Five Things To Stop Putting In Your Press Releases

Press releases are one of those not-dead-yet tools that lazy PR professionals still insist on sending out to hundreds and thousands of journalists and bloggers. I still get press releases for movie releases taking place in L.A., inviting me to attend the red carpet rollout of some indie movie. Clearly they’re not culling their lists.

When I did crisis communication, we got a real sense of pride if one of our releases was published verbatim, or nearly so, by our state newspapers. That’s how we knew the real journalists were taking us seriously. That, and our success rate (it was an outstanding day if you could bat .500 on story placement). To do it, we needed solid, tight news stories, not a marketing puff piece.

Many releases I see are just abysmal. I don’t know if the agencies are teaching young flaks the wrong way, or if they’re teaching it in college, but there are some serious errors that are keeping your stories from getting published at all. Here are five things you need to stop putting in your press releases.

1. Marketing copy, especially in the opening paragraph

“ABC Coffee Stirrers, the leader in the coffee stirring industry since 1978 and the developer of the Turbo-Whoosh titanium stirrer, is pleased to announce the acquisition of Global Stirrings, a Canadian coffee stirrer manufacturer.”

Do you see all that dreck? All that extra crap about ABC’s history? That’s amateur hour. That stuff goes at the end of the press release in the <H2>About ABC Coffee Stirrers</H2> section. You know, the part nobody reads. It’s going to get cut out anyway, because journalists like real openings, not a copy-and-paste of your About Us page. When you write that, you sound like a flak, not a journalist, and the editor may pitch the release out of spite and loathing.

2. Adverbs, adjectives, and competitive language

“ABC Coffee Stirrers have proved to be 33% more effective at mixing a coffee drinker’s cream and sugar into their beloved morning java. And customers have eagerly demonstrated their strong preference for the Turbo-Whoosh by increasing sales by a staggering 12% every year for the last five years!”

Newspapers and TV stations are supposed to present the news in an unbiased, objective manner. That means they don’t get to express their opinion. They don’t get to say whether something is good or bad. They typically don’t talk about products, unless those products killed someone.

That means they’re not going to talk about how much better your product is than anyone else’s. They’re not going to publish the “news” written by your product manager. And they’re not going to talk about increased sales, customer preference, or improved performance.

You may get that kind of coverage in trade and industry journals, but you still need to avoid the adverbs and adjectives. If your press release sounds like a freshman English Comp essay, pitch it and start over.

3. Copyright and Trademark symbols

The company lawyer may have told you to put them in the release, but the ®, ©, and ™ symbols don’t belong in press releases for two simple reasons:

  1. They could interfere with SEO. While we can’t be sure how Google treats these, why risk it? Maybe they ignore those symbols, but maybe they treat it like a regular word. No one is going to search for ABC™ Coffee Stirrers®, so don’t make that a search term.
  2. Those don’t appear in news stories. The editors are going to delete them anyway, so don’t make extra work for them or you.

Unless the company lawyer also has a background as a journalist, ignore anything they tell you about writing press releases.

3. “We’re very excited” quotes

“We’re very excited about the merger between our companies.”

“We’re very excited about our laptop upgrades.

You can’t be equally excited about both things. Saying “we’re very excited” about every damn thing that happens is either lazy writing, or your CEO is off her meds. Find another way to express interest or enthusiasm. Better yet, don’t even bring it up at all. We all know you didn’t interview the CEO for this, and if you did, she probably didn’t say this at all.

Talk about the benefits of the news item. Is the merger going to add jobs? That’s your lead quote. Is it going to improve profitability by $10 million? Then that is. No one cares who’s excited; that’s not news. The jobs and profitability are exciting. Only include things that drive the story.

4. Business jargon quotes

“This new relationship will help us streamline mission-critical functionalities as a way to regenerate impactful niches.”

No one talks that way in real life. If they do, make sure they aren’t having a stroke.

But even if they do, preserve their reputation and avoid marketing words altogether. Make them sound like a real human being since, not a marketing textbook.

(Note: It’s easy to confuse marketers with real human beings, but do your best. Give them the benefit of the doubt, and translate their marketing gobbledygook into real words.)

