We occasionally receive letters to the editor from people insisting their every syllable be preserved intact. Occasionally — but only occasionally — we are able to do that. But more often, a tweak here or a correction there is required to make submissions adhere to our local style or word limits.
In fact, a lot comes over the transom in a typical day, not just letters to the editor. Only some items make it into publication, and almost none of it is reproduced verbatim. For although we're hardly a staff rife with Hemingways, we try to adhere to standards of consistency and brevity.
In other words, we’re used to rewriting almost every column inch of submitted material.
Although we’re happy to do so, frankly, it can be frustrating translating a press release written in all caps or laced with exclamation marks and modifiers. Maybe you’re in charge of your social club’s publicity or maybe you run a professional PR company. Whatever the case, if you submit material to us for consideration on a regular basis, you would be well-served to learn a bit of journalistic style and understand what sort of news we consider suitable for publication.
Steve Vittorioso of Ragan.com recently wrote an article describing the most frequent violations of Associated Press style, which The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette adhere to with a few exceptions. With his article providing some fodder to get me started, here are 11 tips for submitting news releases to us:
1. Don’t expect free advertising. We do business news. But the newsroom covers area businesses to enhance readers’ understanding of local industries and the local economy, not to inform their purchasing decisions. That is the dominion of advertising, which must be paid for. We tend to be a bit more deferential in accepting submissions from nonprofit and civic organizations, but they don’t have carte blanche, either. We don’t typically do stories on “this is a good cause,” or “our volunteers work hard.” An upcoming event, a demonstrable increase in demand for your services — that’s news. The upshot: Your zeal for a business or a cause does not always equal newsworthiness, so be realistic in your expectations. And don't take it personally — when we pass on something because we don't think it's particularly newsworthy, it does not mean we do not think the enterprise is unworthy in general.
2. Submit early; include photos. The previous paragraph notwithstanding, we genuinely appreciate tips on noteworthy developments. Though we have to draw a line sometimes, our general inclination is to find a way, by hook or crook, to let readers know your news if we think a substantial number of them will be interested. It might be with a story; it might be with a brief, a calendar listing, a stand-alone photo from an event we cannot send a reporter to. It might be a photo you shoot yourself and submit for our “Your Photos, Your Life” galleries. (Make sure to identify everyone depicted if you submit a photo.) When notifying us of events you think might be coverage-worthy, get the information to us at least two weeks ahead of time, but no more than about a month ahead of time. We need enough time to plan, but not enough to forget.
3. Email, followed by a phone call, is usually best. You can fax information to us at 843-706-3070, or drop it off at or mail it to our offices on Buck Island Road in Bluffton or Boundary Street in Beaufort. I’ve more or less stopped taking pitches over the phone, however. I don’t intend to be rude, but I know the information you pass along to me is going to have to be translated — and perhaps lost therein — to a reporter who is assigned to handle the information you’re submitting. It is far better to email us at email@example.com AND firstname.lastname@example.org. Many people monitor the latter account and are almost certain to see it quickly. This allows us to send complete information to the reporter or department that will deal with it. We won’t always confirm receipt, so if you’re concerned we didn’t receive something you sent, call us at 843-706-8100. And when emailing news releases, it’s fine to send them as attachments, but we prefer Word or text documents to PDFs because they are editable. It’s a good idea to copy and paste the contents of attachments into the body of the email, as well.
4. Abandon your love of capital letters. Capitalize formal titles only when they precede an individual's name, and do not capitalize job descriptions. As part of our local interpretation of this Associated Press style directive, we upper-case the honorific titles afforded military and law enforcement ranks, as well as judicial and elected officials. Thus, it is “County Council member Paul Sommerville” (who is elected,) but “county administrator Gary Kubic” (who is not.) And were Sommerville’s title to follow his name instead of precede it, it would be “Paul Sommerville, county councilman.”
5. But really, titles don’t impress us all that much. Doctors, in our world, hold licenses to give medical treatment to people or animals. Others might hold a doctorate degree, but if it’s for studies in the economic proclivities of 15th-century Russian blacksmiths, “Dr.” will not be appearing in front of your name in our publication. As such, there is need to put it in your news release.
6. We’re old-school when it comes to state abbreviations. It’s not you; it’s us. AP doesn't follow/allow standard ZIP code abbreviations — MA for Massachusetts, for example. It’s “Mass.” And South Carolina isn’t “SC;” it’s “S.C.” (Errr ... except in headlines, where AP has determined periods should not appear. Or when reporting an actual mailing address, when the actual postal abbreviations are acceptable. Sigh. Don’t ask us why. This is one area where we don’t make the rules; we just follow ’em.)
7. Numbers — get them right. Write out numbers one through nine; use figures for 10 and higher, until you get to a million, at which point you combine the two, as in “5 million.” This sentence might help you understand: “Barack Obama purchased three apples, six pears, and 12 mangoes; Grover Norquist believes he overpaid for them by $3 trillion.” For percentages, use numerals with “percent,” not “%.”
8. Scrap the adjectives. Modifiers are a sign of weakness to journalists. Verbs and nouns are the foundation of strong copy. Adjectives (and adverbs) will typically be received as puffery. Use them sparingly if at all.
9. "That" and "which" are not interchangeable. AP says to use “that” and “which” in referring to inanimate objects or animals without names. “That” should be matched with essential clauses important to the sentence’s meaning: “I remember the day that we met.” (Bonus tip: Actually, “that” is almost always superfluous. The preceding sentence would be as clearly understood if it were written “I remember the day we met.”) Use “which” for nonessential clauses, and set them off with commas: “The team, which wears pink jerseys, begins its new season next month.”
10. Remember street-address abbreviation rules. “Street,” “avenue” and “boulevard” are abbreviated only when part of a numbered address. When they are not, they are spelled out. “Road” and other related causeways, such as “court,” “drive,” “lane” and “way” are never abbreviated. Examples: 123 Public Relations Blvd., 12 Brady St., 26 Media Road, Mathews Drive, Boundary Street.
11. Remember to include time, date and place — in that order — in your news release, along with contact information for the public . Also, include information about who we should contact if we have a question about your submission and be very clear if that contact information is different from the one you want us to provide to the public. If you don't, we'll assume anything you submit is for public consumption.