The Media Challenge: Understanding a Day in the Life of Reporters on the Legal Beat

Program Review

On Sept. 26th, Kathryn Holmes Johnson, Director of PR, Media and Communications at Crowell & Moring, moderated the LMA Capital Chapter’s panel discussion on “The Media Challenge: Understanding a Day in the Life of Reporters on the Legal Beat.” The three panelists, Catherine Ho, Washington Post, Casey Sullivan, Thomson Reuters, and Zoe Tillman, National Law Journal, provided attendees with honest, off-the-record responses to questions about their typical workday, their preferred communication styles and the demands of covering the business of law, among other topics.

While a typical day for the reporters might begin in the office as early as 8 or 8:30 am, as they frequently begin checking their emails and court dockets, scanning Twitter, the web and other sources for story ideas and information before arriving in the office. Their day also typically involves pitching story ideas to their editors, following up on story leads or information and then filing their stories by around 3 or 3:30 pm for daily publications.   

The panelists discussed how they use Twitter as a source for story ideas and that some reporters will follow specific lawyers while others follow specific firms, but not individual lawyers. The reporters viewed Twitter as great way to get opinions out there. While all three panelists use Twitter regularly, they all said that they generally don’t interact too much with individuals on Twitter unless someone reaches out to them first.

The panelists also discussed the typical number of sources they use for a story and how they get their sources. All three panelists said that for news feature or trend stories they may speak with as many as a dozen lawyers but only three or four may be quoted in the article due to space constraints. The panelists said that their sources come from a mix of places; from lawyers they know or have used in the past to Section and Committee leads within the DC Bar to lawyers recommended by the PR team at firms they have worked with in the past. For litigation stories they said they always try to reach the lawyers involved, either directly or through the firm’s PR team. When asked about law firm client alerts as sources for story ideas, the panelists had a mixed response, with one saying that the alerts give her a sense of hot topics while another panelists said she doesn’t get story ideas from client alerts.

Attendees at the program, including Amanda Shipley and Leora Kaplan from Hellerman Baretz Communications, said that one of the values of the program was being able to hear directly from reporters about their communication styles as each reporter is different and they each have different preferences. Another attendee, Christina Mitchell of Nixon Peabody, said that as someone on the business development rather than the PR side, it was helpful hear what types of stories the reporters write, what they look for in pitches and how she can help position attorneys as outside sources.

When pitching a story or potential sources who can speak on a particular topic or issue, the panelists discussed the importance of tailoring one’s communication efforts, as one reporter may dislike cold call pitches (via phone or email), while another reporter might not mind cold call pitches and yet another might prefer to meet in person with potential sources first to develop a relationship. The panelists also discussed the importance of knowing the types of stories a reporter covers and that the story idea should be timely. With daily publications, if something happened in the news today the reporters will generally write about it today and that tomorrow it might be old news.

The panelists also addressed the issue of how to handle concerns about how a story turned out or an attorney’s quote in the story. They like to hear about concerns as soon as possible, though they may not be able to fix the situation because that decision usually falls to the editor. The panelists also said that if they can detect resentment about a story not being picked up or an attorney not being quoted that adds another layer of pressure to an already stressful job.  

This article was authored by Martha Hess, Senior Business Development Manager at Bingham McCutchen for the 2013 September/October Newsletter. 

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