If you don’t have good quotes, the journalist will either email you or call you for a follow-up quote that uses real words. Save them the time and give them a quote that sounds realistic and not one made up by the Dack.com Bullshit Generator (which is what I used to write that sentence above).

A press release is supposed to sound like a real news story written by a real journalist. Most PR flaks don’t know what that looks like, so they keep putting out the same garbage week after week. Then they complain that their stories aren’t being published and that their clients aren’t getting any traction. Start writing real journalistic stories and send out only newsworthy items. You’ll see your success rate — and self-respect — increase.

Social Media Stars Killed Social Media

The days of the social media rockstar are drawing to a close.

We’re starting to see the end of social media as a standalone, magical mysterious thing that we do — something every startup embraced, every small business resisted, and every corporation fled from in fear — and we’re seeing acceptance, and even love, from those who previously spurned it.

Amber Naslund’s recent post, The Begrudging Death of the Social Media Superstar, plus a recent Jay Baer podcast episode with Dorie Clark, has got me to thinking that the end is in sight.

Social media will no longer be a viable standalone career path.

In the last six years, I’ve seen positions like Director of Social Media Marketing, Online Community Manager, and even VP of Social Media created to take advantage of this growing communication phenomenon. (I will not dignify positions like Social Media Wizard/Ninja/Guru with any response greater than a sneer.)

But I think we’re going to see those positions pulled into their respective departments, and they’ll become part of the general rabble.

Everyone in marketing and PR is going to be expected to be good at social media, much in the same way you need to stop listing “Proficient at Microsoft Word and Internet Explorer” on your résumé.

History Is Repeating Itself

Olivetti Typewriters - these things went away when computers became widely adopted.It’s always interesting to see what happens to an entrenched communication channel or business method when a new upstart shows up.

Newspaper people panicked when radio showed up, and the radio folks were the stars of the day. Radio panicked when TV showed up, and the TV people were the stars of the day.

Newspapers, radio, and TV all laughed and laughed when the Internet showed up. Then they ran around, screaming like they were on fire when the Internet started playing songs, streaming TV, and posting classified ads.

In the business world:

  • people turned up their noses at computers in the 1980s, but now we no longer have typists, because everyone does their own typing.
  • The postal service got worried when telexes showed up. . .
  • . . . and those people freaked when fax machines showed up.
  • Fax manufacturers peed themselves when email became the main method of communication.

Every step along the way, the new people were the stars, until everyone calmed down, and they were absorbed into the general landscape.

That’s happening with social media.

The social media people have been rockstars, writing books in a whirlwind of publishing activity, speaking and attending conferences. The ones who were doing it first are now considered the godfathers and grand dames of the industry, and the upstarts aren’t finding any real room to shine. There are no unexplored frontiers.

It won’t happen right away. There are still plenty of companies that aren’t doing social media. Hell, depending on which stats you see, anywhere from 40 – 60% of companies don’t even have a website. That means there are still plenty of people who aren’t adopting the Internet, let alone all the cool stuff it can do.

But when PR and marketing agencies are folding social media into their day-to-day offerings, and not a special add-on, you know things are settling down.

Social Media Experts Were Too Good At Their Job

That’s because, thanks to the social media evangelists who preached the gospel of engagement and relationships, everyone started doing it. And we all got good at it.

Eventually the executives who made the decision to create social media departments are going to start wondering, “Even my kids are doing this now, what makes these people so special? Why do they get the rockstar treatment?”

And the decision will be made to fold social media back into the regular marketing department. Or PR. Customer Service. Sales. R&D.

This is good news for people who are already good at marketing, PR, customer service, sales, and R&D.

But if you’re not good at it, you’re going to have a problem.

If you were only good at using the tools — you were “good at Twitter,” “good at Facebook” — you’re going to have a hard time fitting into your new role. If you thought that social media was all about using the tools, you’re in for a shock.

You need to get good at something else too. You need to get better at the departments and functions you were supporting.

You’re going to have to redefine yourself as a content marketer, a marketing strategist, a PR practitioner, a customer service professional. Social media is only going to be a part of what you do, not the actual thing you do.

Just like writers don’t have to be “proficient at Microsoft Word,” being “good at social media” will not be enough.

