Five Good Ideas

Five Good Ideas about cultivating lasting relationships with media and journalists

Published on 25/02/2021

How do you adopt a media mind and make it yours? At some point you may have gotten burned by media or just ignored. Since disengagement isn’t an option, how do you move on and germinate, nurture, and sustain lasting relationships? In this Five Good Ideas session, Royson James, the Toronto Star’s urban affairs columnist and former City Hall bureau chief, de-mystifies the media and talks about how journalists think so you know when, where, and how to engage them intelligently.

Download the session handout

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Five Good Ideas

  1. Everybody gets screwed by the media. Knowing this prepares you for when your turn comes.
  2. “Fractured Journo World” is an opportunity masquerading as an obstacle.
  3. One hand washes the other – symbiosis sustains the system.
  4. Know your allies. They often stick out.
  5. Be the media junkie and benefit your organization.

Resources

Podcast


Full session transcript

Note: The transcript has been edited for clarity.

Elizabeth – While many of you are dialing in from across Canada I am speaking to you from Toronto. I’d like to begin today’s session by acknowledging the land where we live and work and recognizing our responsibilities and relationships where we are. As we are meeting and connecting virtually today, I encourage you to acknowledge the place you occupy.

I am, and Maytree is, on the historical territory of the Huron-Wendat, Petun, Seneca, and most recently the Mississaugas of the New Credit indigenous peoples. This territory is covered by the Dish with One Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant, an agreement between the Haudenosaunee and the Ojibwe and allied nations to peaceably share and care for the lands and resources around the Great Lakes.

How do you adopt a media mind and make it yours? At some point you may have gotten burned by the media or just ignored. Since disengagement isn’t really an option, how do you move on and germinate, nurture, and sustain lasting relationships?

In this Five Good Ideas session, Royson James will demystify the media and talk about how journalists think, so you know when, where, and how to engage them intelligently. Royson is the Toronto Star’s urban affairs columnist and former City Hall Bureau Chief, recognized throughout the region for his dogged reporting on the region’s governments and on social justice. We are very pleased to have Royson with us today.

For his full bio and details about today’s session, please download the handout. We put the link to it in the chat room. On the handout you will also find today’s Five Good Ideas and resources recommended by Royson. It is now my pleasure to welcome Royson James.

Royson – Good afternoon, everyone. So good to join you today. It would be so much more fun if we were face to face, right? But this is the hand we’ve been dealt. Let’s go with it.

I’m sure everybody out there is just happy with media. You’ve engaged with media from time to time and you were just pleased with your interactions. Not! Right? In talking about Five Good Ideas, the media, why don’t we go to the first idea and get that out of the way?

Idea 1: Everybody gets screwed by the media. Knowing this prepares you for when your turn comes.

That is this. Everybody gets screwed by the media. Don’t think that you’re unique. At some point, you’re going to be upset about something that you’ve read, listened to, or heard. You’re going to think that a journalist was unfair, unfair to your non-profit, unfair to your group. Hey, it happens. It happens to all of us.

Everybody gets bruised, right? Your turn will come, and so you should just expect it. It’s not that the media sets out to be bad guys, but when you’re the watchdog your job is to bark. Your job is not to determine whether or not the person entering your master’s house is actually a criminal or a burglar, or not. Your job is just to bark because something seems amiss. You may be barking up the neighborhood and everybody’s upset, but you just have to do your job.

Everybody will be hurt at some point because of something they don’t agree with in the media. The issue is that some groups, some people, are hurt more than others. Some of us are. We lack voice in media. Our perspectives and our viewpoints are not accurately reflected. As such, the bruising lasts longer and has a deeper effect.

I’m sure that’s one of the reasons why a number of you do the work you do. You’re trying to ease that effect on people who are disaffected, people who are distressed, people who are not among the elite, and people who are at the bottom of the barrel. The important thing is not to take it personally and to be prepared for it. Everybody’s going to get hit by this at some point and it’s usually how you react, and how you prepare for it, that will determine the final outcome.

