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Do your homework, know players when trying to crack USA Today
Published October 1, 2001
Most sports PR people, whether they represent a team, league, product or company, are well aware of the weight a mention in USA Today's sports section carries. A positive media placement in the daily publication with a circulation of more than 2.2 million is indeed a PR trophy.
Getting a story placed, however, is not an easy task. USA Today bills itself as "the nation's newspaper," and the staff is not short of material to fill the 12 or more pages in each weekday's sports section.
USA Today sports is headed by Monte Lorell, the section's managing editor, who oversees a department of 88 staff members, including administrative personnel. He is involved in the daily and strategic planning of the section, but he should not be pitched, as he rarely gives assignments to writers. Lorell offers some basic rules when pitching the section:
Study a specific writer's beat and pitch that writer, preferably via e-mail (typically, first letter of first name followed by last name @usatoday.com).
Contact Sunday to Thursday. (There is no weekend edition, so not many journalists are in the office on Friday.)
Build a relationship with a writer.
Don't double-plant a story idea. That is, pitch one journalist at a time.
Be sure your idea has national interest.
There are several "desks," or departments, devoted to specific sports at USA Today: high school, NFL, MLB, NBA/WNBA, college sports, Olympics, NHL and golf/tennis. Less popular sports like lacrosse are covered, but the section mainly focuses on the major sports that drive the industry.
Lorell expects an increase in coverage in soccer because of the coming World Cup and anticipates an increase in boxing and Division I, II and III college sports other than basketball and football, which already have solid coverage. Although not listed as a department on USA Today sports' automated answering line, motorsports also is heavily covered.
"The best PR people are those who give me news items that have a national interest and will get people talking," said Gary Graves, a staffer who writes on motorsports, baseball and hockey. "I also look for PR people who understand trends and can rattle off statistics."
USA Today focuses on the more popular sports and many news items come from games and events. The reporters are in tune with sports trends and human-interest stories. They also meet internally to develop story ideas.
Good story pitches have to go well beneath the surface and bring an element of national interest and timeliness. For example, the Edmonton Oilers last season sent a release announcing the trade of Bill Guerin for Anson Carter. At first glance, the pitch was a yawner, but the Oilers took the slant that the trade brought the fifth African-American player (Carter) to the team. Most NHL teams are devoid of even one African-American player. From that seemingly typical press release grew a front-page, full-length story on the presence of African-American players in the NHL. The piece highlighted the Edmonton Oilers.
USA Today features a number of sports columnists who write daily or weekly pieces. Getting a pitch accepted by a columnist is more difficult than pitching a beat writer because columnists vary on the subject matter they write about. If a PR person cannot break in with a beat writer or columnist, he or she could find success in pitching other departments, such as the newspaper's Snapshots or Sports People sections.
Wayne Henninger (email@example.com) is co-founder of Sports Wave in Washington, D.C.