Photo credit: eat more toast (Flickr, Creative Commons)

Four Journalism Techniques To Incorporate Into Your Blog Writing

If you want to be a successful blogger, you need to write like a journalist. In writing style — short words, short sentences, short paragraphs — as well as story flow — important information first, next important, third important, and so on.

But there are a few other journalism techniques you need for your blog if you want it to flow easily, and attract readers’ attention.

My first training as a writer was actually in journalism. It started with my Journalism 101 class at Ball State University, and then being a columnist and reporter for the Ball State Daily News. Since then

Stack of newspapers(For historic reference, this was back in 1987, when they were still printing out, waxing, and pasting up all the pages of the paper. This method of newspaper layout is also where the terms “cut and paste” came from.)

I’ve also been a newspaper humor columnist for over 18 years, and was a freelance newspaper reporter for a time. So everything I do is with a journalist’s eye — a jaundiced, bloodshot, narrowed-suspiciously eye. (I keep it in a desk drawer at my office.)

There were four important journalism lessons I learned from those early days of my writing career, which I still use in blogging today.

1. Your Lede Should Contain Everything We Need to Know

First, yes, it’s “lede” (pronounced “leed.”) It’s spelled that way so it’s not confused with “lead” (led), which is what the movable type was made from back in the early, early days of newspapers. Some newspaper reporters will call the opening paragraph the “lead,” but they don’t have a flair for historical drama.

Your lede needs to contain the who, what, where, when, why, and how of the story. We should be able to read that and understand everything we need to know about your blog post. Some of it may be implied, some of it may be understood, but most of it should just be put right out there.

Take a look at my opening lede:

If you (who) want to be (when = in the future) a successful (why) blogger (what = blogger and where = on your blog), you need to write like a journalist (how). In writing style (as well as story flow — important information first, next important, third important, and so on (more what and how).

2. Refer To a Person By Their Whole Name First, and Their Last Name Thereafter

If you mention a person in your blog post, mention them by their whole name, give their title or reason for inclusion the first time. Every time you refer to them thereafter, use their last name only. The presumption is, if the reader needs to know who you’re referring to, they can always scroll back up the story to find their first mention. We do this for men and women alike. The New York Times has their own style of referring to people as “Mr. Deckers” or “Ms. Carter,” but the rest of the journalistic world just uses last names only.

3. Write for Coma Patients

As my Journalism 101 professor, Mark Popovich, explained it: “Imagine your reader came out of a two-year coma this morning and has no idea what’s going on. So they open a newspaper to your story, and this is the first they’re hearing about any of this.”

This means you have to explain some issues, or at least refer back to them. You can’t assume that everyone knows what you’re talking about. You have to assume they’re coming to the issue for the first time in their lives, even if you’ve written about this topic for five years.

And while we’re on the subject, please never use “Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you already know about” or “Unless you’ve been in a coma, you’ve already heard about” as your lede. It’s stupid, and actually a little offensive. I saw that lede in a blog post about some advanced piece on affiliate marketing, and I still had no idea what the guy was talking about even after he was done.

This hypothetical coma patient is why newspaper stories have all the background information at the end of a story, even if it’s a long running story that “everyone knows about.” They explain the details we learned about in the early days of the issue, just in case someone is not up to speed.

For bloggers, that means link to your past posts about your topic, so our coma patient can go back to that story to catch up. (e.g. “I previously discussed the eight writer archetypes back in March.”)

(It also helps if you have the link open up in a new tab, rather than letting them leave the current page.)

4. Spell Out ALL Jargon The First Time In Every Blog Post

I don’t care if you’re THE leading expert in the industry, and you happen to know that every reader who comes across your blog knows exactly who you are and what you’re talking about. You always spell out abbreviations, acronyms, and jargon terms.

ALWAYS!

Because one day, someone who is not in your industry is going to stumble upon your blog, have no idea what you’re talking about, and they’re going to leave.

It could be our coma patient, or it could be the person who was newly-promoted to the position where they need to give a big fat check to someone with your expertise, but it’s not going to be you, because they have no idea what you do.

If you can make your beginning reader feel smart, without talking down to your advanced reader — and that’s a difficult balance to strike sometimes — you’ll be the person that everyone turns to, rather than just reaching a slice of your potential audience.