Of course, fact versus fiction is always a concern, and that has been a major concern in the last little while, especially with the advent of one Donald Trump in the United States. Fact versus fiction, setting the record straight. As a non-profit group, or somebody who is concerned about climate change, or with the plight of the poor, you will see, hear, and read statements that you know are not correct. They could be based on dubious information, or just pretty much out-and-out wrong.

Your job, I think, if you really want to play in the media field, is to pick your battles. Journalists obviously don’t like to be corrected. The worst thing, the worst part of your day is having to correct something that you’ve written.

For me, that means I take great care to make sure that the information that I put in any story is correct in the first place, because I don’t want to correct it. A major, main-line publication like the Toronto Star or The Globe and Mail would have an ombudsperson who fact-checks, and would take your complaints. We regularly print corrections, but that’s the last thing a journalist wants.

If you see something that’s incorrect about your organization, for instance, you don’t necessarily want to jump in and ask for every little bitsy thing to be fixed and corrected unless it is of great importance.

There was also a war with the Limbaughs. Rush Limbaugh, the right-wing talk radio host who just died recently, people knew him and his reputation. We knew what he was going to say, and what he stood for. He made outrageous comments.

We don’t necessarily have somebody in Canada of that status, but if you know somebody makes outrageous comments, you have to decide – am I going to take this person on? For what reason? Is what they’re saying so egregious that I should take them on head on, or my association or my organization should take them on? Or is this something you just have to say, “Hey, free press, free speech.”

Let’s agree to disagree. Sometimes you have to disagree and sometimes you have to take a stand. I like to say if you’re going to do that, be positively negative. That is, you don’t have to get down in the gutter with somebody to oppose what it is that they’re saying. You can do it in a more positive way.

All right, alternate facts. Lies, damn lies. Obviously, there are times when things are just really ridiculous and you need to take a stand, right? That’s an issue that newsrooms are dealing with all the time. For the average newsroom, this can mean dedicating too much time and space to battling untruths from determined bad-faith actors.

A lot of times, these are talk show hosts. If you spend a lot of time doing that, that can come at the expense of the actual news.

With the advent of Donald Trump, a lot of time was wasted countering statements he made that were not based in fact. We had a similar situation in Toronto with Mayor Rob Ford. I was at City Hall at the time he was in power, and we spent a lot of time fact-checking and providing reality checks.

Daniel Dale was at the Star at that time in the City Hall Bureau, and he started fact-checking what Mayor Ford said. Interestingly, Daniel Dale then went to be the Star’s U.S. correspondent when Donald Trump took power, and so he started doing with Donald Trump’s statements the same thing that he did with Rob Ford.

Daniel Dale, in fact, created a fact-checking regime that was adopted by a number of U.S. media outlets, such as the Poynter Institute and others.

At the end of the day, spending so much time trying to fact check and to hold somebody accountable on those issues can come at the expense of other news stories, and become even more of a hindrance than a help.

One question percolating out there, at least in the media, is how to counter what are obvious lies, by either politicians, or by special interest groups. One idea is to use a “truth sandwich.” That is, you present the lie sandwiched between the truth. If you spend too much time repeating a lie, studies suggest that pretty soon people perceive it as the truth.

For instance, a lot of you have heard about the recent cold spell in Texas. Some people believe that Texas was unable to cope with the cold because the state has been moving towards solar, wind and other alternative energies. This is not true, but has been repeated over and over again.

One way to deal with this untruth, say I was writing the story and trying to counter this misconception, instead of just repeating the falsehood and saying, “Sean Hannity today stated a lie,” I would write a statement like this: “Power outages in Texas were caused mainly by gas and coal-fired power plants freezing up.” That’s the truth, right?

Now you sandwich the untruth. “Some right-wing media figures and Republican politicians have instead inaccurately blamed renewable energy and the Green New Deal.” Then you return to the truth. “But wind and solar energy, in fact, fared better than fossil fuels did during the Texas cold snap, and the Green New Deal does not exist yet, either at the federal level or in the state of Texas.”

That’s just one of the techniques to deal with lies and alternate facts.

