What (education) stories get published and why

We’re always looking for good story ideas, especially from people on the ground in schools.

Mainstream media coverage is vital if you’re trying to reach the public. So it pays to understand the people who appraise your pitch, writes Will Brodie.

Herald Sun education journalist Susie O’Brien is keen to hear from you.

“We’re always looking for good story ideas, especially from people on the ground in schools. We’re often operating one level removed so we’ll always consider interesting ideas.”

She’s most excited by the “amazing, interesting or different things” people are doing in schools. O’Brien receives about 40 pitch emails a day, mostly from public relations firms. Occasionally one becomes a story. The Herald Sun runs one to three education stories most days.

O’Brien says many people are scared of the media, in part due to the era of ‘clickbait’ journalism, when sensationalism triumphed in the battle for eyeballs as news went online and business models changed dramatically.

“People think reporters are going to trick them, they’re worried about ‘gotcha’ journalism, or that their words will be twisted to something they didn’t mean,” she said. “But we’re in this for the long haul and we take a lot of pride in our work.”

That means O’Brien and her colleagues offer sources the chance to read what they’ve written before it gets published, so they know how their words will appear in print or online. Sources can remain anonymous if that helps. She doesn’t want to ‘burn’ a source who might provide stories inthe future.

Gripping stories

Adam Carey, O’Brien’s counterpart at The Age, is looking for stories “that will grip a broad range of general readers”.

“I’m fortunate to cover education because it’s a field that leaves plenty of scope for that,” Carey said.

“It could be about a political or policy change with implications for the school sector, or a research report with new and interesting findings.

“It could be a human-interest story about something that is going on inside one school or with one student. But whatever it is, my hope is always that the story will resonate with a wide audience.

“When deciding whether or not to run with a story I make that judgement call: Why does this matter, who does it matter to and why should this story be told?”

Carey says a lot of story pitches he receives are “essentially promotional in nature”. Look away, software companies and book authors: your emails are destined for Carey’s trash folder, “even if they are sometimes promoting something that is worthy — worthiness doesn’t equal newsworthiness.”

If your story is newsworthy, Carey hopes you’re willing to put your name to it. “I’m not keen to fill my stories with anonymous quotes as I generally don’t think they serve the reader well and it’s also not good for credibility,” he said.

He adds that reporters face a “pretty relentless pace” nowadays.

Striving for fairness

“Negotiating a comment or response with a short turnaround time often has its challenges,” Carey said. “So does balancing sensitive material with a short deadline. I always strive to be fair and accurate, but this is not the same thing as ensuring that everybody is happy with what the story says. It’s not the role of a journalist to be liked by everyone.”

Like O’Brien, Carey is most excited by a good human interest story.

“One of my favourites that I had the privilege of writing as education editor was the story of an Afghan refugee who was dux of his high school,” he said.

“Others are less ‘feel good’ but still resonate, such as a recent story about a family with two children with high-level autism, one of whom is no longer eligible to attend special school because her IQ has improved, even though she remains severely autistic.”

The Australian Financial Review’s (AFR) Education Editor, Julie Hare, is excited by stories that are “completely original and have a human component”.

“Stories that are unexpected and have a larger context or meaning – I love writing features that allow me space to explore issues in depth.”

Hare says anyone pitching a story to her must understand her audience. The stories she runs in the AFR are “quite different” to those she used to publish when she was higher education editor at The Australian, “because that was speaking much more to a higher-ed specific audience”.

Publishing tips

“The AFR audience are business people and education is not their primary interest,” Hare said. “Private schools trump public schools in terms of stories.” The AFR is also interested in the “parents’ perspective” on education.

Hare’s hints to get published?

“If the story is really strong, having an exclusive matters,” she said.

“Make sure the talent is fully briefed and will talk authentically in an interview. Embargoes and advance notice help – we are meant to list our stories the evening of the day before it is written which is the day before it gets published.”

And the no-nos? “PRs who send an email then ring me up 20 minutes later to see if I have it,” she said. “The point is the story needs to have value to our readers. I am bored with the whole edTech/new app thing.

“Oh, then there are the PRs who put out press releases and don’t have their talent lined up for interview. That’s annoying.

“Also being oversold stories – that when I dig deeper, it’s really just a sales pitch for something. Pitching a yarn and then wanting emailed questions. Pitching yarns in the afternoon – even late afternoon – and expecting a response.”

Hare says journalism is “volatile and unpredictable”, and tough choices are made because of time limitations.

“That means that sometimes really good stories get overlooked because we are already committed.”

Understand your audience

The Climate Media Centre exists to connect journalists with people whose stories “localise and personalise climate change impacts and solutions for Australians”.

Director Jolee Wakefield also stresses the importance of understanding the audience of the media outlet you are approaching.

“While there are many important issues out there, most often when you are speaking to the public they aren’t highly engaged or necessarily interested in the issue that’s dear to your heart.

You should always think about the audience you are trying to speak to (through the media outlet) and what they value and are already interested in and aim to pique their interest that way.” Wakefield says all journalists hate:

  • being approached on deadline
  • being pitched something generic
  • being pitched to by someone who clearly doesn’t watch or listen to or read their coverage
  • waffle.

So, read, watch, and listen to your target’s recent output. Be succinct. If they’re interested, they’ll seek further information.

Wakefield says good visuals can help you jump the media queue. This includes photographs, video footage, or graphs. It is also critical to use personal stories, as “people always bring issues alive”.

She also has news for those out to change the world via Instagram or other social media platforms.

“In 2021, about a quarter of people used social media ‘primarily for news’ – so that means three in four people still turn to traditional media,” she said.

“It’s also important to note that mainstream media coverage (that is, news stories) are often shared by people on social media.

“So it’s not just a matter of where people are seeing news items, but also where those news items are originally generated.”