Most of our reading habits and reading styles have been shaped and influenced by newspapers. The Boomers and Generation Xers got there by reading actual newspapers. And because that writing style continues on, the Gen Yers are reading the same kinds of news stories online, and being similarly influenced.

Writing and reading styles are still changing as we gather more content online. We skim to read now, rather than reading entire blocks of text.

But one thing will remain the same: journalistic writing is effective for information gathering, because it gives people the most amount of information in the shortest amount of time.

As more people skim to read, if you can write like a journalist, you’ll get more information into their brains

Photo credit: NS Newsflash (Flickr, Creative Commons)

Maybe Social Media Marketing SHOULD Replace Traditional Marketing

Whenever I give a talk on social media marketing, I always point out, “we don’t actually recommend that you replace traditional marketing with social media. Rather, it should be another tool in your marketing toolbox.”

Why? Why can’t social media marketing replace traditional marketing? In a lot of cases, the traditional marketing has outlived its usefulness, and is just a waste of money. Not every time for every marketer. But many marketers are spending money on something that’s not working anymore.Toolbox

I can think of five reasons why you should replace traditional marketing with social media or content marketing.

1. You Aren’t Getting a Positive ROI

You ned to spend money to make money. But you need to make more than you spend, in order to make it worthwhile. You can’t just throw money away on a marketing channel and call it “branding.”

Because unless you’re Nike, you don’t have branding-level money, you have “this had better f—ing work” money. So spend the money in a place where you know you’re going to make more money than you spend.

One client stopped spending $60,000 per year on trade show marketing because they weren’t getting anything out of it.

“We’ve measured it, and we don’t make any money on the shows,” they told me. “We just go because we’ve always gone.”

The company switched that entire budget over to content marketing, and in the first six months, they got two new clients that grossed more than their entire annual trade show budget.

2. You’re Overspending

A common trick of the Yellow Pages companies is to break everything out into a monthly price, so all their features and add-ons seem small. “It’s only $5.99 more per month.” “That’s only $3.99 more per month.” “Oh, and that’s a paltry $6.99 per month.” Before you know it, you’re spending a lot more than you intended.

On top of that, your prices will increase even more the following year. Your vendor will often send you a contract renewal with some barely noticeable rate creep, hoping you’ll sign it without too many questions. Soon, any prices you were paying are greatly increased from when you originally signed it.

Combine that with the fact that you weren’t getting a positive ROI in the first place, and it’s either time to renegotiate or drop the channel completely. Your vendor’s salespeople should be able to show you how to measure your ROI (they can’t do it for you, but they can show you how). If they can’t, cancel.

Social media isn’t free, but it is controllable. If you hire an in-house person to do it, you can control the costs. If you outsource to a third-party, they can show you the ROI and prove their value.

3. Your Audience Isn’t Using Traditional Media

Are you relying on newspapers to reach 20-somethings? Are you advertising your home decor products on ESPN? Or you’re still rocking the Yellow Pages ads even though you’re trying to reach smartphone users.

This is where it pays to do target market research. Find out where your target market is likely to see (and not see) your advertising. If they don’t read newspapers, stop advertising in them. If they don’t watch ESPN, quit buying TV spots.

Next, figure out where they do spend a lot of their time, and how they gather news and information. For many people under the age of 30, that’s on social media. Quit spending money on advertising outlets that aren’t yielding anything, and start focusing on content marketing and social media marketing.

4. You Need to Reach a Target Audience

Who’s your target audience? And don’t say “everyone.” Because unless you’re Target, “everyone” isn’t an audience.

Who are the typical buyers of your product? Men over 40? Moms? Single 20-somethings?

How would you typically reach them? TV advertising comes close, but there are so many viewers who aren’t in your target market that you’re wasting money. TV costs are based on total viewers, not targeted viewers. You’re paying for people who will never buy your product to see your commercial.

Radio? Same problem as TV. Plus, there’s more than one station your target audience listens to, so you have to double or triple up.

Direct mail? You can target your audience, but you don’t know who opened your mail, or what they did with it.