Idea 2: “Fractured Journo World” is an opportunity masquerading as an obstacle.

All right, good idea number two. The journalism world is in crisis. Is that an obstacle or an opportunity? If you’ve been paying any attention, you would notice that newspapers especially are in dire straits. U.S. studies have shown that they’ve lost 50% of the newspapers in their country in the last 15 years, and there is a net loss of 24,000 journalists.

Yes, some journalists are now in an online format, and several thousand were added on television, but we’ve lost a few on radio. The net effect is 24,000 lost journalists and 55 million lost readers. With that, there are huge areas where there isn’t even a single newspaper.

In that type of environment there’s obviously a void, and the question is, is there now an opportunity for you to fill that void? If journalists aren’t there to collect the news, does that then give you an opportunity to step in and fill the need? My proposition to you is that, yes there is, and that you should grab that opportunity!

Idea 3: One hand washes the other – symbiosis sustains the system.

Idea number three is: one hand washes the other. Now that’s just a basic principle that journalists have always followed. From the first day that I was introduced to Maytree, I realized that there are partners in the civil society. As a columnist at the Toronto Star, I looked to them for studies, reports, direction, information, influence, and inspiration. This helped me help create a better City of Toronto, a better urban region, a better Ontario, and a better Canada. I expect and look forward to you, the non-profit sector, helping me teach the readers.

We are losing advertising to digital platforms like Google and Facebook. The old funding model doesn’t work anymore. Because of that, we’re losing a lot of journalists. Many areas no longer have reporters or don’t have enough reporters. We need your expertise now more than ever. Are you equipped to supply it? I think you are. The question is, are you prepared and are you willing to fill the void?

Idea 4: Know your allies. They often stick out.

Idea number four is to know your allies. How do you mine the media? At least you should know your enemies. You should know who to stay away from and who to hook up with. Who is a likely partner?

If you want to know if the Toronto Star is likely to write about your issue, all you have to do is read it on a regular basis, and then you will see what stories appear there. You may say, “Hey, actually I should have thought of that. That could’ve been me. That could’ve been my issue. That could have been this person or this issue that we want ‘to get the public oxygen.’”

If you pay attention to what’s written, then you will get a clear sense as to the possibilities of your particular story or idea getting picked up. Who is promoting your ideas and your ideals in the paper? If a columnist is frequently writing about stuff that you care about, then why not drop him or her a line?

Depending on the column I write, I get all sort of emails from people. You can write and say, “Hey, that was a great column you wrote yesterday. I love point A and B. If you’re looking for anything in the future on these other points, I know a whole bunch of people I can connect you with.”

That’s feeding the beast. That’s giving journalists more and more information, more ideas, and more sources. That’s saying to that reporter, “I can be your source.” That’s making an investment in that journalist, and more often than not they will respond positively to that type of outreach.

You should also be reading the editorials of the paper, so that you know where the papers stand on certain issues and you can see their arguments on their thinking. If their thinking is directly opposed to yours, you can positively disagree by offering suggestions like, “Hey, we have a totally different view and we can support it with research and studies. We would love to have the opportunity to write an op-ed in your paper to express that view.”

How can they turn that down, right? You didn’t call them and cuss them out and tell them that they’re the worst thing ever. All you’re saying is, “Yep, your view, we’ve heard you. We disagree and I think we have a reasonable position here that we would like to present in your paper.”

So, read what’s out there. Follow. Get a sense of who it is that’s on your side. Know who the enemy is. Support, praise, and offer congratulations to people who are actually out on the front lines propagating your views and your ideas, and that type of investment will pay off in the end as you will develop partnerships.

Idea 5: Be the media junkie and benefit your organization.

Then the last idea is to be a media junkie. A number of you belong to organizations where you don’t have a person who is in charge of media, so hey, I guess you’re going to be that person. If you’ve been paying attention, know what’s out there, and you are media savvy, then you would turn out to be the person who can assist your organization. You’ll be the media expert just by paying attention. This is a void in many organizations, so you can fill that void.

