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Recent J-School Grad Weighs In on How to Pitch College Newspapers

Sky Opila

CollegeNewsroomCollege students are a highly coveted demographic for many marketers and PR pros. These young, savvy students are beginning to make major life decisions and are taking the marketplace by storm. And with around 11.7 million estimated college students in America (according to US Department of Labor Data), they can't be ignored.

One of the best ways to reach this group is through their college newspapers. According to a 2008 study from Alloy Media + Marketing, 76% of all college students said they read their school's newspaper in the last month. That number jumped to 92% for college students who's campus touts a daily paper. Yet, students aren't alone with 76% of faculty and staff members admitting to have read their college publication in the past month and more than half having done so in the past week.

The college newspaper is a powerful tool. With continually strong readership numbers aimed at a highly desirable demographic, under utilizing this resource can be a big mistake.

But before you get ready to make your pitch to these young editors and reporters, take some of these tips from a University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Class of 2009 College of Media graduate and former campus news editor into consideration.

1 - Localize your pitch. Good PR practitioners willalways  look for ways to make their story ideas local. This is common practice. In fact, the Readership Institute says in an article from the American Journalism Review "Intensely local, people-centered news ranks at the top of the list of content items with the greatest potential to increase overall readership (for newspapers)." Making stories local is just as important for college newspapers, if not more. A lot of news editors at college publications will only run things that matter to their campus. If there is no obvious campus angle, they won't even take a second look at it. If you want your pitch to be successful, find this local angle and put it front and center in your pitch. It's the only way to get noticed.

2 - Be ready for anything. College journalists follow the ideals of journalism. Because they are spending their days in journalism classes and evenings at the newspaper, they idolize good journalism. The principles of objectivity, balance and fairness are strong within these newsrooms and the reporters put pressure on themselves to follow these golden guidelines. It is easy to think the opposite, that these students are just learning and it will be easy to get a slam dunk puff piece written up. Not true. Recently, an article for a Walker Sands client was published in a college newspaper and the reporter took the time to find a source affiliated with their university that disagreed with our client. This offered balance and objectivity to the story and let the reader decide for themselves about this product. That's very good journalism, but not the slam dunk we were looking for. So when you start pitching, understand that the story may not go where you want it to and that finding a dissenting opinion is a must for most college reporters.

3 - Follow up, follow up, follow up. When I was the campus editor at the Daily Illini, I received hundreds of e-mails everyday, had a mailbox on my desk full of faxes and press releases and got phone calls and voicemails by the barrel full. Not to mention, I was trying to find time for homework, go to class, work an internship, have fun with friends and run a department of the newspaper. The biggest mistake to make in pitching college journalists is thinking they have read your pitch and not following up. Always follow up very soon after you have sent your original message. From personal experience, I suggest following up via e-mail or fax - I never had time for phone calls or face-to-face attempts. The quicker the better.

4 - Hone your writing skills. Continuing on with the theme of being extremely busy, college journalists only have a short amount of time to read e-mails. This is true for most journos, but college journalists have less on the line and are more willing to blow off e-mails completely. My editorial advisor and fellow Daily Illini alums will likely cringe to hear this, but I definitely recall on more than one occasion being too busy to read my weekend stash of e-mails and simply deciding to blow them off. This plays into why #3 is important, but also proves the point of why your writing needs to be on the spot. When an editor at a college newspaper actually takes the opportunity to read your pitch, you want it to be so well done that they immediately take action. Keep them short, concise, clear and include a definitive call to action as well as making your product or idea seem completely necessary for this publication.

5 - Remember it's all people. As a college reporter, I was always nervous when I started interviewing for the first time because I always felt these sources were too big and important for little old me. On the flip side, PR professionals can easily get caught up treating these hard-working editors like someone different because of their age and inexperience. Doing this will most definitely set up your pitch to fail. Treat college students like people, that's what they are! Work just as hard on these pitches as you do any other.

These tips will help you harness the power of the college newspaper. If you followed these guidelines and sent me a pitch just a very short time ago when I was a college newspaper editor, I certainly would have turned your pitch into a story.