With social media marketing, you can target a specific group. Whether it’s advertising to certain demographics on Facebook, or running a content marketing/local SEO campaign for search engines, you can specifically target only those people interested in your product, and ignore everyone else.

5. You Don’t Have a Big Budget

Like I said, social media isn’t free. But it’s relatively cheap, when compared to traditional marketing. TV and radio ads can cost many thousands of dollars. Billboards on highways often cost $10,000 or more per month. And on and on.

Social media marketing is a fraction of that cost. It can easily reach your target audience, and won’t cost as much to do it.

Think of it this way: It can cost less than $100 per day ($3,000 per month) to advertise on a single cable station, but you’re going to spend $30,000 or more (sometimes much more) to create a high-quality spot. A six month ad run is going to cost you $48,000. Then you need another six-month ad. Or a two month seasonal ad. Or more than one commercial.

(And let’s not even talk about how you’re spending a lot to not reach your target audience, or how difficult it is to track ROI.)

Social media pricing varies, but an outside agency can manage social media anywhere from $1,000 – $5,000. It may seem like a lot, but it beats the $96,000 per year you’re spending to create and run two TV commercials on one cable TV station.

Can we completely replace traditional marketing with social media marketing? Not yet. But every day, traditional marketing’s effectiveness is slipping into obscurity. It’s not dead, but it’s certainly coughing a lot.

For some companies, however, they need to stop spending money on traditional marketing and advertising and make the switch to social media marketing instead. It’s where your customers are spending most of their time, it costs a lot less, and it’s easier to reach your target audience.

Photo credit: jasonwg (Flickr, Creative Commons)

Want Me to Watch Your Ads? Pay Me

The one and only reason I stopped paying for Hulu+ is that I was paying $8 a month for a service that was still showing me ads. (Then, I turned around and paid for the commercial-free version a few years later. Totally worth it!)

Every other app and online service I can get offers the option to go ad free if I pay a monthly fee. So I quit paying for Hulu+ because it wasn’t worth the $96 per year to see ads I would see if I was on the free service.

“But you get to see shows that are older than five weeks!” Hulu fans say.

Or, I could just watch them before the five weeks is up. Or catch them on Netflix, which is ad free.

We’re Sick of Being Shouted At

Given that many of us are trying to escape the bombardment of advertising and marketing messages, it can sometimes be a small price to pay for just a brief respite of BUY THIS! BUY THIS! BUY THIS! messages every time we interact with the outside world.Old Ovaltine magazine ad

Here’s what annoys me about marketing and my fellow marketers:

  • I pay for cable TV, and yet I’m still seeing advertisements. I am, in essence, paying someone to show me ads. These same advertisers whine and complain because people like me DVR shows and fast forward through ads.
  • Clothing companies sell t-shirts with their giant logo silk screened on the front, making me a walking billboard. It costs me $20 – $30 to be a walking shill for their company.
  • Car dealers who I just gave thousands of dollars to now want to put a sticker or license plate frame on my new car so I can tell everyone where I got it. That’s not there for my benefit. That’s free advertising to the person driving behind me.

Since when am I required to be an advertisement, and when do I do it because I truly like the product, and want to evangelize on their behalf? And why do brands presume I want to pay money so I can promote their product?

I don’t see why I have to pay for the “privilege” of advertising for a company, or pay to be advertised to. It’s my prerogative to escape advertising, and it’s my prerogative to not shill for a company when all I wanted was a t-shirt. I’m the one doing them a favor by telling people who trust me that I endorse that product.

So here’s what I’m going to start doing:

I am going to purposely avoid as much advertising as I can. I understand that I can’t escape it completely, and I’m not going to try. But here’s what I will do:

  • I will record all TV shows and fast forward through all commercials. The one exception is the Super Bowl.
  • I will never wear a shirt that has a company brand name or logo on it, unless it’s one I support. For example, a conference t-shirt or a shirt for the Cincinnati Reds or Indianapolis Colts.
  • I will never allow a sticker or license plate from to be placed on a new car I purchase. (In fact, I did this already on the last car I bought. They asked if they could, and I said I would if they gave me $1,000. They said they couldn’t go any lower on the price, and I said, “No, I mean you can give me a check for $1,000.” They said no, so I did too.)
  • I will avoid buying magazines filled with advertisements. If I do, I will purposely skip over the ads. When a lot of magazines are more ads than articles — looking at you, GQ — why should I pay for something I can find online?
  • I will pay for the ad free version of an app or product if I believe in and support it or the company. If I don’t, it means I am willing to pay the small price of being marketed to.