There are numerous resources. You’re not on your own. You’d be surprised how many people are out there, who are willing to help you write a news release, or help you develop your media skills. There are also media platforms, online courses, and online platforms that would give you the basics. You can do a Google search and you’d be surprised how much you can teach yourself. I included some of resources on the handout so that you can not only learn some of the basics of journalism, but you can also read and engage in the discussions that are out there.

Journalists are dealing with a number of the issues that you’re also dealing with. We’re also constantly checking and critiquing ourselves on how we’re engaging with the public. Those are the five ideas that we can toss around and I look forward to your questions.

Elizabeth – That’s terrific. Thank you so much, Royson. That was really a comprehensive take on how we think about working with the media from the point of view of the small non-profit, and how we see ourselves in that picture.

So, there are questions coming in. We’ve got 20 minutes or so to answer some of these questions. I want to start with one that came from a few different people. You talked about it a little bit, but it’s about how to start that relationship? Now, you said you get tons of people just reaching out, cold calls, sending you emails, and you talked about getting that relationship started. Is there a way of punching above the noise to really get your attention and to cultivate that relationship? Should they be inviting you out for coffee? How do you get a real relationship started, beyond just one email of 40 that landed in your inbox before 10:00?

Royson – Yes, the more you invest in the relationship, the more you’ll get out. I get calls and invitations all the time from people who have something that they want to share or an idea that they want to put out there. They take me out to breakfast or lunch and we discuss their idea. Then something builds from there.

Sometimes it’s just a matter, as I said, of sending a note, following up and two or three times asking, “Hey, is there anything else? Are you looking for real life individuals who are going through with a particular situation?” Offering assistance helps build the relationship.

As journalists, we do the same thing. When I started writing about waste management, I took the time to meet with the head of waste management with the city. I said, “Hey, I know nothing about this. Can you meet with me and tell me about it?” It was Mr. Ferguson at the time who worked for Metro, and he spent a couple of hours one afternoon talking to me about it.

The next day I called back and I said, “Hey, wonderful. I got a full notebook full of stuff, but I need more.” So, we spent a lot of time. He invested hours trying to educate me on the issues of waste management in Toronto. The result of that collaboration was that I wrote over 200 stories in one year about waste management. The first thing is that you believe in what you’re selling. All you want is somebody to actually give you a lesson, and you’ll know that you can actually get them to think the way you’re thinking, get them to see what you’re seeing. Once you do that, the journalist just will take it from there.

Elizabeth – The pen writes itself.

Royson – Yes.

Elizabeth – Okay, I’ve got three questions I’m going to put in together because they’re kind of related. The first is: are there any tips on getting an op-ed published? What do you suggest we do to follow up on an op-ed we’ve submitted, but it hasn’t been published? And I’m going to just tie this into op-eds: should we play to the controversial position since it makes a better story, or is the pragmatic, balanced approach best? So, a few ideas for you to work with.

Royson – Yes, sometimes a rant is needed. Sometimes reason, sometimes the facts. I think the facts tend to resonate more with Canadian audiences, I guess depending on the publication. What is it that usually gets on the op-ed page? Go and you read what’s there. Read it for a few months and you’ll get a sense of what it is that the editors are interested in. In other words, the tone, the lens, and the subject matter. Do they like you to be controversial and contrarian, or do they prefer you to be reasonable, academic, and thoughtful? Really there is no fixed approach.

Each publication is different; and really, it’s looking at what it is that they normally publish. If you have something that’s totally different from what they normally do, sometimes that works, and in your pitch, you can actually present it like that. You could say: “I noticed that in the Toronto Sun you normally print this type of material. Here is something totally different, here is why it’s totally different, and this op-ed is something that we think your readers would be interested in reading.”

Elizabeth – This is a question that builds on that a little bit and it asks: how do we advance from doing an op-ed to being identified as a source or an expert within a milieu? Someone’s written a couple of op-eds for Toronto.com from a tenant point of view, but how do they then become a source so that they are called upon? Changes the voice a little bit.

