You don’t have to be a reporter or writer in a major metropolitan city like Chicago to experience an exhilarating news conference. Even officials from small towns and medium-size companies who call press conferences are known to create sensations “simply” by stepping behind a podium. People call press conferences because they think they have something important to say. This may be true, but keep an open mind to the possibilities. After all, press conferences are designed to afford two-way communication, so the story you have been “called” to write may be very different from the one you submit and the one that is eventually disseminated to your audience.
Do your due diligence before the press conference. Talk to people in the know to find out, even off the record, what will be announced at the press conference so you can do your homework, fill in pertinent facts and ask intelligent follow-up questions at the press conference. The better prepared you are, the better your story will likely be.
Prepare questions beforehand in anticipation of a question and answer session, which usually follows the prepared statement at a news conference. These questions may or may not be germane to the purpose of the press conference. As most questions are considered fair game at press conferences, you may end up writing a story very different from the one you intended, especially if your observation skills are in high gear.
Organize your material from the press conference in a logical, coherent fashion. Decide which is the most important piece of news to come from the press conference; do not organize your notes in the chronological order in which they were addressed. In doing so, you are structuring your story based on the inverted pyramid -- a journalistic writing style that places information in descending order of importance.
Write a descriptive, insightful introduction to your story. In journalism, this introduction can be as many as three paragraphs. It is known as the “lead” because it literally leads the story. It should answer the six key journalistic questions, known as the “5 W’s and 1 H”: who, what, where, when, why and how (though not necessarily in this order): “Quelling months of rumors to the contrary, Naperville Mayor Joseph Cunningham announced his bid for re-election on the steps of City Hall on Tuesday, saying that he is 'deeply committed' to bringing harmony to strained relations between the city’s police and fire departments.”
Develop the main idea in greater detail, providing (in this case) pertinent information about the current state of affairs in the police and fire departments and the mayor’s record in office. Begin thinking about other people to interview for their response to this announcement. In this case, a “reaction quote” from the police and fire chiefs would be wholly appropriate, if not expected.
Quote people carefully and in context, for your credibility depends on this ability. Let’s say, for example, that you ask, “Don’t you think it’s time that the city devised a system to deter cops and firefighters from padding their overtime hours?” If the mayor replies, “Maybe,” it would be inaccurate to quote him as saying, “It’s time that the city devised a system to deter cops and firefighters from padding their overtime hours.” The mayor did not say this; you did. His direct quote was simply, “Maybe.” Though wordier, you must write: “When asked if it might be time for the city to devise a system so that police and fire personnel would not pad their overtime hours, the mayor replied, ‘Maybe.’”
Consider using bullet points to communicate other news from the press conference. You might write, for example: “After addressing the challenges of his re-election bid, Cunningham shed some light on a number of vexing city issues, including:”
Strategically position yourself at the news conference. You don’t want to be situated so far from the source that the newsmaker will not see your hand raised during a question and answer session. But you also want the ability to survey the room, see the people in it and be able to hear everyone.
Listen carefully, and take copious and accurate notes. Bring a tape recorder, if you are so inclined, but be ready to make the time to transcribe the tape. Still, you can be prudent; some writers use a tape recorder merely as a way to double-check important quotes.
Listen carefully to others' questions, and be prepared to ask follow-up questions. Newsworthy stories often arise out of good follow-up questions that originated from another curious soul.
Make sure you get a straight answer to your questions. If you don’t, be prepared to repeat your question politely.
Be prepared to write a sidebar -- a shorter piece to accompany your news conference story. Packaged along with the main story, sidebars are effective because they can allow you to amplify on another topic from the news conference without steering your main story off-track.
- “News Reporting and Writing”; The Missouri Group; 1988.
- “The New St. Martin’s Handbook”; Andrea Lunsford and Robert Connors; 1999.
- “The Little, Brown Handbook”; H. Ramsey Fowler, Jane E. Aaron and Kay Limburg; 1992.
- Jupiterimages/Goodshoot/Getty Images