaningful.  Make the target audience interested in the information of the release, but also consider the venue of the press release.  For example, you may need to write several press releases depending on the outlet you choose for your press release.  If you use an audio only format for your release, it may not be productive to announce long strings of numbers as may be the case in a product recall.  You may need to consider if you require another version of your release for black and white media as compared to color media.  Knowing how your target audience will receive your information is an important consideration for how you write your press release.  Consider a press release that is made on television.  What if the president of a company will be permitted to read the announcement?  This means the announcement will have to consider pronoun usage.

Here is an example of different pronoun usage:

Non-personal: “Widget Keys continues their efforts to improve home safety for their customers.”
Personal: “At Widget Keys, we continue our efforts to improve home safety for our customers.”

When thinking about the target audience, remember that the diversity of knowledge amongst the target audience requires consideration.  For example, what knowledge do they have about the company?  Is there a need to understand jargon to understand the press release?

TIP: Be sure the language used in your press release describes the relevant topics according to the target audience.  Specialist and engineers may easily comprehend technical graphics included in a press release put in a field specific magazine, but this may not be the case for press releases placed in a local newspaper.

The architecture of press releases: How to structure your information

Basics

1) Title for attention.  Give your press release a relevant and memorable title.  Remember, though, press releases are not advertisements.

Needs improvement: Great deals and charity, too! Over 50% off antique railroad watches at Middle Town Auctions, this weekend only.
Improved:  Time waits for no one. This weekend only, antique railroad watchmaker partners with Middle Town Auction to raise charity for local schools.

While the Needs improvement title for the charity auction does seem somewhat catchy and immediately appeals to the target audience with an announcement of “charity” right from the start, it has some very clear problems.  This press release title has useless information and appears to be more of an advertisement for Middle Town Auctions than an announcement of a charity event.  There are also the claims of “great deals” and “50% off,” which are not predictable at an auction. For example, some auctions sell items that have a minimum bid, and others items will never seem like a “great deal” no matter how reduced the price may be.  Including this sort of information might be important to Middle Town Auction, but it does not belong in the title.

TIP: Put this information kind of information in the “Notes to the editors” section (see point 7, below), not in the title or lead of your press release.

Conversely, the Improved version includes a catchy, relevant title, “Time waits for no one” but immediately shifts to the important information, “this weekend only” and who is selling what and for what reason.  There could be more information, like a time and an address, but remember this is merely the title of the press release.  Using only relevant, and useful information in your title will show media outlets you are considering the target audience’s perspective.

2) Timing of release.  Consider if your release is for immediate release or embargoed?  Always indicate at the top of the release if it is under embargo, or if it is, “Ready for immediate release.”  Be certain to clearly indicate all relevant dates.

3) Contact information.  Be sure to include contact information so a media outlet can contact the appropriate person for clarification or further questions.  The media contact may, or may not, be the same person as the official contact person for the company—always include a media contact address, phone, and email.

Format

4) Presentation. Press releases are easier to read when they are double-spaced.  Using wide margins can help give reports space for taking notes.  In short, consider how you can help facilitate the media’s use of your information.

5) Brevity. Keep paragraphing to a minimum, the longer the draft the less likely the media personnel will want to read your draft.  Always try to get you point across in under a page, more than 2 pages will likely be seen as a news article and not a press release.

6) End your press release.  Be sure to close your press release with the words “Ends” and do so in bold typeface.  After this signal for the ending of your press release, write, “For further information, please contact” and list your contact details or those of person(s) responsible.

7) Extra information.  If you happen to have extra information (e.g., a note indicating that you or your company has recent photos the studio could use if they need visual support), or further elaborations on your main points, put them in a section you label, “Notes to editors.” Be sure, however, to put this extra information AFTER your contact information.

Additional OWL resources you may find useful

Journalism and Journalistic Writing 

Media Ethics 

Creating a Headline, or Writing a Lead Sentence

Clarity in Writing 

Visual Rhetoric: Overview

Editing 

Invention