Editorial writer Jeff Gerritt's best practices
On RESULTS October 13 Global Grassroots call, editorial writer Jeff Gerritt, RESULTS’ 2012 Cameron Duncan Media Awardee, spoke about how activists can work with writers and editorial boards to influence issues of poverty. Jeff has worked with RESULTS Global Detroit group as a columnist and editorial writer at the Detroit Free Press to support issues of global poverty. In the past year and a half, Jeff wrote editorials for the Free Press in support of funding for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria, in support of GAVI and childhood immunization, and even as a supporter for Dr. Jeffrey Sachs for World Bank President. He is now the deputy editor at the Toledo Blade.
Below is an excerpt of the transcript from the call (thanks to our Global Legislative Intern, Monica Salgaonkar!) where RESULTS Global Grassroots Manager, Ken Patterson, talks to Jeff about what tips he would offer grassroots trying to work with the media.
KEN PATTERSON: (to the Grassroots) Jeff has been a major media influence on our global issues on the past years.
(to Jeff) Why did you write on these issues? Any tips [on how to engage editorial writers]?
JEFF GERRITT: …Thank you for recognizing me, not quite sure what I did. At the Free Press, I wrote a lot about urban issues and prison issues (incarceration). Any type of poverty or urban issue was always my specialty. I did that as a reporter for urban affairs, so mostly reporting not commenting like I do now. [Poverty is] just sort of a special interest of mine. I have always been interested in poverty, prison and urban issues. I see it as a platform.
I hear this a lot: “Give voice to people that don’t have a voice.” While I appreciate that as a compliment, you know they have a voice, and an even better one that I have. But, I do have a platform as member of the media to bring these issues out and let people know they exist. There are still people that don’t know! In Detroit we have people living 10 miles outside the city. They are living in a world that is entirely different, the world that exists on the East side of Detroit. I want to bring people to humanize these issues [of poverty], even on local issues. Just to go out and talk to people and humanize, put a human face on these issues and problems so they can look at it in a different way. So, that is what I do.
As far as tips, hooks are important. The biggest tip I could give you is that it is important to cultivate personal relationships, just like in any business, with reporters and editorial writers. Editorial writers have a lot of lee-way on what they write, so focus on them. About 98% of my work was written by me. It is good to work directly with the editorial writers.
Basically there are three classes of issues that might come before you [as a writer], and no matter how well they are presented – it just won’t rise to a level of an editorial. Police saving a cat from a tree (I know that is a really bad example) [falls into the] “could be written about”, and then issues of the mayor resigning because of a sex scandal “absolutely has to be written about.” But, a lot of the editorial and columns are “in between” categories where, they don’t necessarily have to be written about but they can if they are presented right. That is kind of the area you[r issues] are in.
So, you want to cultivate a relationship with an editorial writer. Call them up. Have them know you like Mary [Albertson a Detroit RESULTS Activist] did with me, so [the editorial writer] can trust you and know you. Editorial writers get hundreds of requests to do stuff every week like emails and calls, so you want to be someone that they know, so you are not just another call. You don’t necessarily what to start establishing that relationship when you want something in the paper in the next week or the next day, you want to start doing that early.
Maybe if you don’t even have an issue, you call up and introduce yourself, tell them the kind of work that you do, kind of issues you cover and work on and would you be interested if we could help you bring some of these issues to your attention, that you may be interested in writing about. Maybe even meet the person over coffee. People are very busy and there has been a lot of downsizing in media all over the country, so you have to be respectful of others’ time.
Don’t get impatient! You know if they don’t call you back right away, don’t email you back right away because they have a lot of stuff pulling on them, just be persistent without being too pushy, but get to know that person, get a personal relationship with that person so that when you bring an issue to him or her they will know you and have an interest in doing something for you.
And then, once you do that, you have an issue that you need to make it as easy for them as possible, editorial writers are lazy, our reporters are lazy, they are not but they have a lot of demands on their time and want to cut to the chase very quickly, they want a very abbreviated introduction of what the issue is, it helps to just email some talking points or maybe some past quotes or clip files so that you can forward it to them. That definitely distills the issue and it also lets them know this is an important issue because other media is writing about it. And it helps them do the job quicker, and also be respectful of their deadlines. You know they may put you on hold for a couple days, [until] they get an opportunity to write it and they get to do it right, so return the phone call and just be as helpful as you can.
But, I think the most important thing is to develop those relationships … get to know them so that they know who you are and they are going to pay more attention to you and what you bring to them then maybe somebody else that is just sending an email.
[RESULTS has] a lot of good issues. And, I have got a lot of juice that I can write about and I can write about anything. But, I’d like to continue to write about the [issues of poverty]. And again, I am honored to be recognized, just to be a part of the very excellent work that you all do, making a big difference in the world. So thank you for that.