In short, my time, my mental bandwidth, and my careful consideration are mine to give. They are not yours to take.

Don’t assume that I want to be advertised to. Just know that if I need your product, I’ll seek you out. If I need your service, I’ll Google you.

But — and here’s my concession — I will happily look at your ad or your short infomercial, up to 30 minutes in length, for $50. You give me $50, and I will watch, read, or listen to whatever you want. $50 gets you 30 minutes of my time, and no more. It doesn’t guarantee I’ll buy your product or tell other people about it. For that, you have to impress me.

Is it fair? Am I being unreasonable? I don’t think so. Too many marketers try to take our time and attention away from something else. They try to insert themselves everywhere and into everything, trying to find that place we go to escape them, so they can take that away from us as well.

So I’m willing to meet them halfway. Instead of going to all that time and trouble to reaching me in the place I don’t want to be reached, just pay what you would have paid anyway. I will gladly sit down, review all your materials, and then we will go our separate ways.

You’ve been trying to spend all that time and energy to get me to watch your commercials (I fast forward through them), your magazine ads (I flip past them), your billboards (I keep my eyes on the road), your radio commercials (I listen to public radio or change stations), and your direct mail (I recycle it before it ever makes it into the house).

Let’s take all that money you spent and guarantee that it has been read, seen, heard, and considered. Compensate me for paying attention to you, rather than wasting money trying to trick me.

Photo credit: Crossett Library Bennington College (Flickr, Creative Commons)

CelebBoutique Shredded by a Lack of Curiosity and General Awareness

CelebBoutique, the British clothing website, may have committed the foul-up of all foul-ups:

CelebBoutique tweet says #Aurora is trending, clearly about our Kim K inspired #Aurora dress.

After being hammered for just a few minutes on social media, their social media people turned on the TV, and saw the terrible news from Aurora, Colorado. Then they sent this:

We apologise for our misunderstanding about Aurora. – CB

We didn’t check what the trend was about hence the confusion, again we do apologise.

Followed by this:

We are incredibly sorry for our tweet about Aurora – Our PR is NOT US based and had not checked the reason for the trend, at that time our

social media was totally UNAWARE of the situation and simply thought it was another trending topic – we have removed the very insensitive

tweet and will of course take more care in future to look into what we say in our tweets. Again we do apologise for any offense caused

this was not intentional & will not occur again. Our most sincere apologies for both the tweet and situation. – CB

Meanwhile, most Americans are livid at the insensitivity of what is now being perceived as a vacuous and clueless fashion brand spouting off about clothes, shoes, and celebrities. As a result, CelebBoutique has just taken a major hit to its brand, with several thousand people pounding them like the fist of an angry god.

And it’s not going to go away anytime soon.

I’ll cut them a little slack. Yes, I’m angry, but I also recognize that mistakes do happen. Someone made a terrible mistake, and it’s not worth storming the castle with pitchforks and torches. No one should lose their job for this.

But this was a mistake that could have easily — EASILY! — been prevented.

All you have to do is be curious, and be willing to educate yourself.

Lack of Curiosity Killed CelebBoutique

Erik Deckers' Twitter response to CelebBoutiqueTheir first follow-up tweets are the first indication that curiosity is not something CelebBoutique’s social media staff holds in great quantities.

“We didn’t check what the trend was about.”

How do you not check this? How can you not be the least bit curious that some word is trending? Why was the first thing that popped into your head about you and your dress, and not “gee, I wonder why that word is trending?”

There are tools to tell you what is trending. There are tools to tell you why something is trending. Google, Twitter Search, even hashtags.org are all places to start.

This is where people need to think like journalists. A journalist never reports on a story that he hears from one person. A newspaper reporter doesn’t write a single sentence until she has confirmed everything her sources tell her. And they never, ever fire off a comment without knowing a single thing about what they’re talking about.