Royson – Yes, you become a source when people trust you. You don’t just become a source overnight, which is why I like the idea of sending notes and giving information. When I’m writing about transit, there are many transit buffs out there who will read it and say, “Oh, this is great, wonderful. I agree with you 80%, but you’re missing this point and that point.”

What am I going to be, upset? No, as a matter of fact, I then think – “What is it they know that I don’t know?” If they make more comments a second and third time, and then tell me – “Hey, listen. I have noticed that you’ve been writing this. You’re great. The transit community loves you, and the fact that you’re writing about these things, but I really think that you’re missing these points. Can we meet?”

In other words, this person is really pushing toward being a source, so that as far as they’re concerned and their constituents are concerned, they’re pushing toward the idea that they want to make you better. They want to make you the voice and the source, not just for the 80% percent, but for everybody.

I like to use real life examples, and sometimes I’ll hook a story on a particular person. Many times, you could have better sources than journalists do. When you see an example like that, then it’s a matter of alerting me – “Hey, next time you’re looking for a homeless person, we interact and engage with 200 a year. We probably have four or five who could better demonstrate or explain the situation that you wrote about in the paper today. The next time you’re looking for somebody, don’t be afraid to call us.”

That’s one way. That’s reactionary. You can actually be proactive and offer up ideas and issues. You can alert the media about issues that are bubbling up, just below the surface. Provide evidence and anecdotes you’ve heard. You’ll be way ahead of the curve if you can actually present ideas with sources.

Elizabeth – That’s actually a really great bridge into the next question, which is: can you talk about exclusives? When do you offer them? When you’re sitting on a big story, you have all of the sources, you’ve got the people, when do you offer them, and can you do it simultaneously? Can you do pitches to two outlets at once? How do you manage that?

Royson – You can’t pitch an exclusive to two people because then you’re not being exclusive! The trick is to know where your idea best resonates, or who would best be served by it. If you’re in the Greater Toronto Area, for instance, you’ve got the Toronto Sun, the Globe and Mail, the National Post, and the Toronto Star, which are all competitors.

If all you do is leak items to the Toronto Star, then after a while the other newspapers will think – “Okay, that source is just the Star’s lackey. They had big stories and they only gave them to the Toronto Star.” As a competitor’s journalist, I would look foolish and my editor would ask me why I didn’t get the story.

So, in feeding the beast, try to feed all the beasts. Unless you really want nothing to do with that particular beast. Then you need to know which story is a good fit for each particular publication.

The good non-profits, after a while they get to know. Not only that, they’ll pitch the story to say, the Globe or the Sun, and it doesn’t get picked up. It doesn’t make sense wasting your time, pitching that story you know won’t get picked up. “This is a Star story, so I’m going to pitch it to the Star as an exclusive. I know it’s a Star story. I know they’re the only one who are going to run it anyway. But I’m going to pitch it as an exclusive, because then I get brownie points for pitching it as an exclusive.”

So that’s one of the tricks. The other thing is obviously, when you pitch something as an exclusive, the paper will tend to give it bigger prominence, play, and they’ll put an exclusive tag on it. So, they’ll play that up, as opposed to putting it further back in the paper. It’s good strategy to do that. Just have enough nuggets and treats for everybody, and spread the goodies around.

Elizabeth – The next question is kind of the basic tool in everyone’s toolkit, communications peoples’ toolkit, which is the news release. How much do journalists pay attention to those? How do you decide which ones to look at? How do we use that more effectively? Or is it just something you do but you got to do a whole lot more than just that?

Royson – If it’s big news, write four or five words on the page and everybody’s going to jump. If it’s something that you have to sell, then you need to find an interesting hook. Something that’s difficult to set aside. Over time, you learn that. This is why there’s no way you can be writing news releases to publications, or trying to develop relationships, if you’re not reading their publications.

Obviously, if you send out a press release on what is supposed to be news, and the paper ran it two days ago, then the person receiving the press release will think that you’re not paying attention, and you’re wasting their time. We get tons of news releases, and sometimes we blow it. Sometimes we don’t follow up on news releases that we should follow up on. That’s the nature of the beast.

