Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Figuring Out FOBs

Yo, peeps. I'm taking the rest of the week off to chill with my family. Assuming that I don't pop before next Monday, I'll see you all back here then. And yes, I know that I still have some of your questions in the queue. I promise to get to them! I haven't forgotten. In the meantime, if you want to send me others, feel free to do so - allison@allisonwinn.com. Until then, enjoy your turkey, go easy on the stuffing and try not to watch too much football.

Question of the day: I would like to try to break into consumer pubs with FOB pieces, so I would like your advice on finding ideas that are new enough that a million other freelancers haven't already submitted them. Do you pour over press releases on PR newswire? Where do you go for info on recent studies (I've tried pubmed)? Do you usually get a source to quote for these queries? Are there other ways that you find sources? I want to avoid looking like an amateur when I query for FOBs and when I contact sources.

The best place I've found for the latest, breaking news is a site called Newswise. You might have to present a few credentials to subscribe (I can't remember), but you can sign up to get newsletters delivered daily. And, depending on which ones you subscribe to, the newsletters contain all of the newest research, news and pop-culture info. For example, one of the ones I receive is called, Medwire, and essentially, it contains snippets of just-released studies, along with links to more info.

I actually never use PR Newswire...I always thought that this was a place where PR firms pay to post press releases, though I might be wrong. And honestly, I know that publicists are just doing their jobs, but I rarely get story ideas from their releases. (Unfortuantely, plenty of them email me directly, and I almost inevitably hit "delete.") Which isn't to say that you can't find a nugget from a release, it's just that I often don't.

PubMed is a GREAT resource, though a lot of their studies are still fairly heavy in medical-speak, so if you're not good at deciphering that language, you might feel a bit lost. Medlineplus.gov, intelihealth.com and Yahoo Health are all favorite stops for me too. They're not solely focused on medical/health stuff, so you can generate some good ideas from their headlines.

I rarely do a pre-interview for an FOB. As I've mentioned in the past on the blog, FOB pitches are usually short and concise, and to put that much time and effort into a short query just isn't worth it for me. What you can do, however, is cull stats from a study or paraphrase a study author in the query, noting that he/she would serve as an expert should the story get approved. If this were a feature pitch, then yes, I'd say go ahead and do some preliminary research, but again, for an FOB, I probably wouldn't. Not because you'd look bad for doing so, but because the time-effort-payoff just isn't worthwhile. (Again, to me.)

And don't worry: if you're citing reputable studies, coming up with creative angles, and crafting savvy sentences, you won't look like an amateur at all.

Where do you guys find your ideas for FOBs?

Monday, November 20, 2006

Seeking Out Sources

Shameless self-promotion of the day: I've updated my website to include some of the newest press materials for The Department of Lost and Found, including a Q/A that gives you some insight into the inspiration behind the book. If you have a sec, check it out! http://www.allisonwinn.com

Random book rec of the day: So I FINALLY had some time to plow through some pleasure reading this weekend, and I wrapped up Jancee Dunn's But Enough About Me. If you're a fan at all of pop culture and a winning heroine who occasionally wonders, "How the hell did I end up in this life?," then run over to Barnes or Amazon and nab it. I stayed up far too late to dig into all of the juicy dirt she was spilling and really rooted for her to land on both feet. Dunn's a longtime writer for Rolling Stone, FYI, and though I don't always love the voices in memoirs, I really did dig hers a lot. Next up? Lauren Lipton's It's About Your Husband. Lauren is a kick-ass editor of mine, and I'm so thrilled to finally get to her book!

Question of the day: Often freelance writers (especially the ones who seem to be doing very well) mention using message boards and ProfNet to locate sources for their articles. Can you tell us how to locate and use these message boards, as well as use ProfNet?

Sure. The message boards aren't really a big secret - there are tons of them out there. And a simple google search can often yield what you need. For example, if you're writing a story on how to get pregnant, just type in, say, "fertility message boards," and hundreds of hits come up. Yahoo also has a HUGE network of message boards, which they classify as "groups." So you just click on the "groups" link on Yahoo's main page and navigate or search from there. Once you find the board you're interested in, do try to seek out the guidelines or rules for each group...some really frown upon posting source searches, while others are happy to accommodate you. If you can't find the rules, you might be able to email the head of the group to request permission. And if that fails, simply post your request with the caveat that if it is in anyway uncool or unkosher, to please let you know, and you'll be happy to take it down.

While message boards and such are great places to find real-life sources, Profnet is a better option for finding professional sources. If you're not familiar with the site, here's the deal. Profnet is essentially a holding pen to which publicists, authors, experts, universities, etc, pay a fee to receive notices when a journalist (or other media outlet) requires a source. So...for example, this week, I needed an M.D. who could discuss healthy fats, so I posted a query with my exact specifications (ideally a book author, must be associated with a large hospital or university, etc), and Profnet shot it out to all of the places (PR firms, academic institutions, etc) that I requested. The downside to Profnet is that you can be overwhelmed with responses and often times, these responses have nothing to do with your query...which is really irritating. But the pros far outweigh the cons.

Profnet usually isn't my first stop when searching for sources, if only because you do tend to hear from the same people over and over again (which isn't a bad thing - they're just doing their jobs). I'll often try Amazon to see if there's a perfect match with a book author or google or try to track down the author of a study that I'm using in the piece. (Honestly, I really can't even FATHOM how journalists did their jobs in the pre-internet age.) But when I'm in a bind, Profnet is almost always a lifesaver.

By the way, don't discount mass emails to all of your friends and contacts when you're looking for real-life sources. While my friends are totally bored with being quoted and probably dread my trolling emails, a lot of people love to see their names in print and are happy to shoot back a few thoughts on your request.

What are your favorite message boards? And do you find Profnet as helpful as I do?