I don’t know if CelebBoutique uses an outside PR firm to do their social media, or if they have an internal staff. I don’t know if they have one person in charge of the Twitter account, or if there are several people.

But regardless of who is doing what, you need to act like a journalist. Even for just a minute. Act like a journalist.

Be curious.

Ask questions.

Wonder why something is happening, and don’t just fire off the first thing that comes into your head, like an 8-year-old.

Otherwise, you pull a boneheaded move like this, and all the goodwill you and your company have worked for will be shredded and ground into the dirt.


Update: It looks like the National Rifle Association made a similar gaffe. They actually deleted their entire Twitter account.

Do NOT Write for Free for the Jackson, Miss. Clarion-Ledger

It’s Friday afternoon, I’m tired, and I want to relax on the couch. But Ben Pollock of the National Society for Newspaper Columnists just made me leap up and race to my computer.

It seems the Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger is looking for some new columnists. The hitch? They’re not willing to pay you for it. Here’s the invitation from their website:

ClarionLedger.com is looking for Mississippi’s next great columnist. Those with an interest should know from the start, however, that the position is a labor of love – the perfect hobby for someone who cares deeply about the state and its people and who also has a passion for writing.

In return for your hard work we will deliver a one-of-a-kind platform – a seat on the front row of the biggest news forum celebrating the great state that we call home. As a ClarionLedger.com columnist, you can write about whatever comes to your mind. Some areas we hope that hold your interest include: politics, family, leadership, community care and involvement, and education.

Anyone who is dumb enough to fall for this one is exceeded in their idiocy only by the person who thought asking writers to write for free was a good idea.

Good writers do not write for free. And good newspapers wouldn’t expect their writers to work for free either, would they?

I guess I just answered my own question, because, you see, the Clarion-Ledger is a Gannett owned newspaper. Gannett, owners of USA Today, the Indianapolis Star, and many other newspapers, is known for cutting staff positions around the country so their CEO can earn the slashed salaries as a “performance bonus.”

But I’m angered by the hypocrisy of this request, and I think it mocks the very tenets of journalism that publications like the Clarion-Ledger (hopefully) cling to, even if their parent organization does not. Here’s what I mean:

  • Real journalists do not write for free. This is their job. They get paid to do it. They get cranky when you no longer pay them to do it. And they go on and on about how they’re highly trained professionals who deserve the money they get. And yet these journalists are asking other people to do their job for them in exchange for no money. If I were a paid staff writer for the Clarion-Ledger, I’d be offended.
  • They’re asking for bloggers and citizen journalists. Most journalists I know hate bloggers and citizen journalists. Bobby King, president of the Indianapolis Newspaper Guild, once referred to us as “the animals in the blogosphere.” King’s attitude is not uncommon in the professional journalism world. But this means that the Clarion-Ledger is now consorting with animals and non-professionals. Does this mean their standards are slipping, or are we better than the journalists want to give us credit for?
  • Good writers get paid. We produce things that many people are willing to pay for. Good writers don’t do this for free, because they recognize the value of their skill. This means that the Clarion-Ledger will most likely get shitty writers. Shitty writers = fewer readers = more cost-cutting = more good citizen journalists = fewer readers.
  • Gannett already makes plenty of stupid money decisions. The last round of major layoffs that hit the Indianapolis Star, Clarion-Ledger, and other newspapers lead to a $1.25 million bonus for CEO Gracia Martore, as part of her $8.1 million salary in 2010. If they want to really bring out the good writers, Martore would a) quit taking bonuses made from blood money, and b) the other executives would take a pay cut to keep professionally trained writers on staff so they wouldn’t have to make such an insensitive, distasteful request like asking unpaid writers to replace the paid writers they fired.

The Clarion-Ledger has acted in bad taste and bad faith. Any writer who is worth his or her salt needs to refuse to write for them. All you get for writing for the Clarion-Ledger is the “exposure” of putting your name on your own work on their website. But make no mistake, they will own the work you create for them, and you will not be allowed to benefit from it any further.

If you want to write for free, put your time and energy into your own blog. At least with that, you have the possibility of turning it into something profitable down the road, like a speaking career, a book or two, or even a sought-after information channel that people will pay to advertise on. But don’t fall victim to the Clarion-Ledger’s scam.