Just keep trying every day. Sometimes I write a story that should be on page one, but something else big happened. Tiger Woods had an accident, for instance, and a great story that I’m supposed to do about Maytree solving housing problems across the country somehow gets knocked off of the front page.

It happens to all of us. The first time it happens to you as a journalist you’re upset, you think the editors are horrible, and that they’re trying to get you. But that’s just how it is. It’s going to happen. Sometimes you go back the next day your story ends up on page one, even though it may not be a front-page worthy story. How did this get on page one? It’s not a science.

Sometimes we make bad calls, and sometimes somebody in the chain of command sees a particular story, likes it, and wants something light on page one. Don’t take it personally. If your stories continue to get passed by over and over again, then you may want to ask one of your journalist friends, what you are doing wrong, what’s missing from your stories and why they aren’t getting picked up. Maybe they’ll be able to assist you.

Elizabeth – The last question I’m going to ask you is around media training, I want your perspective as the journalist side of the equation. On this side of the equation, we’re often told get media training, learn how to not answer the question, provide your side only, or how to get your message across effectively. Can a person actually train themselves effectively to be able to communicate well to media? Does it become a hindrance to the journalist when people are too well-trained by media trainers? I would love your opinion on that.

Royson – That’s part of the game, right? We know that public relations professionals are trained to give us only so much, and no more. Their primary intent is for their organization to be presented in a certain light, and of course, if we’re asking them to call out an organization or to expose wrongdoing, we know that the public relations professional is not going to be falling all over themselves to give you the information. That’s just part of the game.

But, we’re professionals as well, so we don’t expect to be lied to. If you lie to the journalist, then they know not to trust you. So, the next time you call me, well, why should I believe what you say? The last time I called you and I asked you a question point blank, you lied. As public relations professionals, you guys know you learn how to obfuscate without particularly lying.

The relationships you have with public relations folk is so important. Sometimes you have to call a source and say, “I know you can’t tell me certain things but I’m telling you, this is what I’m writing tomorrow. I have this on good account from two or three sources that this happened in your organization, I know you can’t tell me yes, but if I were to write that, would I be sued? Would I look stupid tomorrow for writing that? Would I be like totally wrong?”

Elizabeth – Excellent.

Royson – Then based on the response you get, you know if you’re lukewarm or you’re dead wrong, and so you can then move on from there.

Elizabeth – To be clear, it’s not necessarily about obscuring or avoiding the truth, but sometimes it’s about getting your story out better and being stronger, and so there’s the other side of that as well.

Royson – Yes, obviously you should be pushing for that, and if you had an interview with a reporter, your side was presented, and for some reason they didn’t get it, sure you would follow up and say, “The story is from our interview yesterday is wonderful. We really, really, wanted these points to be made. What can we do to fix that? How can we actually get that in peoples’ consciousness, including your own, so that we can get that part of the story out?”

Elizabeth – Royson, I’m going to stop the questions there. This has just been an incredible treat. We don’t often have the chance to hear straight from a journalist what it’s like on that side of the phone, that side of the email, or that side of the paper, so just terrific ideas and thank you so much.

Royson James

Urban affairs columnist, Toronto Star

Royson James is the Toronto Star’s urban affairs columnist and former City Hall bureau chief, recognized throughout the region for his dogged reporting on the region’s governments, and on social justice. He’s a native of Jamaica who immigrated to Canada in 1969, attended Harbord Collegiate in downtown Toronto and had his journalistic training at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. In 2004 he was named an honored alumnus of Andrews University.

Royson is an active member of the Toronto West Seventh-day Adventist Church. He has directed the pathfinder club for kids 10 to 16. He also writes and produces an annual Easter Musical and dramatic presentations. The pathfinders, like Scouts but co-ed, plant an annual community garden and engage in community work.

In 2013 he received Canada’s premier award for African Canadians – the Harry Jerome Award for media. In 2014 he was a finalist in the National Newspaper Award for columnist of a Canadian newspaper.

Royson is married with four children.